By Madeline Kallio
Donnie Leafloor creates music from the heart and for the community
Donnie Leafloor is the consummate musician: creating music with soul and giving back to the people and places that have influenced his artistry.
For many years, he has lived in the Ottawa region and supports many community activities and events. His approachable personality makes him well known socially; and his professional attention to his craft and his obvious talent makes him much sought after for family and organization events.
Donnie loves to sing, and as early as he can remember, music was always a staple in his house. The youngest of four music loving brothers, Donnie was nourished on an eclectic musical diet. He remembers spending Saturday mornings with his mom, Ruth, listening to Glen Campbell and Dean Martin records. Although there were no musical instruments in the house at that time, music was always present, enhanced by his older brother Lonnie’s record collection.
Donnie’s mom came from New Brunswick. Her family traced their roots through a long line of musicians. Her dad was terribly French and her mother was very English; but that didn’t seem to disturb the harmony in the home. Music surrounded the household, instilling a lifelong love affair for all, which also prompted her two brothers to become professional musicians. Her dad played the fiddle and “kitchen parties” were common. Locals would gather and enjoy the music, dancing and food around the woodstove. Donnie’s parents met when his dad did a stint in the navy in the Maritimes. When his dad developed diabetes, he was forced to leave the navy and the couple returned to settle in Ottawa.
Donnie was raised in the small housing project of Rochester Heights. After thirty years, he still meets residents of the community from time to time and keeps in touch with old friends and neighbours. While playing a gig at the Shenkman Arts Centre recently, he encountered some people from the old neighbourhood. His special project now is working on organizing a Rochester Heights Reunion which will be strictly a social, no music, so everyone can catch up. He says it is common to see people at his shows that he hasn’t seen in many years. As soon as he says “hello”, it is not long before they begin reminiscing about old times and forget to talk about the concert.
The 18 years he spent growing up in the housing project were good years and have elicited many fond memories. There were always home parties when he was a teenager where they would sit in the living room and sing while he played his guitar. He and his three brothers were very close. However, there were many times when money was scarce. One of his growing-up chums is still his best friend and his biggest fan. During high school, Donnie played and enjoyed all kinds of sports; and, while his brothers were great athletes, he was an artist at heart and excelled at music.
There was never a great bond with his father who left when he was very young. His mom worked very hard to make up for the lack of a father in supporting her kids and being there for them which certainly paid off. Donnie and his siblings developed a very special bond with his mom that still exists today.
Donnie wanted to play a guitar along with his music. His new teacher in grade six, Jim DeFey, would bring out his guitar every day in class and they would sing old songs like Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey. He asked for a guitar for his birthday and his mom picked one up at Consumers Distributing on Preston Street. With the help of his teacher, he taught himself to play. He considers Jim as one of his inspirations.
More fortunate than most fledgling musicians, Donnie has always been successful. He attributes this to playing middle-of-the-road music, songs that people know. He is a great entertainer, loves trivia and involves his audience, including asking them to name songs. He says it is amazing how many people know the tune, but don’t know the artist. He also likes to interact with the audience on a personal level. His favourite thing is getting people to sing along. His gigs have been mostly special events and corporate functions. His shows, above all, are geared at making the event a memorable experience for everyone, where they feel that they have been a part of it.
Donnie first started playing with bands which he organized. At first, the band had no name. He was asked to play at a friend’s wedding and it rained off and on all day. When the time came to play, he introduced the band: “Hi everybody, we’re the Rainmen.” Shortly afterwards, he folded the band, but he liked the name and he himself became, The Rainman.
Elton John was a big influence on Donnie’s life from a very young age. In 2009, he bought his first piano so he could play Elton John songs. After having learned to play the guitar, it was an easy step to teach himself to play the piano. Learning to play the piano gave him a better idea of music than playing the guitar. The next year, he organized the Captain Fantastic Band, which plays a musical tribute to Elton John. He has been touted to sound amazingly like Elton John. He says he listened to Elton’s music so much that he took on many of his vocal nuances. Those who have attended his concerts in Ottawa and across the country, have marvelled at how authentic his tribute band is. Some of the songs are played with the full band and others he sings alone, accompanying himself on the piano. Although some of the faces in the band have been there a long time, some members have changed over the years. Because the music scene in Ottawa has attracted a large number of musicians, he is grateful that he has had the opportunity to play with so many great players. His repertoire is not limited to Elton John songs and he does concerts with other music. He has been nominated as Entertainer of the Year 2019 by Faces Magazine.
