Conversations: Leroy Bell
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LeRoy Bell

We talk with Seattle singer and songwriter LeRoy Bell about his incredible year as a finalist on the hit television series "The X-Factor" and its impact on his music career.

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About the Episode

Seattle singer and songwriter LeRoy Bell talks about his incredible year as a finalist on the hit television series The X Factor and its impact on his music career. He also performs some of his songs for us in the studio.

Related:
LeRoy Bell website

About LeRoy Bell

LeRoy Bell is a singer and songwriter. Bell and his friend Casey James played in Special Blend, and then went on to form their own duo Bell and James. The duo also composed songs that became hits for other artists -- most notably, two charting hit singles for Elton John. Bell later became a member of the trio Only Friends. In 2011, Bell applied for the American The X Factor and was chosen for the Final 16. He was eliminated after the fifth live show, finishing 8th overall in the show's inaugural season.

Enrique Cerna:
LeRoy Bell, welcome to Conversations. So good to have you here. Heck of a year.

LeRoy Bell:
You couldn't write a year like this. I would never have guessed how this would have turned out.

Enrique:
Break out year, truth is you've been doing this a long time. Let's talk about how all this really started over the past year with X Factor and you going to audition, being part of the show, then becoming one of the performers and eventually one of the finalists. You didn't want to do it in the beginning.

LeRoy:
No. It was mentioned to me. And I just kind of dismissed it. It was like, yeah, it was a singing competition slash reality show and I was going what? That doesn't sound like something I'd want to do, you know. And it took me a few days. And for some reason, it just kind of kept nagging in the back of my mind.

Enrique:
Why didn't you want to do it?

LeRoy:
I just thought doing it, I've seen some of the shows, and I just didn't believe it. I never thought that's the way talent should be. I'm old school. I think you do a record, you get out, you tour, you do that. Go on TV and they manufacture some kind of thing. And that's kind of the way I looked at it. But you know, I'm a survivor, and try to live in the 21st century. And I did a little research, and finally came to the conclusion that I didn't have enough to lose.

Enrique:
And actually, your initial thought was that it might be a good way for you to get your own music out there.

LeRoy:
Totally. Well, that was foremost in my mind.

Enrique:
Was that a quick reality check?

LeRoy:
Yeah. I thought that I would be able to sing my own songs. And in fact, in the first audition here, I came with my song, and what happened was that the track got thrown out at the last minute because it was a background part on it. And evidently, you couldn't have any background parts. And it was a tiny little background part, like it was givings me an edge or something. So I thought, huh, what am I gonna do? I'm gonna do the song anyway a cappella, but most people hadn't heard the song. So you do a song a cappella that most people haven't heard, it doesn't really nail it. And three out of the four judges still liked it. And L.A. Reed wasn't convinced. And said, what do you know that we know? And that's when I sang "Lean On Me." And that's the only song I could think of, that's the only chorus that came to my head. I didn't even know the verse.

Enrique:
Were you also in a time crunch.

LeRoy:
That day was a crazy day. We got there like 4:00, 5:00. And originally, I was an alternate. So you weren't guaranteed to actually sing in front of the judges.

Enrique:
And we're also talking about how many people that when they came to Seattle to audition, 5,000?

LeRoy:
Yeah, yeah, it was thousands. I think, yeah, 4,000, 5,000 people. And that was the last day of all of the auditions. Actually, they came to Seattle twice. There was a pickup day to get people that couldn't make it in other cities, they flew them into Seattle. And a few of the other people. And that's when I got mine. My audition Thursday. I'm waiting in the room with a bunch of people. And at 8:00, one of the producers comes to me and says, we're going to really try to get you in, but you are an alternate and you're not guaranteed an audition in front of the judges. And I was like, whoa, that was kind of a blow. And after the blow of not being able to see my own child. So it was two. So it was like conspiring against me. What am I gonna do, man? They're throwing up these road blocks and I'm jumping over these hurdles. And it's just like when somebody says you can't do something and makes you want to do it more. And I still want to do this. But I called my son, told him I might not be able to audition.

