Leslie Sandy: The Lost
by Tom Ewing
nearly forty years since the mid-1960s, when a tape Bill
Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys recorded live in 1954 began to
circulate among collectors listeners wondered about the
identity of "Uncle Puny," the outrageously fanny comedian
and bass player with the band. Similarly, for almost thirty
years - since 1974, when the first Bill Monroe discography
was published avid fans were puzzled by the listing of an
unknown named "Lester Sandy" as a guitarist on Monroe's
first album. Knee Deep in Bluegrass. Over the years,
attempts were made to locate them, but with nothing other
than their names to go on, these efforts were unsuccessful
and, ultimately, they were considered to be "lost" Blue
Grass Boys. Then on March 31st of 2003, thanks to "Notes &
Queries" columnist Walt Saunders and two of his readers,
both "Uncle Puny" and "Lester Sandy" were found (see BU,
June 2003), turning out to be one and the same person --
now 75, had an on-and-off involvement with bluegrass in the
1950s, including three stints with Monroe and two with Jim &
Jesse. Before, during, and after the times he played
bluegrass, this multi-talented performer had dreams of
making it in mainstream country music. When they failed to
come true, he let music slide for twenty-five years. But in
the last ten or so, via bluegrass, he's rediscovered how
important it is to him, and he's been playing his fiddle at
every opportunity ever since. "I love the music more than I
did when I was real young," he says now.
on August 8, 1928, Leslie Matheson Sandy grew up in the
country close to where he lives today, near the town of
Raeford, in south central North Carolina. The eighth often
children (two girls and eight boys) born to sharecroppers
Lloyd and Maude Sandy, Les was entranced early on by his
father's harmonica playing on songs like "Golden Slippers"
and "You Can't Stop Me From Dreaming" (a pop song from the
1930s, recorded by fellow North Carolinian Earl Scruggs as a
banjo-bass duet at Carnegie Hall in 1962). By the time Les
was six, his dad had to share the pocket-sized wonder with
him: "I started playing that harmonica a little bit. I never
had one myself."
tough during the Depression, especially for the Sandy
family. As Les puts it, "We didn't have much. We just did
survive." Radio helped, bringing relief from the endless
drudgery of farm work. On the air every day in the Carolinas
was an incredible bounty of live country music and Les
listened to it all, especially liking "Snuffy" Jenkins &
"Pappy" Sherrill, J.E.& Wade Mainer, and the Monroe
Brothers. The Sandys had no electricity, so their radio was
powered by a car battery. Sometimes it was warmed in the
cook stove to improve reception, usually before the family
listened to the Grand Ole Opry. As the times got better,
Les' parents were able to afford stringed instruments for
their children, and in 1943, they gave fourteen-year old Les
the five dollars he needed to buy his first guitar.
February 1946, Les enlisted in the Navy, following three
older brothers into the armed forces.
He served aboard the
aircraft carriers Randolph (CV-15) and Kearsarge (CV-33) and
traveled to ports all over the Atlantic, Caribbean, and
Mediterranean (including Naples, Italy, where he bought his
first mandolin, a "tater bug"). When he returned to Raeford
in December 1947, he helped build a house for his parents on
land partially paid for with money he and his brothers had
sent home. When it was finished, Les didn't stay around
long: "You know how it is when you get out somewhere,
especially a guy who never had been anywhere and he goes out
and sees a lot of the world, you just can't sit down then."
to Florida in mid-1948, and ended up in Miami, nearly broke.
A phone call to a popular disk jockey he remembers only as
"Uncle Harve" led to a brief bass playing job with a country
band which included fiddler Vassar Clements. Close in age,
Clements and he palled around together, and from him Les
learned the rudiments of fiddling, beginning with "Sally
Goodwin." ("I pestered him to death about that thing," he
chuckles.) When Les was replaced by another bass player, he
again called Uncle Harve and found out about an opening at
"Sloppy Joe's," a well-known watering hole in Key West, at
the extreme southern tip of the Sunshine State. Les then
called his guitar-playing older brother Coolidge, a former
Seabee, who soon joined him there. Mixing country and pop
songs with comedy (which Les discovered a knack for), the
two played six nights a week for thirteen months at Sloppy
Joe's. The renowned author Ernest Hemingway, a longtime Key
West resident, was a regular ("He'd come in there with his
britches legs rolled up barefooted"), and Les and he played
many a game of table-top shuffleboard together during this
the bar scene, however, Les and Coolidge decided to go home
in the fall of 1949,and, on the way, stopped in Augusta,
Ga., to visit older brother Frank, a survivor of the beaches
of Normandy. During their visit, Coolidge found a job at a
local veterans' hospital and Les landed a spot on bass with
his first bluegrass-style band, Hoke Jenkins & the Smokey
Mountaineers, featured daily on WGAC. Working with banjo
player Jenkins were two young musicians from Virginia, Jim
and Jesse McReynolds, and the brothers and Les became
lasting friends. But when the band broke up a few months
later, Les headed for home, proudly returning in the new car
he and Coolidge had bought with money saved from their
Sloppy Joe's pay.
