Last week just after I posted my blog, I learned of the deaths of two great musicians. This week, I will briefly cover the lives and influential presence of dobroist Phil Leadbetter and The Chieftains’ leader, Paddy Moloney.
Phil Leadbetter was a true traditionalist when it came to the dobro. He kept his feet firmly in bluegrass while others took it to other genres. He began playing the dobro at age 12, and soon after graduating high school worked with country legend Grandpa Jones. He spent his longest tenure with J.D. Crowe and the New South, often serving as booking agent as well, from 1990-2001. He helped form a number of superstar bluegrass bands, including Wildfire, Flashback and Grasstowne.
In 2011, Phil was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was part of trials that tested the drug Opdivo for his type of cancer, and became a five-time survivor. He returned to performing part-time in 2013, working with Dale Ann Bradley as well as his own band, Phil Leadbetter and the All-Stars of Bluegrass. Unfortunately, his health kept deteriorating, and there were a number of benefit concerts and funding pages. Phil passed away October 14 from COVID-19 complications working against his already poor health. He was 59 years old.
While Phil’s work can be heard on the aforementioned bands, as well as work with The Whites and Vern Godsin, if you want to hear probably his best work on the dobro, seek out his 2005 solo album Slide Effects on Pinecastle Records. The cut “California Cottonfields” was a Number 1 hit for two months on the bluegrass charts, and the disc won the Instrumental Album of the Year award that year at the IBMA World of Bluegrass show. He was a three-time Dobro Player of the Year winner, and both Gibson and Recording King released signature resonator guitars in the past few years.
Phil will definitely be missed in the bluegrass community. I had the chance to meet up with him after a Grasstowne show, and he was one of the most humble people you would ever get a chance to meet. Hopefully, there are a number of young dobro players out there listening to his fine work.
My first true experience in watching The Chieftains was when the band appeared on a special St. Patrick’s Day showing of Saturday Night Live back in 1979. By then, the band was just starting to get some notoriety in the US, after much success in Ireland and the UK. This was not the usual musical fare of SNL, and I was blown away. The sound was magical, moving, hitting at your heart strings. And in the middle of this ensemble sitting, playing the uillean bagpipes and with a big grin, was Paddy Moloney. One could tell after just a few seconds of watching that he was the leader, and that his direction was similar to a classical music conductor, but not as obvious. He knew where to guide the music, and everyone in the band trusted his instinct.
Paddy formed The Chieftains in 1962, but the band did not become full-time professionals until the early 1970s. They built up a large following in Ireland and Europe, but it was the band’s work on the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon in 1975. From there, it was international success. They have performed with dozens of other famous musicians and singers, have held concerts for Pope John Paul II and a number of other dignitaries, and in 1983 were invited to perform at the Great Wall of China, the first non-Chinese artist to do so.
Paddy was born in Dublin in 1938. He first picked up the tin whistle at age six, then the uillean pipes at age eight. In 1962 he invited local musicians Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy to his house for a jam session, and The Chieftains was born. The band signed with a local label Claddagh Records, and Paddy served as leader, composer, and arranger for the band’s music. His endless work to promote the band made it an international success. If any big-time producer or film director needed Irish or Celtic music, they would call on The Chieftains.
I cannot begin to list the different artists that the band has worked with. Almost everyone from Luciano Pavarotti and John Williams to Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. While The Chieftains had never had a huge hit in the US, it did score minor hits with Van Morrison and The Coors in the UK. They also performed on the soundtracks for the films Gangs of New York and Bravehart. Paddy was a major reason that The Chieftains have such a huge following. His business head knew that it was important for the band to work with different people to get the best exposure, but his musical heart knew not to sell out. The sound of the band stayed pure and close to its roots, so that other performers gladly adapted to the band’s sound.
Paddy recorded 44 albums with The Chieftains, and there is not a bad one among them (although I can honestly say that I have not heard all of them, but trust me). If you were to pick only one, you might try to locate The Best of The Chieftains from 1992, which contains selections from the band’s 7th, 8th, and 9th albums. The 1993 disc The Celtic Harp is hauntingly beautiful. To hear how well the band worked with American artists, get a copy of Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions from 2002.
I only got to see The Chieftains once live. It was during a tour promoting Down the Old Plank Road with Allison Moorer as a guest. The sound of the band live cannot be described with words. One could close his/her eyes and be transported into a different world. If Ireland had a sound, it would be The Chieftains.
Paddy passed away at age 83 on October 12, and is now buried in Glendalough, Ireland. He was the last original member of the band. There will never be another band like The Chieftains, and definitely never be another beautiful man such as Paddy Moloney.
Chew on it and comment.