Guitarist Danny Leake was a Chicago recording studio mainstay in the '60s and '70s. An in-demand session player while still in his teens, Leake can be heard on numerous records that date from those times. Leake eventually expanded his talents by becoming a much sought-after live sound and studio recording engineer. Leake's exhaustive discography includes Chicago soul favorites Tyrone Davis, the Chi-Lites, and other acts produced by Carl Davis on Brunswick Records as well as vocal group Heaven and Earth. Now primarily a world-class engineer, Leake co-produced some exciting and interesting '70s disco that still sounds fresh today. In the late '70s, Leake formed a writing/producing partnership with English dance producer Ian Levine. Recording out of Chicago, the two recruited and developed local talent and in the process created some of the most crafted, infectious, and long-lived disco music released from that genre's heyday. Levine and Leake's productions weren't of the "shake your moneymaker" variety, but instead included songs with strong melodies and emotionally layered lyrics, surrounded by the highly inventive arrangements of Fiachra Trench, full orchestras, top session musicians, and sophisticated sound engineering. Two acts that Levine/Leake produced remain perennial favorites of classic disco lovers and serious dance aficionados: James Wells and Barbara Pennington.
Singer Pennington's vocals were in the same belting, gospel-drenched vein as that of another Chicagoan, dance diva Loleatta Holloway. Her two most sought-after songs are "Twenty-Four Hours a Day" and "You Are the Music Within Me," both originally released on United Artists Records around 1977. The 12" extended mixes, particularly "Twenty-Four," are high on collectors' lists. The energetic "You Are the Music Within Me" was originally issued as a 12" single that was played back at the same speed of a 45 single which gave the 12" a more "hot" sound. The sound of the record as a whole can be described as almost cabaret-ish ("dadada pause dadada") with its swirling strings and bopping horns and a male chorus that sounds like it could be wearing top hats and tails, doing high kicks: "You can make my body move/There ain't no more/For you to do it/You are the music within me." The maudlin ballad "I Can't Help Feeling Guilty" has a slight resemblance to Marlena Shaw's "Go Away Little Boy." With its chugging underbeat, Pennington's performance, superb arrangement, and top-notch musicianship, "Twenty-Four Hours a Day" should have been Pennington's big breakthrough; it did well on Billboard's (then-individualized by city) disco charts, but faltered on the mainstream charts. In April 1978, Pennington's Midnight Ride was released by United Artists Records. The LP wasn't like some of the disco albums of the era; Midnight Ride had substance and variety. The catchy mid-tempo "All-Time Loser" has a bubbling percussion breakdown with patted and slapped bongos before sliding into a soft-samba interlude and returning back to the main part of the song. The mid-tempo "It's So Hard Getting Over" has jazz overtones, impassioned lead vocals, and a spoken word section, where Pennington says: "In life everybody goes through trials and tribulations/But I've come to realization that this eternal force that lies within me/And each and everyone of you/That all things are possible." Not your typical, hedonistic pop music.
The duo produced a track, "My Claim to Fame," for entertainer Liberace's AVI Records on singer James Wells that wasn't a chart-buster at the time of its original release but has since become a dance classic. "My Claim to Fame" clocks in at a whopping 16 minutes! The release is a fantastically inventive dance record easily gliding from hard-on, four-on-the-floor disco to soaring Bartok-esque classical string section, and Wells sings with a barely contained fervor for finally finding "the one." Another Wells standout was the mellow win-a-few, lose-a-few ballad "I Guess That Life" (the flip side of "My Claim to Fame").
During the '80s, Leake became more involved in the technical aspects of making a record. Under the tutelage of industry vet Murray Allen at Universal Recording Studios in downtown Chicago, Leake developed into an adept engineer in the field of studio and live concert engineering. The legendary studio had its walls lined with gold and platinum records and was highly respected by the audio engineering community for its high technical standards. When Allen (the owner of Universal) moved to pursue other business interests, Universal was sold and dismantled, to the lament and sorrow of many musicians and engineers. Today, Leake has his own audio engineering company, Urban Guerrilla Engineers, whose activities take him all over the world, recording both indoor and outdoor events. He also was a multi-termed president of EARS (Engineering and Recording Society of Chicago).