Jay Leach was 8 years old when his grandmother asked him what musical instrument he wanted to play.
“I said, ‘I want to play drums,’ ” Leach, a Wichita native, said. “She said, ‘You can play any instrument you want as long as it’s piano or steel guitar.’ ”
The next day, Leach’s grandmother bought him a $25 steel guitar at a pawn shop. Six decades later, he’s still making a living playing various string instruments as an in-demand Los Angeles session musician, most recently backing singers on “American Idol.”
On Saturday, Leach’s versatility and virtuosity will be showcased as part of the fifth annual Christmas Express musical review at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre. He will play acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, dobro and mandolin during the second half of the show, which will feature a slew of popular local performers during the first half.
Proceeds of the show benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children and Midian Transportation Fund.
Leach is familiar to many longtime Wichita music fans from his days with the Fabulous Apostles, one of several popular “show” bands that toured the region playing a mix of rock ’n’ roll and R&B in the 1960s. He joined the group when he was 16, having switched from steel guitar to electric guitar two years earlier.
When that group broke up, with other members heading to college or starting families, Leach headed to Los Angeles.
“I’d been bitten by the bug and just wanted to pursue music as a career,” he said. “I just left Kansas with $30 and went to California.”
His entry was working for a guitar store on Sunset Boulevard, he said. He met a music producer with several No. 1 hits to his credit. Eventually, Leach started to receive calls to back up some of the biggest performers around, from Barry Manilow and John Denver to Roy Orbison, Gladys Knight and Dolly Parton.
“You don’t just walk in,” Leach said of breaking into the business. “One thing led to another to another to another.”
Leach recorded his first solo album in 1988 and now has seven CDs (all of which are available on iTunes) in styles ranging from gentle acoustic guitar to smooth, Latin-tinged jazz. He’s the author of three Mel Bay instruction books, on acoustic fingerpicking, lap steel and beginning pedal steel. He’s been a utility string player on “American Idol” for seven seasons, playing “whenever they use banjo, pedal steel, lap steel or dobro, that’s me. Last year and this year were real busy on that show for me. Scotty (McCreery) won, and I was playing on all of his stuff.”
Leach splits the rest of his time between headlining his own concerts and leading tutorials for college musicians. He’s doing clinics at several area colleges and concerts at several churches around his appearance in Wichita.
For Christmas Express, he’ll play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on mandolin and “I Pray on Christmas” — a tune made popular by Harry Connick Jr. — on dobro. He’ll do a solo version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” on acoustic guitar and pick up the electric for a jazzy “Festejo.” After playing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and a few other light-hearted tunes on banjo, he’ll join local musician Jim Hill for a lighting-fast duo on “Sleigh Ride.”
Local performers appearing in Christmas Express include Sondra Hacker, Uche, Jason Boyd, Drake Macy, Tim Drennan, Erika McGuire, Mary Aaron Schultz, Karen Hill and Carrie Jonas. The Christmas Express Band backing them up includes Hill, Joey Sauer, Ron Schauf, Pat Preboth, Bob Kendrick, Joe Clements, Allen Laramore and Tyler Gaudin.
Hill, the show’s musical director, said that everyone will do one or two Christmas songs in different styles, from R&B to “Mannheim Steamroller-type stuff.”
“There will lots of different singers putting their different touches on stuff,” he said.
Sauer is the master of ceremonies and co-producer along with Jeff Breault. Sauer said he came up with the idea for the show after seeing a similar production at the Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey.
“They filled the place,” Sauer said.
Leach said he’s looking forward to playing in Wichita again. Although his grandmother, who raised him, died years ago, she lived long enough to see him get his first big break as a musician, a tour with Manilow.
“Because of that woman,” Leach said, “I had the most wonderful childhood.”