closer to home during the next three years and played music
closer to the mainstream. In 1950, he joined a group in
Raleigh, N.C., led by singer/guitarist "Homer Briar hopper"
(stage name of Homer Drye, one of the original members of
the regionally popular Briar hoppers ). Les played electric
guitar, twinning with another guitarist, and occasionally
sang a solo. The band had an early morning program on WPTF,
and in 1951, Charles "Slim" Mims called Les after hearing
him on the show. Shortly thereafter, Les became the
featured vocalist, lead guitarist, and fiddler with Slim
Mims & the Dream Ranch Boys, regulars on WJMX in Florence,
S.C. Mims played steel and doubled as the band's comedian,
portraying bumpkin "Uncle Ugly" on show dates. "He was the
greatest comedian I ever saw," says Les. (Attesting to his
comic character's popularity, Mims also owned "Uncle Ugly's
Record Shop" in Florence.)
June of 1953, the band opened for Bill Monroe & his Blue
Grass Boys (with Jimmy Martin, guitar, Charlie Cline, banjo,
and L.E. White, fiddle) at the Barbeque Barn near Florence,
and Monroe, needing a bass player, asked Les to fill in. By
evening's end, Monroe had offered him the job ("Bill asked
me, said, 'How would you like to go back to Nashville with
me?' -- just like that. I said, Td like it!'") and they
arranged to meet at the Pick Theater in Mt. Airy, N.C., the
following weekend. When it arrived, Cline had been replaced
by Sonny Osborne, beginning his second summer picking banjo
with Monroe. That first evening, Les debuted as "Uncle
Puny," dressed in cut-off trousers, suspenders, and a loud
checkered shirt, with a name that combined "Uncle Ugly" with
his mother's admonition "You're gonna be puny if you don't
eat." Monroe, testing his comedic abilities, gave him
fifteen minutes for a comedy monolog that ver first night.
No one was more surprised than Les when it went over:" I
come through with it good, boy! Them people laughed. I never
will forget it."
got better acquainted, Monroe and Les began to work up
two-man routines ("It takes two people to pull comedy good,"
according to Les). In one, Monroe carried a newspaper on
stage and announced that he was in the newspaper business.
Not to be outdone. Uncle Puny claimed he was in the
newspaper business too. Monroe asked for proof, "And I reach
in my pockets everywhere and pull out a little bitty piece
of paper. I say. This is a copy of my newspaper.' Bill says,
'Uncle Puny, you can't print half as much in that as I can
print in this big newspaper.' Then I tell him, 'You go
ahead. I've got everything in here that you've got in that
newspaper.' So he's reading and says, 'Alright, Uncle Puny,
see if you've got this in your newspaper.' He reads,
'Chicago, Illinois: In order to have a cleaner city, the
city of Chicago is gettin' rid of all its telephone poles,
parking meters, and fire hydrants.' And Bill says, Have you
got that in your newspaper?' I look in there real good and
say, 'Yeah, here it says, "Chicago, Illinois: Ten thousand
dogs commit suicide.
winter of 1953 came a lack of road work and money, and Les
found himself stranded in Nashville, unable to go home for
Christmas. He stayed in the room Monroe provided for him at
the Clarkston Hotel and played his fiddle. "I fiddled all
night, Christmas night," he recalls. As soon as he could, he
went home, worked with Mims awhile, then went back with
Monroe in 1954. On Sunday, September 19th, the band (with
Charlie Cline back on banjo, Ed Mayfield on guitar; and
Gordon Terry fiddling) played at Monroe's Brown County
Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Ind., and local TV repairman
Marvin Hedrick recorded the evening show on his newfangled
tape recorder. By this time, as heard on the tape. Uncle
Puny had become an outspoken rascal, always ready with a
quick and funny comeback. When Monroe introduces him,
saying, "That shows you what they raise around here," he
declares indignantly, "Buddy, I ain't from no Pork and Bean
Blossom!" After the first song, "Bile Them Cabbage Down," he
seems compelled to tell about a recent dining experience:
"Hey, Bill," he calls out.
