A Baltimore man whose love of country music led him to record thousands of hours of live concerts from the 1950s and 1960s has suddenly found himself at the center of media attention. Recording companies are competing for rights to his archive, and the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Country Music Hall of Fame are equally excited about the treasure trove of never-before-heard music by some of country's most legendary stars.
Leon Kagarise, a recording engineer from Baltimore, Maryland, loves country music. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he attended every concert he could, but never without his bulky, 22-kilogram [50 pound] tape recorder in tow. Setting it up onstage, he recorded countless hours of performances of famous and not-yet-famous musicians who would come to be regarded as the pioneers of early country music.
"I taped everyone under the sun - Johnny Cash, George Jones, The Stoneman Family, Reno and Smiley, Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers," he said. "And what was in my favor was that most of the recording companies were using just one microphone. So when two people were singing in harmony, they'd get up to the microphone at the same distance apart so I got a good mix on everything.
"That's down home music, that is," he added. "That's the real thing. Now, listen to these instrumentals coming up."
Leon Kagarise's recording collection continued to grow, not only of concert performances, but live television too, including one featuring a then-unknown singer named Patsy Cline.
Mr. Kagarise also took photographs - about 3,000 of them have surfaced so far and he occasionally captured the concerts on film using an 8mm motion picture camera. "After sitting on it for 40 years," he says, as his collection threatened to overtake his small house, Mr. Kagarise received a call from a local record store owner.
"A fellow named Joe Lee, he's always looking to buy records, came to my house," he said. "And he saw on one of the shelves a stack of reel to reel tapes and one of the tapes was Johnny Cash, 1962, New River Ranch, live. And he said, 'Could I hear this?' and I said 'Sure.' And I played it for him and he went nuts. He said, this is great, did I have any more?' and I said I had a few. Well, I have several hundred tapes."
Playing some of Johnny Cash's music, he said "It sounds pretty good for '62..."
Today, Leon Kagarise and record store owner Joe Lee are business partners. Mr. Kagarise repairs recording equipment in Mr. Lee's Baltimore record shop, and together they plan to work with a recording company to distribute the Kagarise collection on CD. Leon Kagarise says as happy as he is to release rare recordings of famous people, he is just as pleased to introduce the music of little-known, but no less important musicians. He cites the Stoneman Family as "the best bluegrass band you will ever hear."
"They were just 'down home' folks and they just didn't play the game that other people played with the politics and the money, they were just out to play music," he remembered. "And they never got their just due. And they certainly should have because they were the best, they were better than anybody."
Leon Kagarise admits that today's copyright laws would make it impossible for him or anyone else to make a personal recording of a live concert today. But for 12 years he got nothing but support from his beloved musicians and says, unbeknownst to him, at the time he too, was part of their experience.
"I was talking to Roni Stoneman a couple of years ago - she played banjo," said Mr. Kagarise. "And she said, if they didn't see me down there taping, they would be disappointed, that they took it as a compliment to their music. And I had no idea they felt that way at the time."
Recording engineer Leon Kagarise will soon be the subject of a public television documentary about his famous collection. He is hoping to work with the Country Music Hall of Fame to release the first of his recordings onto CD early next year.