Leo Welch
Leo Welch

Leo Welch

About Leo Welch

Born and raised in the hill country of Mississippi, gospel blues guitarist and singer Leo Welch didn't make his professional recording debut until he was 82 years old, by which time he was pretty much the last in a line of vernacular Mississippi guitarists who included R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. A multi-instrumentalist who played guitar, fiddle, and harmonica from the time he was a child, Welch worked in lumber camps for more than 30 years, bringing his steamy, trance-like, gritty blues to picnics, rent parties, and juke joints during his spare time. After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Welch, like McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Willie Johnson before him, developed an iconic, raw, hybridized gospel blues. He signed to Fat Possum's Big Legal Mess imprint in 2013 by telling the label that if he was allowed to record his Sunday morning gospel album, he'd deliver the label its other side on his second offering: juke joint blues from Saturday night. Big Legal Mess went for it: 2014's Sabougla Voices (that featured Jimbo Mathus on guitar) was acclaimed globally for its rough and rowdy joy, enabling the artist to tour and even become the subject of a European film, Late Blossom Blues. Welch's second album, I Don’t Prefer No Blues, delivered on his promise and charted in several countries. Welch died at age 85 just before Christmas in 2017. That said, he was able to enjoy the reception Late Blossom Blues received as it toured the festival circuit. During his final year he also cut his third album with producer Dan Auerbach and Arcs' members Richard Swift (also deceased), and Leon Michaels, released as The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name.
Born in Sabougla, Mississippi in 1932, Welch showed an affinity for music early, learning to play guitar, harmonica, and fiddle, and he was soon playing at picnics and parties, working his way up to juke joints and clubs, playing mostly blues standards with a gospel edge, raw and urgent. Otherwise, he kept his day job, working over 30 years on a logging crew in the hill country. Around 1975, when the blues began to wane as a popular music and the gigs began to dry up, Welch switched his sound to gospel, and took his blues riffs and Chuck Berry energy into the churches, developing a raw hybrid style that had the grit and moan of the blues laid under the urgent, passionate energy of call-and-response gospel. An offhand phone call to the Big Legal Mess record label brought him an audition and then a recording contract. Welch took his striking gospel blues into the studio, putting it down straight and with no frills, emerging with a debut album, Sabougla Voices, early in 2014. As part of his deal with Big Legal Mess, Welch promised the label that if they issued his gospel record, he would cut a blues album. He delivered on it with I Don't Prefer No Blues. The set was produced by Bruce Watson, featured guitar work from Jimbo Mathus, and was issued in early 2015. After touring the globe, appearing in the European documentary Late Blossom Blues, and releasing Live at the Iridium (the only recording to place his gospel and juke joint blues side by side in the same program), Welch entered the recording studio with producer Dan Auerbach and sidemen Swift and Michaels. This lineup cut some 30 tracks live from the studio floor. Welch fell ill in July, forcing him to cancel many previously booked appearances. His condition deteriorated and he died six days before Christmas 2017. Auerbach trimmed the recording sessions to ten tracks and titled the album The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name. Preceded by the gritty single "Praise His Name" in February of 2019, the full-length was released by Easy Eye Sound. ~ Steve Leggett

    Sabougla, MS
  • BORN
    March 22, 1932

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