"Yes, sir," Monroe answers seriously.
"You know I went down yonder awhile ago at the rooster-rant,
I mean rester-rant." "Restaurant," Monroe corrects
"Yeah, I went down there and I eat some chicken a while ago.
I eat so much chicken, I'm in fowl shape."
minutes later, the serious duet "I Hope You Have Learned"
provokes a classic two - man routine: "Look at them pants
he's got on," Uncle Puny points out, nodding toward Monroe.
"They cost 50 dollars!"
"Well, that's my business," insists Monroe in mock
"That hat he's got on cost 75 dollars!"
"That's my business, too," Monroe says proudly.
"That shirt he's got on cost 85 dollars!" (A brief pause.)
"But he wears some of the raggediest underwear. ..."
of audience laughter obscures the rest and even Monroe seems
too amused to proceed and all this in the first ten
minutes of the show! (Copies of this tape began to circulate
in 1965, about a year after Hedrick invited Jerry Garcia and
Sandy Rothman to copy some of his tapes during their trip
east from California. 'See Bluegrass: A History, pgs.
twenty-six, was at the top of his profession as a sideman.
But he dreamed of being a star in his own right, as a singer
in the style of Eddy Arnold. "Back then," he says, "I could
sing (his) stuff just like him." Les arranged for an
audition with Monroe's label, Decca, but he wasn't offered a
contract, and this rejection may have influenced his
decision to leave the Blue Grass Boys before the winter
doldrums set in.
Jim & Jesse, then working out of Danville, Va., with their
own band, the Virginia Boys. They had recently re-formed
after Jesse's return from Korea and were undoubtedly glad to
add Les' bass playing and the comedy of Uncle Puny to their
shows. The band recorded four songs for Capitol on January
24, 1955: "I'll Wear The Banner," "My Garden Of Love," "I'll
See You Tonight In My Dreams," and "Tears Of Regret." But
Les didn't stay long thereafter. He returned to Raeford and,
before the year ended, he and the former Mildred Walker were
married, and a son, Ricky Lynn Sandy, was bom in 1956.
(Twenty years later, the bassist for Jim & Jesse's 1955
session was correctly identified as "Leslie Sandy." Although
there was speculation he might somehow be related to "Lester
Sandy," no one ever sought him out to ask). Les then
contacted the manager of a TV station in nearby Wilmington,
N.C. (WMFD, now WECT), and sold him on the idea of a country
music variety show. Broadcast live on Saturday nights from 9
to 10 p.m., "The Carolina Jamboree" starred the Sandy
Brothers Band (Les and Coolidge with younger brothers Mack,
banjo, and Eldon, bass and mandolin) and showcased talented
newcomers from all over the Carolinas. Wilmington native
Charlie Daniels, then about nineteen, was a frequent guest.
failed to renew the show in 1957, Les called Monroe at the
Opry. "I told him I wanted to go back to work with him and
he told me to come on up there." By that time, however,
Bessie Lee Mauldin was the full-time bassist with the Blue
Grass Boys, so Les' role was limited to comedy. But Monroe
knew he played guitar ("Many times, I'd see Bill playing
[backstage] and I'd pick up the guitar and play along with
him"), so when it came time to record his first long-playing
album. Knee Deep in Bluegrass, Monroe decided to
include Les. As a result, he played on two of the four
sessions for this classic album, recording "Out In The Cold
World," "Roane County Prison," and "Goodbye Old Pal" on May
5, 1957, and "In Despair," "Molly And Tenbrooks. and "Come
Back To Me In My Dreams" on May 15 (Toe Stuart played guitar
on the May 14 session). These recordings feature three
fiddles and the driving banjo picking of Don Stover, and, in
such company, Les' straightforward playing might be easily
overlooked, but its simplicity is a key element in the unity
of the overall sound of the band. (There were no rehearsals
prior to these sessions, Les says. Most of the songs were
re-makes of Monroe standards or things he'd been singing for
years. Les recalls that Dale Potter was in charge of the
fiddling: "[He] would tell the rest of the fiddlers to do
this and do that.")
wouldn't continue to play guitar because he wasn't a
bluegrass-style singer, and feeling his participation in the
band diminished, Les left Monroe again very shortly after
the sessions. (It 'appears now that when Ralph Rinzler
copied information from Decca's Record Personnel sheets
several years later, he guessed that Les' full first name
was "Lester," and so it appeared in Neil Rosenberg's 1974
edition of the Monroe discography.) But Les had enjoyed a
good relationship with Monroe: "I liked ol' Bill. He was a
good guy. He was just as easy-goin' as he could be." The pay
wasn't always the best, but "I know he had it rough too."
