Leo Welch remembers well the day his cousin’s guitar came in the mail. Welch and another younger cousin brought the package to their house on a long walk up from the mailbox and were forbidden to play with it while the older cousin was away. But they could not resist and when the guitar’s owner found them with it he was so impressed with their playing that he gave them free use of the instrument. So began Welch’s self-education with the guitar.
Today, Welch is a familiar artist in the African American gospel world around Bruce where he has been playing lead guitar for various groups since 1975. Born in 1932 in Sabougla (pronounced “Shah-BOW-gla”), Mississippi, Welch comes from a musically inclined family. His early prowess with the guitar led to performances in his local school for plays and musicals. These gave him a taste of playing for the public and he has never lost his desire to perform. In his younger days, he worked with a logging crew in the timber industry that has been so important to the Mississippi hill country and played guitar whenever he got the chance.
Before 1975, Welch played blues and worked solo and with groups playing at community gatherings, cafes, on radio stations and in local clubs. He occasionally opened or played the intermission for better-known acts. Welch noted that in the fifties and sixties before the liquor laws in dry Calhoun County were strictly enforced, clubs like the Blue Angel in Bruce attracted big-name performers like Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King. Welch had the opportunity once to audition for B.B. King but did not have the money to travel to Memphis at the time.
Since his conversion to gospel, Welch has played mostly with the Sabougla Voices and the Skuna Valley Male Chorus. With the Voices, he has recorded some of his own gospel songs along with versions of various standards on cassettes that he sells at performances. On most weekends, Welch can be found performing at churches or gospel singings in the counties surrounding Bruce. He is also the host of a gospel television show, broadcast on the Bruce station, which features videos of gospel groups performing in local churches.
While gospel is his preferred medium these days, Welch does not see the blues as an evil art form, but as merely a reflection of one’s life, the story of one’s experiences. He is glad to talk about his earlier life but proudly notes that he has never had to worry about hangovers since he began singing gospel.