When Ted Leonsis was in college at Georgetown — long before he became a billionaire with America Online, and certainly before he bought the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics — he hung out with Elvis Presley. Well, not the actual Elvis. Leonsis was simply carrying a bust of The King around campus to, you know, meet girls.
“He’d walk around Georgetown saying, ‘Elvis wants into the bar’ or ‘Elvis wants into the party,’ ” said his son Zachary, who serves as director of Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
Leonsis himself confirmed this tale: “The bust of Elvis Presley was the greatest wingman ever.”
The bust had been a gift (Leonsis proudly shares a birthday with Presley), a nod to his love for music. For his 11th birthday, Leonsis didn’t want a model ship or a Hot Wheels race track, he asked for a turntable and some speakers to replace the family-owned, wood-encased console record player in the living room that required walking through his parents’ bedroom to get to it. As a combined Christmas and birthday gift, he got his wish.
The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would be the first album he bought with his own money. “Magical Mystery Tour” and “The White Album” would follow. So, too, would “Electric Lady Land” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Beggars Banquet” by the Rolling Stones, “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground, and Cream’s “Wheels of Fire,” among others.
The son of a waiter and secretary from Brooklyn, there were four hours in the day between the time Leonsis was let out of school and when his parents got home from work. Music helped fill the void.
“It was almost like a ritual,” Leonsis said of gathering to listen to records with childhood friends Frank Grado, whose family owns Grado Labs, a manufacturer of high-end headphones, and Mark Rivera, who has long served as Billy Joel’s bandmate and Ringo Starr’s music director.
“Frank would say, ‘The new Stones album is out. Want to come over?’ And we’d go to his house and he’d bring it down. He’d cut the cellophane and open it up. I’d look at the liner notes. Frank would put it down on the player and you would be poised as they put the needle down and it was awesome.”
Listening to his son these days, it sounds like not a lot has changed since when Ted was a kid around the turntable.
“I remember waking up one morning and my dad had already gone to the record store in Reston and brought the new U2 album that came out that day,” Zachary said. “He was playing it in his home office and telling me, ‘This is the meaning behind this track. This is much bigger than what it sounds like.’ He definitely eats up the meaning behind the lyrics. He introduced me to R.E.M. and would even play Run-DMC. He’s a huge Fugazi guy. I remember when I was 3 years old and we’d go in the car for a joy ride, listening to the Beastie Boys’ ‘License to Ill.’ My dad is telling me about growing up in Brooklyn while we’re listening to and singing ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn.’ ”
Now 59, Leonsis can also proudly lay claim to bearing witness to some of the most influential music moments ever: Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Led Zeppelin in Central Park. The Rolling Stones in Paris. Talking Heads at CBGB.
“They had just released ‘Talking Heads: 77.’ There were less than 200 people at the venue and no seats,” Leonsis said of seeing the band for the first time in Hampton Beach, N.H. “I stood in the first row and moved in front of each band member, song to song. David Byrne looked like jolts of electricity were coursing through his veins when he sang and danced. Jerry Harrison was so great on the organ and Tina Weymouth was the coolest woman I had ever seen in a band.
“The show was so great and music was so compelling, I decided to see them whenever I could. I even saw David Byrne at Wolf Trap [in Vienna] a couple of years ago. He was wearing a white suit and had white hair. It was awesome.”
Going to school in Georgetown, Leonsis had ties to the local music community, as well. He would attend shows at the 9:30 Club, acknowledging the “inordinate amount of talent that was spawned here and grew up here” in the Washington area.
“I figured out pretty quickly Ted was a nice guy and genuinely into music,” said Seth Hurwitz, the club’s owner. “He knows music. He came to our 30th anniversary at 9:30 and hung out all night. He knows all about our history.”
Is he still regularly making it out to live shows?
“He doesn’t jam out as much as he used to but he loves going to a concert,” his son said. “I think going to a concert back in the day for my dad was an extra-enjoyable experience because he couldn’t afford the show. Sometimes friends would buy the ticket for him or he would save up to buy the ticket and that would make it more special.”
He still has close ties to the music world, of course. While working on the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning 2007 documentary “Nanking,” for which Leonsis received his first film producer credit, he helped convince Lou Reed, a Grammy award winner and former member of the Velvet Underground, to write and record two new songs for the film — “Gravity” and “Safety Zone.”
“When you have a conversation with [Leonsis], it is two conversations, ” the 9:30 Club’s Hurwitz said, “one as a fan and one as a businessman — because he will ask you about both. ‘Wasn’t that a great show?’ and ‘I went to this show at this venue, were you there?’ I always consider it a treat to be around him. I think a lot of people pick up on this in Washington and why he is so well loved by sports fans.”
Perhaps it’s because Leonsis cares about the music at his sporting events, too. Fans wanted more organ music at Caps games — they got it. Fans wanted more musical variety, Leonsis brought a deejay into Verizon Center for Wizards and Capitals games. Fans wanted higher energy in the arena and music played a role in that, too.
“It’s all interconnected,” Leonsis said. “It’s why so many athletes want to be musicians. It’s why Wale wants to hang around the teams. There is this deep popular culture around music and sports and movies. I’ve made a life, a career and an investment thesis around it. But it all comes down from when you’re a little kid, school lets out and you have to decide what to do with those four hours.”