Leader of the Band – Dan Fogelberg
“Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg, an acoustic cover by Mike Massé
Scott Slusher provides us this excellent post, including an exclusive interview with Dan Fogelberg’s niece, Kate Fogelberg.
Written By: Dan Fogelberg
Album: “The Innocent Age”
Release: August, 1981
Label: Full Moon/Epic
Cover Art: “Leader of the Band” by Dan Fogelberg
Written by Dan Fogelberg in the late 1970’s, and included on Dan’s adult contemporary rock magnum opus The Innocent Age in 1981, “Leader of the Band” was a massive hit single for Dan Fogelberg. The song is sincere but not naive or simplistic. It is a fine example of a song written and performed by a man at the peak of his songwriting and musical abilities, and touches on powerful themes of family and the nature of motivation. It is also a largely autobiographical song, providing an insight into Dan’s upbringing. This post explores what makes this song so special, and also includes an interview with Dan’s niece Kate, who provides some very interesting insights into Dan and his family.
First a little history on Dan: Dan Fogelberg grew up in Peoria, Illinois, where his father was a high school and college band director, and his mother was also a music instructor, and a gifted singer in her own right. One can easily imagine the musical upbringing such a family life would provide. Dan attended school at the University of Illinois but dropped out early to pursue a professional music career, eventually landing a record contract in Los Angeles in the early 70s. Dan’s second album, Souvenirs, produced by Joe Walsh, provided Dan with his first top-40 single, “Part of the Plan” (#39 in 1975), and established Dan as a viable professional in the business.
Three more albums (Captured Angel, Nether Lands, and Twin Sons of a Different Mother, with Tim Weisberg) followed before Dan’s big breakthrough came with 1979’s Phoenix album and it’s huge ballad hit, “Longer”. Dan also wrote Leader of the Band during this time, but saved it for his next album The Innocent Age, which was released in 1981. I read one post on the internet that claimed Dan held out Leader of the Band from Phoenix because it was too sentimental for that release , but I think he saved it or meant it for The Innocent Age because it fit the concept of the later record more completely. Which may be saying roughly the same thing.
And which brings us (finally) to The Innocent Age, and specifically track 3, side 2, “Leader of the Band”. First of all, the album itself. The Innocent Age was a double-album, a self-proclaimed “song cycle” containing 17 songs on a deluxe double-platter vinyl release. Epic, Dan’s record company at the time, really stepped up with the packaging on this release, with a gatefold sleeve and a full-size booklet insert with lyrics. According to Dan’s website the label was not excited to find out that he wanted to do a double album, but Dan clearly felt strongly about the larger work, even though it meant delaying the release for about an extra year while he wrote and recorded the additional songs . So it’s a concept album! A “song cycle” about the passage of time and the meaning of life. I’m a sucker for concept albums and double-albums. Tommy, of course, The Wall, The River, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, et cetera. So well done, Dan. “Leader of the Band” appears on side 2, sandwiched between other hit songs “Run for the Roses” and “Same Old Lang Syne”, so it’s likely going to be the most scratched up side of the album if you’re lucky enough to find a copy at the used vinyl store.
The album went double platinum and reached #6 on the album charts in 1981. “Leader of the Band” was the third of four singles lifted from the album (“Hard to Say” being the fourth, not yet mentioned single), and peaked at a lofty #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and #1 on the Adult contemporary chart. Dan wrote all of the songs (with co-writing credit on “Empty Cages”), co-produced the album, and played guitars, piano, and did much of his own backing vocals. The album is an example of an artist at the peak of his career, making his most realized statement of musical expression. That may be a backhanded way of saying that Dan never quite reached the same commercial or artistic heights after The Innocent Age, but all artists should be so lucky to have the opportunity to create their best work at the peak of their popularity. The entire album still holds up as enjoyable listening to this day. The recording is unaffected by 80s overproduction that plagued so many other albums of the era, and has a natural, clean sound. It was recorded at several different studios yet retains an impressive consistent tonal quality. Kudos to the mixing engineer and co-producer Marty Lewis for keeping this together.
