Leon Wilkeson was born on April 2, 1952 in Newport, Rhode Island, but grew up and learned to play music in Jacksonville, Florida. After becoming a big Beatles fan as a teenager, Leon followed in the footsteps of his idol Paul McCartney, and dedicated himself to learning how to play the bass at the age of 14.
After developing a reputation as one of the best bass players in Jacksonville, Leon ended up joining Lynyrd Skynyrd to replace bassist Greg T. Walker. Once Skynyrd gained popularity with hit songs such as “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” Leon started wearing crazy hats on stage, which earned him the nickname “Mad Hatter.”
When the band went on hiatus following the plane crash of 1977, Leon continued to work with his Skynyrd bandmates in a variety of other groups. Leon rejoined when the band finally decided to reunite in 1987, and he remained with the group until his death in 2001.
Although Leon was known for his skills as an instrumentalist, he showed off his vocal talent backstage during their tribute tour, breaking into broke into Leon Russell’s “Ballad for a Soldier.” Leon’s passion for the song showed through, and his raspy, powerful voice was filled with emotion as he sang.
The clip below of Leon singing backstage may be a rare solo moment for him, but as it turns out, Skynyrd fans have been listening to his voice all along. Before the band brought on their background vocalists, The Honkettes, Leon often sang the background vocals, most famously on the album Second Helping.
Tune in to the video below to check out Leon’s singing chops!
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