Enrique:
And he's 13?

LeRoy:
Yeah. He'll be 14 soon. And he says, no, dad, you've got to do it. You went down there, you got to do it. And I said, it might be out of my hands. Because at 10:00, it's a union house, they cut the lights. And they don't care if you're in the middle of the song, you just walked on stage, they will cut the lights. Union house. So at 8:00, she tells me this, so the next two hours, pretty much sweating bullets. Quarter to 10:00, they call me, 15 minutes before it's over. And I ran up and did my audition.

Enrique:
You did "Lean On Me."

LeRoy:
Well, I did my other song and then I had to do "Lean On Me," yeah.

Enrique:
But you didn't know the words.

LeRoy:
No.
[LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
So what do you think? Can you do that for me?

LeRoy:
Yeah. I knew I didn't know the verse. And my thought was I'll just hang in there and hopefully I won't have to get to the verse. And I just went...
♪ lean on me ♬
♪ when you're not strong ♬
♪ and I'll be your friend ♬
♪ I'll help you carry on ♬
And that's pretty much all I did. And they were like, okay. And I was like thank you.

Enrique:
And that was really all the amount you had.

LeRoy:
I think that's all I got was a few seconds, yeah. But I had been up there obviously a little longer. But then the crowd erupted, thank God it was in Seattle. And I had a few fans out there. And then I got the four votes.

Enrique:
Where was all this happening at?

LeRoy:
I think it was Key Arena, yeah.

Enrique:
So you got the crowd behind you, you finally got the chance, and then how soon after that did you find out you were in?

LeRoy:
Oh, that was excruciating, about a month later, and I thought it was going to be a week later. So the whole time, the whole time I'm waiting around, no word, no word. Finally, the word comes and I'm really excited at that point. But they say I'm an alternate, which you know, I'm thinking, yeah, okay, whatever, we'll see about that.
♪ I see the fire in the streets ♬
♪ you can I feel the water rise above my feet ♬
♪ going up next door ♬
♪ a tree has fallen and there ain't no more ♬
♪ now a change is coming ♬
♪ change is coming ♬
♪ yeah, a change is coming ♬
♪ it won't be long now ♬
♪ it won't be long now ♬

Enrique:
The fact is you've been in this business for quite a long time. You're now 60 years old.

LeRoy:
Right.

Enrique:
And thank you, by the way, for all of us who are reaching 60, I'm 58 1/2. You look good.

LeRoy:
Thank you.

Enrique:
Of course, you got a lot of that during the whole series too. But you've been involved in the ups and downs of the business and all of these things.

LeRoy:
Oh, yeah.

Enrique:
Did it prepare you in handling this situation?

LeRoy:
I think so. I really think it did. I think when you've been in the business that long, you realize there's nothing that you can count on, there's nothing for sure, and there's no givens. You're just in there, you know that the rug can be pulled from underneath you at any time, and a lot of times it will be. And I've had my ups and downs. So I think that's what halfway kept my sanity, you know. I knew I was doing what I wanted to do, but I just took it a week at a time. I didn't have this grandiose idea that I was going to win this thing. I just thought, if I get to next week, it will be good. So I just took baby steps.

Enrique:
See how it goes. Talk a little bit about you. You were an army brat.

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Your father was stationed at fort Lewis at one time?

LeRoy:
That's where he retired. Before that, early, up until I was about 15, I lived off and on in Germany. Then when he moved us here, I think in '65 or something, I started high school.

Enrique:
And love of music always there?

LeRoy:
Yeah. In Germany, it was fun, yeah.

Enrique:
Did you speak German while you were there?

LeRoy:
Yes. I spoke fluent German actually because I started kindergarten, I started very young. I don't remember that much now, but I can still understand and I can get by.

Enrique:
So you grew up in the Tacoma area?

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Going to high school?

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Eventually, did you spend much time in Seattle and elsewhere?

LeRoy:
Yeah. And when I started playing and moved out of the house, I started to come up to Seattle, and I've lived in Seattle and Tacoma three or four times, you know, throughout the year.