A simple tonal palette is evident on “Leader of the Band”. The instrumentation is simple; vocals, acoustic guitar, and a brass quintet. Dan provides his own backing vocals. Dan plays a Martin D-41, a beautiful dreadnought acoustic guitar. Coincidentally this is one of Mike Masse’s guitars, which made this song even more irresistible to him as a potential cover song.
The song structure is not complicated, with an instrumental bridge that we visit three times, three verses, and two choruses. No solos, but a brass quintet provides novelty, but relevantly so, given the subject of the song. Each part of the song is well-constructed. It features two outstanding melodies, in the bridge and the chorus each, either of which would make this a memorable song. Between the excellent melodies and the lyrical content and performance it is no wonder that this song became so popular and remains so beloved.
My favorite part is the bridge. The song leads with a solo acoustic guitar version of what we later learn to be the bridge. Written in A-flat, the main bridge melody lasts 8 bars, and it really has nice movement, for lack of a more technical term. It sort of has a legato-staccato (ish) back and forth feel to it (though mostly legato), which gives it a swaying pace and drive. I like to think the melody was stuck in Dan’s mind for a long time before he ever penned it to paper, a little secret that he kept to himself for years before building a song around it. It’s the kind of melody you want to save for a great song that is deserving of its quality. The melody starts with an almost-whole note on the fifth (E-flat), before breaking into a series of syncopated quarter notes in the second measure that settle on the fourth, and rest there for most of the third measure. Then the melody picks up steam in the fifth measure with a nice little run of eighth notes before jumping up to a series of half notes on the beat that fall in a swaying descending line, like the rocking of a cradle. The line gently tracks down from the sixth to the root, which has not been revealed until this point. By not hitting the root of the key until the end of the melody he keeps the listener engaged, waiting in anticipation for resolution. Dan adds a tiny little sixteenth-note flourish on the guitar before it all settles down for four measures on A-flat, a quiet deep breath before the verse begins. The guitar playing is confident and clear. No one is going to run out and compare Dan Fogelberg to Richard Thompson here, but I come away from the intro impressed with his ability. I’m a complete sucker for melodies that track around for several measures before resolving, so I’m hooked in the first 15 seconds of the song.
As mentioned before I also think the melody of the chorus is very well done. This is a 16-bar melody that is more forceful and driving, and of similar quality as the bridge. This time the melody starts on the root and immediately jumps an octave to the A-flat right below high C, the highest melody note Dan will sing on the song. It’s a challenging vocal line to sing, a tricky octave-jump made even more difficult by its precariously high landing point. The high note (on …leader of the… in the chorus) is A-flat “4“, just below high C, and you can also hear Dan laying down harmonies hitting D-flat “5”, above High C, in full voice, with no evidence of vocal strain. Dan had a lovely tenor voice with a distinctive tone. Most youtube covers in the original key of this song are sung by women, who have more confidence at that range. To retain control with power and restraint while jumping that large of an interval is not simple, and again, it shows him to be at the top of his form at the time.
The chorus melody lingers for a spell at and near the high A-flat (The leader of the band is tired) before eventually settling back to the fifth (and his eyes are growing old), and then at the end of the first 8 bars actually touches down on the second interval of the root (“soul” on and his song is in my soul), an interval which to most ears begs for resolution. It’s a clever way of keeping the listener’s interest. Dan jumps back to the root-octave jump to allow a quick resolution, as the second half of the chorus starts as a repeat of the first half melody (My life has been a poor attempt…), before breaking off on it’s own into a 4 bar resolution to the entire theme (I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band).
