Leslie Sandy:  The Lost Are Found

by Tom Ewing


 

For 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 -- Leslie Sandy.

 

"Les," 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.

 

Born 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."

 

Times were 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 Sandy’s 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.

 

In 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."

 

He drifted 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 time.

 

Tiring of 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.

 

Les stayed 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.)

 

Around 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."

 

As they 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.”

 

With the 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 laconically.

 

   "Yeah, I went down there and I eat some chicken a while ago. I eat so much chicken, I'm in fowl shape."

 

A few 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 seriousness.

 

   "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. ..."

 

A burst 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. 196-197.)

 

Les, at 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.

 

Les called 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.

 

When WMFD 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.")

 

Knowing he 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 done with 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 know?")

 

Once 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."

 

Les 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.

 

Looking 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.

 

For the 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.

 

During 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!"

 

And 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

By: Tom Ewing

Reprinted by permission Bluegrass Unlimited (BU) Magazine

Click here to read the article from BU in PDF format.

1-800-Bluegrass

www.bluegrass.com

All rights reserved. Copyright January 2004

 
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