18 Feb 2012

Leo De Castro Part 1: Rock My Soul

From Musical Chairs, 2:00 pm on 18 February 2012

In 2012 Keith Newman spoke to Leo De Castro, guitarist Ray Oliver, promoter Bob Burns and soul singer Evan Silva to get the story of elusive singing legend Leo De Castro for the New Zealand music profile series Musical Chairs.

Leo De Castro died 3 March 2019, age 70.

Here's part one of a two part story about his career:

Leo de Castro in the 1970s.

Leo de Castro in the 1970s. Photo: supplied.

Kiwi Leo de Castro Kino, the wild boy from the King Country, once touted as New Zealand’s answer to Little Richard, had crossed the Tasman before local record companies realised what they’d lost.

Within five years he’d fronted three top Australian boogie, blues and funk bands, delivered a handful of charting singles and a classic album and made numerous TV and concert appearance.

The elusive and often reclusive singer stunned audiences across Australia with his bands King Harvest and Friends, was a headline act at the first Sunbury Music Festival and formed funk unit the Johnny Rocco Band, which recorded a pre-Renee Geyer version of 'Heading in the Right Direction'.

Leo came from a musical family and in his pre-teen years at Benneydale in the King Country was strongly influenced by early rock’n roll, in particular the music of Little Richard, who he saw as the ultimately entertainer.

He appeared on a New Zealand television young talent show and after his family moved to Ponsonby in 1966, was in demand as a guest artist in top Auckland nightclubs while still at high school.

“It was incredible. I’d go in there and do my thing and catch a bus home at 6 in them morning then head off to school. Most of the time I’d be going to bloody sleep at school,” says Leo.

He came to the attention of top Auckland club band The Dallas Four in 1968 and after a spell as their lead singer went solo. At 18-years old a promoter made arrangements for him to cross the Tasman to join top Melbourne band, the Browns in 1969.

Leo De Castro with his long jet black hair and pitch perfect vocals could recall the words and tempo of an impressive repertoire of songs and soon become the darling of Australia’s rock ‘n roll A-listers.

He was welcomed on stage as an impromptu guest or by Ricky May, Billy Thorpe, Jimmy Barnes’, early AC/DC and Renee Geyer, while remaining largely unknown in his home country. 

His band King Harvest had recording success with a version of The Stones’ 'Jumping Jack Flash', essentially a jam that covered two sides of a single, and then a Jimmy Webb medley 'By the Time I Get To Phoenix'/ 'Witchita Lineman', an arrangement Leo borrowed off the Chi-lites.

King Harvest and the core of his next band simply called Friends were some of Australia’s hottest players who went on to form Ayers Rock. Also in the band was percussionist Charlie Tumahai who later joined the UK’s Be Dop Delux and Iconic Kiwi unit Herbs.

They recorded a series of singles including a cover of Little Richard’s 'Lucille', an all-time favourite of Leos, 'B.B. Boogie' and 'Freedom Train', a classic Aussie progrock number commemorated in the title of a top music magazine.

Before their headlining shows at the first Sunbury Music Festival in 1973, Friends toured Australia with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. At one point Leo walked off stage in the middle of their opening set because a heckler called out for Mayall.

He laughed about it later but admits he was often conflicted between turning in the best performance, battling his own personal demons of self doubt and his dependence on hard drugs.

“A lot of the time I didn’t know where I was. It was a combination of things, drinking, drugs and women. I’d tried a bit of everything but it was hammer, you know heroin that had me by the short and curlies. I’m not proud of it. I was just being stupido.”

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