Then we’re back to the bridge, this time with an addition of a brass quintet. I mentioned the brass quintet earlier. Dan’s big hit from 1979, “Longer”, contained a flugelhorn solo, and I’ve heard “Dan Flugelhorn” mentioned as a somewhat dismissive (but pretty funny) nickname for Dan . It all may seem a bit pretentious for an adult contemporary pop artist to toss in a classical-ish sounding brass quintet into the bridge of his ballad, but the arrangement is nicely done, and includes a wonderful little counter-melody during the run of half notes in the fifth and sixth measures. I don’t have a good enough ear to tell if there is a flugelhorn in the quintet. I’d like to think the entire quintet is comprised of flugelhorns, actually. In another song the presence of the quintet may seem unnecessary, but given the lyrical content of the song it actually enhances and deepens the message of the song. No one is going to run around and start comparing Dan Fogelberg to J. S. Bach, but that level of complexity is not required in a 3 minute pop song. The quintet provides a means to a vision. As a listener it is easy to imagine Dan’s father Larry conducting the quintet during this portion of the song. The presence of the quintet actually reinforces the lyrical content of the song through the choice of instrumentation. Next-level songwriting here, folks.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another song from a completely different artist featuring solo guitar and horn. “The Saturday Boy” by Billy Bragg, recorded a few years later in 1984, provides an interesting contrast to Leader of the Band in almost every way except for instrumentation, which makes it a delightful counterpoint to Leader of the Band. Billy sings in his “distinctive” (off-key) way about an unrequited love, over a sloppy solo electric guitar. the song closes out with a horn solo, alas I come to find out a trumpet solo (not flugelhorn), but a horn nonetheless. Billy is not a master musician, but there is ample room in my catalog of loved songs for both Billy and Dan here. And in a strange way, if we deem it acceptable for that fisty lovelorn punk-poet Billy Bragg to spice up a solo guitar song with a brass flourish, then we can’t very well disparage Dan Fogelberg for doing the same.
This brings us finally to the actual lyrical content of the song. “Leader of the Band” is an autobiographical love letter from a son to his father, delivered at the time the son realizes how much of an influence the father has had on him, and when the father has finished his life’s work, more or less. As we know Dan grew up in a musical family and must have honed his talents at the feet of supportive and talented parents. Dan himself mentions a powerful early experience, “conducting” his father Larry’s orchestra at the age of four, while Larry ghost-conducted behind him . The lyric he earned his love through discipline, a thundering velvet hand is a reference to the orchestra conductor’s glove, his father’s command of the orchestra, and his reputation as being tough on his students, and earning their love and loyalty through his strict discipline . It’s the sort of experience a young person might not appreciate at the time. I can personally attest to that, having chafed under the bit of my music directors as a rambunctious student, only to appreciate the lessons being taught to me, sometimes only years later.
Even as Dan embarked on a musical career of his own that in terms of mass popularity far eclipsed that of his father’s, I get the sense from this song that Dan always felt in debt to his father, and that his father’s approval and praise would have meant more to Dan than any number of gold and platinum records. To back this up, the same article also mentions that Dan’s gold and platinum records were actually hung at his parent’s house, like so many trophies for winning musical competitions. I think we can make a clear connection between Dan’s drive to succeed as a musical artist and his desire to please his parents. It’s really quite sweet, actually.
A main thrust of the song details how the Dan’s father Larry, the “Leader of the Band”, has hung up his baton, and is an exploration of his legacy as a conductor and an educator. Of course for the most part Dan sings about his father’s influence on himself (his blood flows through my instrument and his song is in my soul), but Dan also throws a significant nod to his father’s influence on countless students he must have conducted over the years (His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand). Larry was a celebrated conductor and a beloved teacher in his community, and the lyric captures this sentiment deftly.
Much of the rest of the song is a history of his father, who actually was in the army briefly before taking his position as music director in Peoria (tried to be a soldier once, but his music wouldn’t wait), and a bit of biography of the family (and I’m in Colorado, when I’m not in some hotel). The final verse reads a list of “thank yous” from son to father, concluding with the very emotional papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough.
