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One-man band, Leon Ochs, has music in his soul

Music is a part of Leon Och’s soul. He hears music in everything, down to a knock on the door, a skid of feet on the dance floor, or people putting their cups down.
Leon Ochs playing at Topline's 2022 New Year Dance.

THE BATTLEFORDS — Music is a part of Leon Och’s soul, and it always has been. 

He hears music in everything, down to a knock on the door, a skid of feet on the dance floor, or people putting their cups down. He’ll make music by rapping his knuckles when he knocks on a door.

When Ochs was young, his family would visit friends and family in their neighbourhood near Landis to play cards, eat, drink, sing and play music.

“Our whole community was musical. We always had family get-togethers, and everyone played, sang, or did something … I would say weekly,” Ochs said.

Though these are some of his earliest memories, there is still a photo of a younger Ochs playing the banjo at four. 

Music was to his father, Bernard, like it is to Ochs, and music also lived inside his soul. People came over every night when he was little, at a time when his Mom was sick.

“It (music) was always there. Always.”

Music was his passion, his calling, and a constant presence in his life. And for some reason, it came easier to him than it did his other siblings.

“My brother was in grade six taking music lessons in school, and he’d come home and show me the notes on the guitar. And away I went. I’d play those chords like crazy, and the rest is history.”

The music in his soul

To Ochs, music is everywhere.

“Everything is musical, everything you touch, everything you do. And you know what? I never pay attention to it either … hearing all those noises at night? There are songs in there!

“When I hear a song on the radio, I don’t even know what it says. I hear every band, everything they’ve played, all the music, and notes, but I haven’t got a clue what the lyrics are.” 

When his wife, Audrey, says, "well, that’s a horrible song. Did you hear what they said?" he hears nothing. But he can tell you what the bass player was doing, how the guitar player worked with him, and what would happen next.

When Ochs was younger, his father was a member of the Little Prairie Band.

“They practiced every night at somebody's house, and it was always a party. Shortly after, in my early teens, maybe 14, or 15, their drummer quit on them one weekend.” 

A neighbour and band member asked a young Ochs if he could play the drums. 

“I grabbed a couple of knives out of the drawer and an ice cream pail, and I was keeping time with them, knocking along, and they were clicking and clacking, having a great time. 

“This was on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Dad took me out of school, went to Saskatoon, and bought a set of drums.”

That’s when he began drumming with the Little Prairie Band, and he did that for five years until 1983.

Starting the one-man band

In 1983, he saw a one-man band for the first time. 

“He was doing it all by himself. His feet were going on some pedals, and he was singing, and he had these little disco lights, and I said, ‘this is pretty cool. He’s doing all this by himself.'

“So I went home — at that time, I had a Teenie Genie mini organ — and I thought to myself, ‘If I peel off my socks and stick my big toe up there, I can change chords while I play the guitar.’ But my toe was too fat, and I hit two keys at the same time.” 

Ochs took a coat hanger, wrapped it around his knee, and it’s the same coat hanger he uses to this day to change the chords after he taught himself. 

At this point, he was so shy he’d never play in front of people.

“If I heard someone or noise in the house, I was done. I quit. Shut it off.”

But one day, while playing in the basement, he was playing too loud, and someone came in with a bunch of friends. They didn’t make a noise, but they listened for ages to him playing in the basement.

Finally, they came down and told him how good he was and that he had to play in front of people. Afterwards, they went down to the Landis hotel and spoke to the owner at the time.  

“I was in the bar every other night like we did back then,” Ochs said, adding that he was cornered one night and was asked to "come give it a try."

"I was too shy, but big Jeff Ochs would come along and play bass with me.” 

With Jeff, Ochs had the confidence to play, and they continued this for a few weeks, going to a few local bars.

“One night, we’re booked to play in the hotel in Tramping Lake. I stopped in to pick up Jeff, and he’s sitting on the couch in his shorts, having a beer, and watching the TV.

“I ain’t going,” he said. 

“What do you mean we’re not going? We’re playing tonight,” Ochs responded.

“I ain’t going.” 

Ochs left and played in Tramping Lake by himself. 

“‘Well, I don’t need him,’ I thought ... From that day on, it was a one-man band. That was in 83’, so this July will be 40 years.”

Singing across Saskatchewan

During his 40 years of playing solo music in dance halls, venues and parties, he often tried other gigs or gimmicks when times were tough. 

“I tried other bands over the years, played gospel music, and always returned to solo playing. It’s just simpler, bands are tough life because the four or five of you have to get along and you’re always together. It’s worse than a marriage,” Ochs said, laughing. 

And his passion for music wasn’t simplified when his children were young and he was travelling to play.

It was hard because he had a passion for music and thought he had to be in a band because he couldn’t make it on his own. So he’d be with these men gone practising for three nights and gone playing for two,” His wife, Audrey, said. 

“We don’t have a lot of people in our neighbourhood for help, so I was getting on the roof, poking the sewer trap, calving, all while raising children. But it’s what he had to do. It’s not my thing, it’s his thing.” 

And Ochs passed his musical talents on to his children, with all of them able to sing and play different instruments. They even painted the chords on the organ for their son, who played with his father and grandfather briefly before he decided it wasn’t cool and chose not to pursue music as a career.

But his kids are shy like he was. 

And the rest is history

Ochs is in his element while playing at his old country dances across Saskatchewan and western Canada. He always stays positive, knowing that he sets the mood for the night.

“I never go half-a***d. If there are 20 people, it’s my best. If there are 140 people, it’s my best,” he said. 

“There is a story for every dance,” ranging from a man’s dentures shooting across the room while he was doing the polka, a woman acting like a bouncer and dragging a fighting couple out of the hall by their ears, or flying panties and bras.

And despite playing for almost 40 years and having music inside of him, he’s never considered himself a good musician.

“I don’t consider myself a good musician, but I get away with it. I know a few chords and a few simple songs. You are my sunshine is a trademark now. If I don’t play it, I get heck. People want repetition. People don’t want new.” 

During his 40 years, he struggled to even get recognized as a musician. 

“People didn’t believe in one-man bands. I had to really struggle to get accepted and known. I played in a lot of bars. I think they picture a one-man band with every gimmick under the sun and a car horn on the side.” 

Sitting on the stage, Ochs can see everything. When people enter dance halls, they’re already bouncing and tapping their feet while standing in the coat room.  

“Beat is the most important thing ... I listen. I study people. Honestly, I’m a people pleaser, I watch them, and I want to know how they work. I want them to enjoy themselves.”

And despite reaching retirement age, he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop. 

“I’d like to say it, but I know I’ll play until I can’t anymore. People won’t let me retire. They won’t. It’s a part of us. It’s our life. People always bug me, asking how Audrey put up with it, but she doesn’t know anything different.”

Music is intertwined with his soul, if not a part of it. Leon Ochs is all music.

“It’s everything for us.”