For Monroe, Les' departure marked the end of an era
although he continued to include comedy routines in his
shows until 1964, Monroe would never again employ a comedy
specialist like Les, as he had
regularity since 1940. (The next time Les saw Monroe, at a
festival in the mid-70s, Monroe recognized him and asked
teasingly, "Hey, boy, are you with the show?" It was the
last time Les would see his old partner-in-comedy: "He was
just like he always was. He didn't have too much to say, you
again, Les called Jim & Jesse, rejoining them in Live Oak,
Fla., in the summer of 1957. At the time, the band was in
constant motion, playing a series of live TV shows in
Alabama, Georgia, and elsewhere in Florida with personal
appearances booked accordingly, returning to Live Oak on
Saturdays for the Opry-like Suwannee River Jamboree,
broadcast on WNER radio. After a few months, the schedule
got to be too much and Les quit, but he recalls his times
with Jim & Jesse with fondness, admiring their way of
leading by example. "I guarantee you," he says of their
methods, "(that) you can go out there and wear a tie every
day around somebody that wears overhauls and, eventually,
that guy's gonna start wearing a tie. If he's got any sense
at all, he's gonna see it."
returned home and, except for a couple of brief detours,
he's been there ever since. In 1958. he played bass very
briefly with Jimmy Martin, appearing with him on the
Louisiana Hayride once and little else, as work was scarce
at the time. During 1959, he sang and played rhythm guitar
with Curley Mulligan & the Sundowners, weekdays around
sundown (6 - 6:30) on WRDW-TV in North Augusta, S.C. The
band's repertoire ranged from country to pop with Les
specializing in western songs.
for something closer to home, Les found it at the nearby
Fort Bragg army base in 1960. The Les Sandy Band, with Les
on lead electric guitar, Coolidge on rhythm guitar, plus
various piano, steel, and electric bass players, played
three to five nights a week at the base's N.C.O. clubs for
the next eight years. During this time, Mildred and Les were
blessed with another son, Isaac Allen Sandy, born in 1962.
But when rock began to replace country in the clubs, Les
called it quits.
next twenty-five years, he played music only occasionally.
In 1969, he built a small store just outside Raeford,
running "Sandy's Trading Post" until about 1973. After that,
utilizing his skills as an all-around handyman, he founded
"Sandy's Paint & Repair," a successful venture which kept
him and six employees busy for twenty years. Then, in 1993,
at age 64, Les
suffered a minor stroke. His doctor ordered him to cease all
strenuous activity, and Les decided it was time to retire.
Looking around for something to do, he rosined up his bow
and started fiddling again.
the next few years, Les became a regular at local bluegrass
jam sessions and was a welcome addition to several pick-up
bands, especially one with youngsters Randy Hawes, banjo;
Jerome Hawks, mandolin; Greg Miller, guitar; and Chuck
Uzzell, bass (in 1997, Hawks and Miller joined the Grass
Cats, featured in the July 2003 issue of BU). In
1998, he cleaned out and fixed up the 20-by-60-foot workshop
behind his house (both of which he also built, by the way)
and "Les' Place," complete with stage and sound system,
became a mecca for jammers from far and near. Usually on the
go to get-togethers elsewhere these days, he's also been a
part of two local productions of "Smoke on the Mountain,"
fiddling with the string band which accompanies the
religious musical comedy. Les has recruited several
promising young pickers to play in the band, just the latest
of his efforts to help and encourage young musicians. "I'm
happy when the younger ones want me to help them," he says.
"Who knows? Maybe someday we'll see them on the Opry!"
what of Uncle Puny? Although Les told Walt Saunders that the
rascally raconteur was "a lost part of the past" (BU,
June 2003), Uncle Puny has made a comeback of sorts
recently. Disguised as "Uncle Abner," leader of the "Smoke
on the Mountain" band, he told several jokes and fiddled a
few tunes to warm up the audience before the show's July
2003 performances. Les, his "agent," now says, "If you need
Uncle Puny ... let me know, hear?" (Leslie Sandy can be
contacted by writing to him at Box 735, L.A. Sandy Road,
Raeford, NC 28376 or by calling him at 910-875-3954.
Article: Leslie Sandy The Lost Are Found
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rights reserved. Copyright January 2004