Dan’s father was largely retired from work by 1975, and sadly passed away in 1982, only a year after the song was released. But it’s nice to know that he was able to hear and enjoy the song his son wrote for him. And sadly Dan is no longer with us, having passed away in 2007. As the song indicates, Dan made his home in Colorado for much of his adult life, which is my (and Mike’s) home, as well. As a result, Fogelberg was on heavy rotation in my house growing up, The Innocent Age being one of a select few albums our entire family enjoyed. It’s syrupy-sweet to be sure, but Leader of the Band really is a fine song, with excellent melodies and lyrics, expertly sung by a musician at the top of his form. Cheers to you Dan, and thank you for the music.
As mentioned at the top, Dan’s niece Kate Fogelberg was kind enough to let me interview her for this post. It’s really interesting to hear her perspective:
Me: First things first, is your family from Chicago, or St. Paul? From the lyrics of the song I think we can narrow it down to one of those two places!
Kate: My Dad, Dan’s oldest brother is the one who went to Chicago. The three boys grew up in Peoria, Illinois, but my Dad went to Chicago for law school and settled in the area with my Mom.
Me: Dan’s parents, Larry and Margaret, sound like wonderful people. Did you have a chance to know Larry before he passed away? And how is Margaret doing?
Kate: I was very young when my Grandpa passed away so didn’t have the chance to know him beyond the stories that my Dad and uncles would tell. My Grandma is doing very well considering that she is approaching 95! Her mother – my great-grandmother – lived well into her 100s, crediting her longevity to haggis and port, a nod to her Scottish roots.
Me: So there is a purpose to haggis! At what age were you when you realized your uncle was not only Uncle Dan, but “Dan Fogelberg”?
Kate: Pretty young, must have been about 5 or so. When we were kids and Dan was touring, we would go to his summer concerts at a really neat venue called Poplar Creek outside of Chicago. Getting to go backstage and on the tour bus always felt special, even more so as a kid. I was a bit of an attention-seeker as a child, so remember very well screaming “yea, UNCLE Dan” at concerts at a young age and getting curious stares from the people sitting around us. Fogelberg is not a very common last name in the US, so from a very young age, I remember many people – from my dentist to grocery store employees – inquiring about the potential link to Dan when they heard my last name.
Me: Dan and you both ended up in Colorado at the same time. Were you able to spend much time with him in Colorado?
Kate: He lived in Colorado for many years before I moved there as an adult, but I did start to fall in love with Colorado during ski trips to Dan’s at a young age. As a kid, one of my favorite things to do was sled down the seemingly endless driveway at [Dan’s] ranch at night under the starry nights. Dan was a great skier, and he introduced me to skiing at Wolf Creek. (a ski area in southern Colorado)
Me: If you know or can speculate, how do you think Dan felt about his career and the success of Leader of the Band in particular?
Kate: He did what he loved and was a huge inspiration to me to follow my heart and do what I love.
Me: Leader of the Band is very autobiographical, which I imagine can be both flattering and a bit overwhelming. how does it feel to have a huge hit song written about your family?
Kate: It is a bit strange, but it’s all I’ve ever known. I’m very used to people hearing my last name and inquiring about the link. Since I didn’t get to know my Grandfather, it’s unique to have a way to connect to him through this song.
Me: Can you tell us your favorite song by Dan? It’s quite all right if it’s not “Leader of the Band”! My favorite might be “The Reach”, a deep cut from The Innocent Age.
Kate: Hard to narrow it down to just one! I do love “Leader” because it’s a connection to my Grandfather, whom I didn’t get the chance to get to know. As a child, I loved hearing “Power of Gold” live at Dan’s shows; some of my favorite lyrics are in “Part of the Plan,” but one of my all-around favorite songs is “As the Raven Flies.” (from Souvenirs)
Me: Sounds like the Fogelberg household was very musical. Do you have any musical talents? Flugelhorn, perhaps?