Enrique:
When did you start performing?

LeRoy:
I started performing right away on and off, just little bands, you know, in high school even. Didn't get really, really into it until I was in my 20s and start performing a lot. And then hooked up with my uncle, who was a big producer. Tom Bell. And he did all the stylistics and the spinners and the O.J.s, and he was a part of the Philadelphia international group with gamble house and bell is what it was.

Enrique:
Did he mentor you, give you advice?

LeRoy:
Yeah, he did. I really studied under him as far as my song writing goes.

Enrique:
Let's talk about the song writing. Because actually, you were a song writer for some big act.

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Elton John?

LeRoy:
Yeah, Elton John, O.J.s, spinners, gosh, even J-Lo covered some stuff on one of her albums. Yeah, a lot of different people.

Enrique:
Even as you were doing all of that, you eventually had to supplement your income.

LeRoy:
Oh, yeah.

Enrique:
You worked.

LeRoy:
Yeah, I did some odd jobs.

Enrique:
How long did you work for the post office?

LeRoy:
I worked there about nine months, nine, 10 months. Yeah, I was a casual. So I was the guy that just got thrown all the bones. It was like if a guy was sick, hey, you can do my route for me today. And it was kind of fun in a lot of ways. But I had a little more respect for that job when I left.

Enrique:
And you're raising a family.

LeRoy:
Yeah, raising a family. So I knew that there might be a time when I had to get a day job. That was a full time job. And then after that, I got a part time job because things were coming together again. And then I just did music.

Enrique:
What is it about music that inspires you or moves you?

LeRoy:
I don't know. It's just something that I've always felt since I was a kid. And not, it's not that I knew I wanted to make my living playing music, I just always loved music. I think by the time I was 14, 15, I knew that was the only thing that made me feel good, you know, and even when I had a regular job, all I could think about was music and when I can get back to my music.

Enrique:
How many songs have you written?

LeRoy:
You know, we had to figure that out when I did the show. And I went on BMI, which is Broadcast Music Incorporated, and researched it, because I didn't realize it was over 160 songs published.

Enrique:
Wow. Would you sing me one of your originals?

LeRoy:
I would love to.

Enrique:
Okay.

LeRoy:
♪ 20 years from now ♬
♪ will you still want me around ♬
♪ when my hair falls gray and my thoughts are seeded ♬
♪ will you still lean me down ♬
♪ because I haven't always been there for you ♬
♪ haven't always been so kind ♬
♪ and I know you won't believe it ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ 20 years from now ♬
♪ when I ♬
♪ and this space that's held between us ♬
♪ will the good times be enough ♬
♪ sometimes I know we had it all ♬
♪ sometimes we had enough ♬
♪ most times we were somewhere in between ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you ♬
♪ Already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ 20 years from now ♬
♪ when there's only you and me ♬
♪ will you hate me then because of all my indiscretions ♬
♪ for all the times you stood down me ♬
♪ I know it's been a tug of war ♬
♪ the scars come back and more ♬
♪ I know you won't believe me ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ oh, I'm missing you already ♬
♪ 20 years from now ♬

Enrique:
Very nice.

LeRoy:
Thank you.

Enrique:
When you write a song, what motivates you, what captures your attention to come up with a story line and all of those things?

LeRoy:
Sometimes it's a story or just something that reminds me of something that I've wanted to do. I don't usually make notes about things that I want to write about, but I'll just sit down and play my guitar, and it's a mood kind of a thing. You know, if I'm in a sad mood or retrospective or introspective, I just, I come up with certain chords and they just give me that mood. And I just start writing.

Enrique:
What do you like to do more? Song writing or performing?

LeRoy:
You know, it used to be song writing. But now, it's, it's almost even. But I'm enjoying the performance a little bit more right now. Maybe because I got to do the live thing and that just made me appreciate it a little bit more. And I've been working with my band for about 10 years now. And you just get that instant gratification when you're in front of a crowd, you play that song and you get that instant reaction. Whereas writing that song is just another aspect of that, you don't get that reaction right away.

