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Remembering Leroy X of Jonny III

Leroy X is on the drums.EXPAND
Leroy X is on the drums.
Elizabeth Anne Smith

Leroy X — the dynamic rocker who co-led Jonny III, one of Denver’s top bands in the late 1970s and early 1980s — died of multiple health complications on September 27 at his home in Columbia, Tennessee. Born Jeffrey “Leroy” Smith, Leroy X was 67 years old.

Back in the day, Jonny III played sold-out shows at long-gone clubs like Walabi’s and Malfunction Junction, riding the late-punk and new-wave era with a sweaty, danceable mix of rock, soul and groove. “Each song built quickly, each measure feeding the next, the almost syncopated, always varied drumming never letting up, until finally, having filled the volatile room, it all came crash-landing like a jackhammer hitting a 4,200 volt underground power line,” wrote Lou Chapman in an article for Colorado New Wave/Punk Rock.

Both Jonny III and a side project, Leroy X & the Excitations, were regulars in Denver along with such stalwarts as the Aviators, the Young Weasels, the Gluons, the Transistors, Zebra 123, and many others. The band opened for touring punk bands Tuff Darts and Tom Robinson Band and toured Chicago and the Midwest, opening for the Cramps, Buzzcocks, Magazine, Gang of Four, and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. Jonny III mixed hard rock with funny ditties like “Rockin’ Little Eskimo” or “She Mashed the Potatoes." The group had a touch of Jonathan Richman and some Flamin’ Groovies, too.

Jonny III was one of the great Denver bands of the ’70s and ’80s.
Jonny III was one of the great Denver bands of the ’70s and ’80s.
Elizabeth Anne Smith

Despite close connections to the Wax Trax record store and the Chicago-based independent label Wax Trax! Records, Jonny III recorded precious little during its heyday. The band's lineup went from three-piece to four to five and back to three.

Bass players and sidemen came and went, but Jonny III was Leroy X and guitar player Kenny Vaughan, who later toured in Lucinda Williams’s touring band and many others. The headline in a Rocky Mountain News story in January 1981 highlighted Vaughan’s guitar prowess, comparing him to Jeff Beck.

Jonny III was entirely a Vaughan/Leroy X collaboration. “Sometimes I'll have an idea and Leroy will have lyrics that match,” Vaughan said in 2004. “Or he may have a melody and lyrics, and we work the progression. Or he might have a title we like and just knock it all out at once. Or he may custom-write lyrics for a melody of mine. Leroy has literally thousands of titles and hundreds of lyrics on hand.”

Jeff Leroy with a flower.
Jeff Leroy with a flower.
Elizabeth Anne Smith

Today Vaughan is an esteemed Nashville session player and a longtime member of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives. The song “Walk Like That,” written by Vaughan and Leroy X, was featured on the Grammy-nominated Marty Stuart Live at the Ryman.

A graduate of York Suburban High School in York, Pennsylvania, in 1971, Leroy wrote for both of the town’s newspapers. He participated in York Little Theater shows on the crew. In the mid-1970s he moved to Littleton, where he met Vaughan. Leroy Smith wrote novels, poetry and screenplays. As a songwriter, he developed a catalogue of nearly 500 tunes.

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After leaving Denver, Leroy kept the music going with a variety of projects under such names as Rococoa & Toast, A Man and A Woman, and Zenith and the Tender Young.

In 2019, he wrote to a longtime Denver friend, “I've been doing some collaborating with musicians from all over the world. I found them on a site called Fiverr. Check it out. I have my own Wrecking Crew to record my songs for minimal money and maximal results. It's really fun. I have folks from Europe, Eastern Europe, South America, England, and the U.S. Good players, too.” Leroy called the collaboration The World Famous Few. “It's one of my new genres, merging Glam and Punk, called Glunk.”

In additional to being a productive creative professional, Leroy was an inspirational mentor who ran successful poetry readings in Knoxville and Nashville. He also enjoyed cooking, karaoke, and late-night music listening. He had an inimitable sense of humor. He was predeceased by his father Richard "Dick" Smith, and he is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Anne Smith of Tennessee, as well as mother Jean L. Eckman, stepfather Ray C. Eckman and half-brothers Dean and Tracy Eckman of Pennsylvania.

A gathering of friends will be held over Zoom at 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 1. The meeting ID is 857 9296 4861, and the passcode is 0BSacF. To honor Leroy's legacy, his wife, Liz, suggests that you support an independent musician in your community, or visit LeroyX.com.

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