Kate: I studied the piano for close to 8 years, and still tickle the ivories from time to time, but I’m very rusty.
Me: Thank you Kate for spending some time reminiscing with me about Dan, and Leader of the Band. You mentioned he inspired you to follow your heart and do what your love. Do you mind telling us a little bit about how you follow that inspiration in your own life?
Kate: From a young age, I had an insatiable curiosity about the world. As I grew up, I became increasingly interested in the inequalities that exist and the different opportunities that are afforded to people simply based upon where they are born. Although it hasn’t always been a straight path, I’ve dedicated my career to trying to make the world a little bit better. Dan was able to do that through his music for so many people, and through my career thus far, I like to think that I too, am doing my part to make this world a little bit better. From teaching English in post-war Guatemala, to working with HIV-positive widows in Kenya, to supporting communities and governments to solve their water and sanitation problems in Latin America, I have been witness to some of the most frustrating situations, as well as the life-changing impact very basic services – like water and sanitation – can have.
And finally, a couple other youtube covers of this fine song:
“tupazcousins” from the Philippines:
Not the most technically perfect performance by any means, but very authentic.
Very confident playing and singing from Lea.
Gets a great sound out of his Taylor.
How and Why Mike Plays It
When I was 14, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, from Satellite Beach, Florida. I really, really didn’t want to leave Florida. But my dad had accepted a position in Golden, CO, working at (and eventually running) the National Earthquake Information Center. So I spent half of my junior high and all of my high school years in Boulder. I look back now at how incredibly lucky that was. I made two lifelong friends (and bandmates) in Scott Slusher and Ken Benson. And I eventually met Trent Hickman, another lifelong friend who has had a profound influence for good in my life. And the Beatles taught me how to play guitar! Well, I sorta taught myself by listening to the Beatles. 🙂 I guess I coulda done that anywhere, but still. CO is awesome! I’m so glad to call it home again.
I think I was aware of Dan Fogelberg before moving to Colorado, and it was difficult to escape him once I was here. Not that I wanted to, mind you. Unlike Scott, I’ve actually heard very little Dan Fogelberg outside of his hits. (Maybe someone could recommend a good YouTube playlist or something…?)(Slush responds: Start with “The Innocent Age” album. The whole thing. Front to back.) But man, did I love his hits. I’ve always been a sucker for a good ballad, especially when guitar and/or great harmonies are involved. So I loved “Longer”, “Same Old Lang Syne” and “Leader in the Band”. If those latter two haven’t made you misty at some point in your life, you’re doing it wrong.
I learned “Leader of the Band” basically when I was competent enough at guitar to attempt it. I had to learn it by ear, what with it being the early 90’s-n-all. I learned it *mostly* right. I had to re-listen recently and correct a couple of little things (accounting for the capo, the second chord of the chorus is really a Bm? Weeeeird.) I now play it the way I hear it, so that’s me hedging on any claims of playing it exactly “right”. It’s in Ab, but for the recording I chose to tune my guitar up a half step rather than play it capo’ed on the first fret, so the strings would ring more cleanly on the open notes. I used a capo in the video so as not to confuse people trying to play along. 🙂
I’ve been wanting to cover this song for YouTube for years, and as Scott mentioned, when I got the Martin D-41 (the same model Dan used to play), I knew I had to make it happen eventually. I didn’t want it to be a live recording though, because I wanted to take a crack at those beautiful harmonies, and I wanted them all to myself! 🙂
When I moved back to Colorado in August, 2014, I found myself wanting to play “Leader of the Band” at nearly every gig. The lyrics just hit home on a new level, since I now live in CO again and am a full-time musician who spends his share of time traveling.
“And I’m in Colorado when I’m not in some hotel, living out this life I’ve chose and come to know so well.”
Thanks again to Scott for his excellent write-up of the song.
And thanks to you for reading/watching/listening,