No doctor of the synthesizer had quite the same healing touch as John Leimseider. An expert in the intricate field of synths and other musical electronica, he could diagnose, mend and restore to health even the oldest and frailest of instruments.
Those rare skills earned him international renown in the music business. In Los Angeles, he was the emergency responder that Michael Jackson’s synthesizer players turned to during a recording-studio crisis. He was the keyboard guru that Ray Charles would ring up for a consultation. He even made house calls – Lenny Kravitz once flew him out to his Caribbean retreat to perform some crucial synth surgery.
Later, as resident tech wizard for the National Music Centre in Calgary, Mr. Leimseider took on a host of major projects. Among them was reviving the legendary but long-mothballed Rolling Stones Mobile and bringing it back to life as a fully functioning studio for today’s recording artists.
What was the secret to his restorative powers? Jason Tawkin, the NMC colleague who was mentored by, and worked alongside, the master, believes it was Mr. Leimseider’s solid background as a professional musician.
“Tech guys tend to be pretty tech-y, but he knew the perspective of the player," said Mr. Tawkin of Mr. Leimseider, who died Sept. 14 in Calgary at the age of 66. "He understood what the end-goal was – that the music, not the technology, was the most important thing.”
The bearded, ever-smiling Mr. Leimseider, known affectionately as JL, was a cherished member of the NMC family, serving as both its electronics sage and living rock encyclopedia. After all, the man had once been a keyboardist for the proto-heavy metal band Iron Butterfly, notorious for their 17-minute psychedelic classic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. “I hate that song!” he would growl good-humouredly when asked about it. He also hated name-dropping, but if pressed he’d regale his avid listeners with anecdotes about the famous artists he’d rubbed shoulders with.
Mr. Leimseider himself emerged from that fabled world of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll with a Zen-like tranquility, which impressed colleagues and friends alike. “He had the presence of a Buddha,” said Peter Mogren, a band mate from Mr. Leimseider’s teenage years with whom he reconnected later in life. “I never once saw him angry. Every time he looked at you he had this twinkle in his eye like he was at peace with everything.”
Jesse Moffatt, the NMC’s director of collections, said that in the current culture of self-promotion, his quiet modesty was inspiring: “One of the life lessons he taught me was you never need to boast about your accomplishments, just let the quality of your work speak for itself.”
Born on July 21, 1952, in Brooklyn, N.Y., John Ezra Leimseider grew up in Westport, Conn., where his dual loves of music and technology blossomed early. Chuck Boisseau, who met him when they were both 12, remembered going over to his house to listen to records. “I’ll never forget going into his bedroom, where there were dozens and dozens of radios and amplifiers and all kinds of electronic things,” he said. “John’s recreation was to assemble and disassemble them.” There was also a small Hammond organ in the house that his friend could play like a pro: “I was blown away by the fantastic sounds John could get out of that tiny keyboard.”
Mr. Leimseider’s parents, Edward, who owned a plastic factory, and Alice, indulged his interests. They were welcoming hosts when their son later joined Mr. Boisseau’s high-school band, providing rehearsal space at their home for the group.
The band, Smoke, played school dances and beach keggers, their repertoire including tunes by such progressive-rock pioneers as the Doors, the Moody Blues and King Crimson. Mr. Leimseider, dubbed by band mates “Bean,” would fix or even build equipment on request. Mr. Boisseau recalled coveting a classic Maestro Fuzz-Tone effects pedal for his guitar but not being able to afford one. Mr. Leimseider proceeded to devise a serviceable replica for him. “I was floored by his genius,” Mr. Boisseau said, “but also by his kindness and generosity in doing that for me.”
After high school, Mr. Leimseider enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with an electrical engineering degree. But he continued to pursue a career as a musician, which led to gigs with the second iteration of Iron Butterfly during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Relocated to L.A., he soon became better known for curing sick instruments, with a special gift for treating the delicate synthesizer. Although not all the repairs were complicated. He remembered how three of Michael Jackson’s musicians once came to him, one after another, in a panic that their Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizers weren’t working. Mr. Leimseider soon figured out that they were playing in a studio where the power voltage was too low for their machines.
Working at Musictek Services in North Hollywood, he built up a devoted celebrity clientele that ranged from Tom Waits to Yanni. It was also there that Mr. Leimseider met his wife, Laura, who was working as a receptionist. They married in 1989.
A little more than a decade later, the National Music Centre came calling. The burgeoning Calgary museum – known at the time as the Cantos Music Foundation – had a mandate not only to preserve musical artifacts, but also to put them in good working order so they could be used by musicians today. As it began to expand beyond its core collection of pre-20th-century keyboards and acquire electronic instruments, it needed an expert who could restore them.
Hearing about Mr. Leimseider’s stellar reputation, the museum’s chief executive, Andrew Mosker, flew down to L.A. and succeeded in luring him north. “I think he was ready for a change,” Mr. Mosker said, “but he was also really excited by our vision for a ‘living’ museum.”
What began in 2002 as a two-year contract became Mr. Leimseider’s late-life mission, as he joined the NMC staff permanently and set about fixing some of the museum’s prize acquisitions. Along with restoring the Rolling Stones, Olympic Studios and Trident recording consoles, he also undertook the major task of rebuilding TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), the massive, multiplayer synth made famous by Stevie Wonder. At the time of his death, he was preparing to formally inaugurate TONTO with its inventor, Malcolm Cecil, at the NMC’s new $191-million Studio Bell.
Alongside his big NMC projects, an indefatigable Mr. Leimseider ran a repair business out of his home. He also maintained his musical chops, playing with a local Beatles tribute band and reuniting yearly with Smoke – something the group’s members have done faithfully since 2000.
Mr. Mogren said his friend was never happier than when he was playing with a band. His legacy resides at the NMC, where the instruments and equipment he lovingly restored are available for others to use and to share his joy in making music.
Mr. Leimseider leaves his wife, Laura; son, Noah; daughter, Zoë; son-in-law, Mike Arnesen; and brother, Eric Leimseider.