Enrique:
So you get the audition, you get the opportunity, you go then to is it L.A. for what they call the boot camp?

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
So you're like set up at a place, then you're performing and you're being constantly judged by...

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
And then you have the experience too of doing live performing in front of the judges, Simon Cowell, who's also known for being pretty critical, L.A. Reed.

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Pretty brutal. That whole experience, hard, fun.

LeRoy:
Yeah, exactly. And it was different people differently. So there was people all around you sometimes just completely losing it.

Enrique:
Really?

LeRoy:
Completely falling apart, especially on the boot camp time.

Enrique:
Do you think your age helped you deal with all of these things?

LeRoy:
I think so. I think it was a common, couple of things. I think age was a factor. Like we had spoken earlier about, you know, you don't take things for granted and you know that life's gonna go on, and this is not the end of the world if you don't make it on this show. I think a lot of young people really think this is the end of the road for them. If they don't make it here, they just don't see what they are going to do. And I had spoken to a couple of kids that got cut out early and they were kind of devastated. And I was going, you're only 14 years old, how can you be devastated with this? You're so far ahead of other people because you're already out here doing this. You just learn from this and do it again. You got your whole life ahead of you. I'm 60 years old out here doing this.

Enrique:
You constantly heard about, at the time you were 59, you were doing this, and then you became 60.

LeRoy:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Did you get tired of hearing about the age thing or did it not matter?

LeRoy:
Yeah, I did get tired of it, you know.

Enrique:
And you do look good, for your age, you look darn good.

LeRoy:
I don't mind being my age and I enjoy it. But it's not, it's a youth driven business. So I never put that out there when I could help it. You know, people said you look 45, yeah, I'm about that. I would just kind of go with that.

Enrique:
That sounds good.

LeRoy:
So I never wanted to make that an issue. And so a couple of times when I did tell people, it was not about the music, it was the fact that I look so young, and it just took away from what I do. And I don't want somebody to give me credit for what I do because I'm old. Here's your lifetime achievement award.

Enrique:
And how is it dealing with the feedback you would get, particularly at the live performances and you get the judges to say, that was great, or I'm not feeling it.

LeRoy:
Yeah. A couple of times, that was hard to take. But I never, you know, you would go back and analyze it. Is there any truth to that? You know how you try to second guess yourself to see if they're that spot on. And a couple times I noticed some things. I said I can work on that. I can use that, I can work on that. So I think some of it was actually good.

Enrique:
As you have gone through this process, very intense, suddenly, there's this big public focus. I imagine that when you're working there in that environment, they do a lot of things for you. You get the experience, kind of the glamour side of all of that. Has there been an adjustment for you now to come back to the reality of being in the business and all of that?

LeRoy:
Yeah. There was, one reason it was just the pace was 90 miles per hour every day. You know, you really didn't have any time to really think about anything except for what you had to do, what you had to accomplish. And that's all you focused on, you're just kind of living in a bubble. And outside world is some other place at that point. But when I got back, yeah, the first few days, I was just like, what am I gonna do now? Because you're just in that hyper state.

Enrique:
What are you gonna do now?

LeRoy:
Now, I'm fine. Because it's been a little while and I've regrouped with my band, we've had rehearsals and we've done shows, and I feel great. There was a down side coming down, just like any high, where you got a little bit like, wow, that was wild and now it's over. But I feel great.

Enrique:
What has helped you adjust?

LeRoy:
I think having family and my son and you know, I went from saying my son, I went from being a rock star on TV to back to being your chauffeur and baby sitter.
[LAUGHTER]
Now I'm just, dad, can you get me that? Yeah.

Enrique:
Well, that's a good reality check.

LeRoy:
Yeah, it is.

Enrique:
And that's the real reality right there.

Enrique:
It's a great story. And thank you so much for taking the time to spend time with me to talk and to share some of your music. And I wonder if you'd do me the honor of playing one more song for me.

LeRoy:
I would love to. And thanks for having me, yeah.

Enrique:
My pleasure.

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08/05/12

Is there CD? Love his voice, and music.

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