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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2011 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention this month in New Orleans.
The list of performers who have recorded songs composed by Richard Leigh reads like a who’s who of country music: George Jones, Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Kathy Mattea, and Mickey Gilley, among many others.
Eight Leigh compositions—among them “Come From the Heart,” “Put Your Dreams Away,” and “That’s the Thing About Love”—rose to the top of the charts. His biggest hit, Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” won a Grammy for Country Music Song of the Year in 1978. He has been inducted into Nashville’s Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, owns a space on the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Star Walk and has produced songs that have sold more than 50 million records.
Not too shabby for a kid born in the hollows of Washington, D.C., who spent his high school years in the notably un-countrified suburb of McLean, Va.
Although Leigh always loved country music, his desire to go straight from high school into the music business was thwarted by his adoptive mother.
“She said, ‘Please go to college, because no woman is going to want to live with a guy who sits around on a couch and plays his guitar all day and doesn’t make any money,’” Leigh says. “I’ve since found out many women do, but I told her, ‘Alright, I’ll go to college.’”
After a high school guidance counselor recommended a career in forestry, Leigh, who liked camping and canoeing well enough, enrolled in the Haywood Technical Institute (now Haywood Community College) in North Carolina.
“After nine months, I realized I hated every minute of it,” Leigh says.
Seeking another path
When Leigh looked into Emory & Henry College in Virginia, which his best friend attended, he was told he’d have to wait until the following fall.
“Then I applied to Virginia Highlands Community College (VHCC) and they took me right on the spot,” he says.
A chance encounter with William Van Keyser, head of the VHCC drama department, lead to an invitation to act at Barter Theater, the local professional company.
2011 Alumni Award winners:Making a difference for other immigrants“I said I don’t act, and he said that doesn’t matter,” Leigh says. “I said that’s great, but does it pay anything, because I was putting myself through college. He said no, but you get school credit if you change your major, so I changed my major to theater.”
After three plays, Leigh had to join the union to continue performing at the theater.
“I had my Actor’s Equity card before I finished community college, which was unheard of,” Leigh says. “When I applied to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to finish my bachelor’s degree, they told me no one had ever applied to the theater department there as a pro.”
After graduating from VCU in 1974, Leigh moved to Nashville to break into the music business as a singer and songwriter.
“When I went to Nashville, I thought—naively—that all singers wrote their own songs,” Leigh says. “I got down there and found they needed songs because singers didn’t always write them. Turned out I was pretty good at making them up—better at that than singing.”
A year later, “I’ll Get Over You,” a song he wrote for Crystal Gayle, reached No. 1 and was nominated for Country Music Awards Song of the Year. “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” came out a year later and the next 30 years saw a stream of hits.
A desire to succeed
Leigh says his top ingredient for writing songs is a strong desire.
“I’m just of average talent, of average intellect, nothing ever stood out about me except my strong desire,” he says.
And while he’s usually introduced as “the guy who wrote ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,’” he considers “It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind” his greatest achievement.
“It’s a song Ray Charles recorded on a duet album with Mickey Gilley,” Leigh says. “Ray Charles is my idol, and his singing it was probably the greatest thing that could happen to me. And the second verse talks about the state of Virginia—it’s a very personal song.”
One other song with great personal resonance is “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” which he wrote after happening upon obituaries of his father who, along with his mother, died when Leigh was 2½ years old.
“It was a 10-million-selling record for Reba McEntire, and I think it’s still considered Reba’s greatest hit,” Leigh says.
Leigh, who with his wife, Shannon, lives on a Tennessee farm, keeps busy writing songs, lecturing, doing voiceovers, and performing concerts. In each of the last three years, he has performed benefit concerts at VHCC, which he remembers warmly as the place that gave him his start.
“The fact that I would walk into VHCC and it would change my life is phenomenal,” Leigh says. “Think of me, an orphan who walks up the steps of this school and is allowed to have an affordable education and rise to the top of his profession. That’s pretty amazing, and I couldn’t have done it without the school.”
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