The band has played at venues across the country, including such prestigious venues as Jasper, Alberta. Donnie has performed solo as The Rainman, in many small towns across the country. Depending upon the venue and the contract, he may do an Elton John performance with just his piano and his voice or the whole Captain Fantastic Band. He has played for private parties, for corporate events and for special events. He has even played for a few funerals where the mood was to “keep it light”. Return engagements have truly blessed him in watching families grow; and he has been tremendously moved by the experience. He recalls one family where he played at the child’s baptism, the grade six graduation, and when he was off to college. He has been engaged for countless weddings. With the many, many towns to which he has been called, Donnie regrets not having taken selfies with the town signs; but “Walmart wouldn’t have enough photo albums in which to put them!”
For more than a decade, he was a regular at Marshy’s in Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, where the 600 seats were regularly filled, and where he became well acquainted with all of the Senators Hockey Team and many other people in the community. It all started when he was performing at the Topaz Club and Brad Marsh from the Ottawa Senators’ Alumni asked him to play at Marshy’s. He was so successful that he was asked to stay. He particularly loved it when the people would sing along with him. Marshy’s is closed now, but Donnie says, “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘Are you the guy from Marshy’s?’ I’d be a rich man.” He has also played on the same stage as Colin James, Blue Rodeo, Tom Cochrane, John Allen Cameron and April Wine to name a few. The Captain Fantastic band was the last group to grace the stage for the final year of Super Ex in 2010.
Music permeates his relationships and he values that connection
Donnie is very close to his family and he considers family ties to be of great importance. Music permeates his relationships and he values that connection. Brother Barry is a saxophone player; whereas his other brother Randy is a big fan of music. His mom attends all his local concerts and continues to encourage him. Another brother, Lonnie, suffered a tragic death. After Lonnie died, Donnie wrote the song, The Angels Came, and dedicated it to his brother. He is touched by the many phone calls and emails from people who have experienced tragic events like Lonnie’s death; and it brought home to him the enormous power of song. All of the songs Donnie wrote are on You Tube.
Donnie’s wife Karen has always supported and encouraged his musical dreams. She is not musical herself, but loves to listen to the radio with a special love of old county music. She has gone to many shows and has enjoyed some of the musical destinations with Donnie. Karen comes from a musical family and they all share a love for Donnie’s music.
Although the band and The Rainman have a manager, Donnie likes to keep his hand in the administration. He tries to keep the two separate, but many times they overlap. He and the manager plan and organize the gigs, but when the event takes place, he turns it completely over to the manager. During the show, Donnie wants to wear the musician’s hat and become completely absorbed in his music.
He has always loved taking night courses and “can do anything, but nothing well”. His curiousity and interest has led him to take many different courses, including small engine repair, architecture, psychology and arbitration. He would like to study psychology further and feels that today’s world needs to follow a common-sense approach.
Community is very important to Donnie. I met him many years ago when we were both members of my community association, and I was present at the many events for which he volunteered his expertise and his talents. Ours was an active group that became involved in the many projects in the neighbourhood. Living in Kanata (before it was amalgamated into Ottawa) Donnie, like many of the “old guard,” was involved in the political scene. Fed up with the conduct of City Hall, he ran unsuccessfully for councillor in 2003 but, gracefully, supported the winning candidate. He was instrumental in opening a farmers’ market to help local farmers.
In the succeeding years, he worked on campaigns for local politicians. Fiercely proud of the City of Kanata, he loved the small town feeling, which he regrets is now all but lost. He has volunteered for many years at the Richmond Fair and put on concerts for the victims of catastrophic events, including Tornado Relief. He has a heart for those suffering from mental health issues and often volunteers his talents to promote that cause. He, himself, has suffered from depression and knows what it is like to be there. Because he has been so fortunate in his own career, he feels committed to help those less fortunate. As he says, “I love to give back!”
His daughter, Jamie, has not followed her father into the music business, but loves music. Son Dawson is a talented musician who enjoys music and plays with Donnie from time to time. Donnie maintains a close relationship with his children; and, on alternate weeks, he spends an evening alone with each of them.
The next chapter in his career is focusing on writing music again. Most of the lyrics are based on stories and journeys through his life, rather than traditional love songs. His writing goes in cycles and, as expected, the songs reflect his feelings, which is also true of his performances where he tends to play the kind of music that reflects his emotions. Fifteen years ago, Donnie won the Canadian Music Award (Ontario) for song writing with a prize of a guitar and a recording contract. At the national competition in Toronto, he competed for the national award and came in second in all of Canada. He was impressed by the caliber of the attendees when he noticed Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo in the audience.
Donnie enjoys spending time with friends and staying active. He loves to learn and takes every opportunity to volunteer. He has inherited a young hound dog named Tucker and has become quite fond of him, even to taking him to obedience classes. In his backyard, he has a swing and considers this secluded spot his “oasis”. He also has a piece of property in White Lake which allows him to turn off his phone and his computer for two days since there is no power. When he can take some time off from performing, he values the opportunity to be alone.
Madeline Kalio is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Fifty-Five Plus.