Windows of Memorial Union


America's Drummer

Washburn graduate took a chance in LA, landed 41-year career with America

Wil Leacox sitting at his drum set

Wil Leacox, b music ’70, became the drummer for rock and roll band America in 1973 and was with them until his retirement in 2014. America’s bassist took this photo in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 2010. Photo by Rich Campbell

From The Ichabod - Winter 2023 
By Jeremy Wangler

About the time Wil Leacox finished his music education degree at Washburn University, the band America was forming. A year later, America recorded “A Horse with No Name,” and in 1972, they moved to Los Angeles, California, amid their early success. Leacox, b music ’70, was in LA at the time, making a living with studio work and gigs, but he wanted to land with a band.

“He wanted to see if he could make it,” Jim Leacox, b music ’72, said of his brother. “He packed his pickup with everything he could and moved out there.”

“That was where the music scene was,” said Charles Smrha, bba ’70. “He knew it was the place to be.”

America announced an audition for a drummer in 1973, and Wil was first in line.

“He bought every record they had and learned every riff their drummer did,” Smrha said. “At the end of his session, they canceled the audition and knew 
they wanted him.”

That turned into a 41-year career for Leacox with the multi-platinum band known for its acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals that blend soft rock, folk and pop. Before retiring in 2014, he helped produce seven platinum or gold albums and several top-10 singles, played in more than 150 countries and performed at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Tonight Show and the Late Show.

He died on Feb. 1, 2022, in Stockton, California, at the age of 74, and Jim said memories and kind tributes to his brother poured in.

Musical Roots in Little Nashville

On the day Wil landed with America, Jim was hired as the band teacher at Meadowbrook Junior High School in Prairie Village, Kansas, bringing jubilation to their family back in Shenandoah, Iowa, where they grew up immersed in music.

The Leacox family included Jim and Wil’s dad and uncle in big bands, their mother singing and playing piano and violin and their sister playing piano. Jim said Shenandoah was called Little Nashville because many years ago, radio entertainment was produced live on the air, and the city had two radio stations with a wide broadcast reach.

“All these celebrities came through on their way to stardom,” Jim said.

Situated in southwest Iowa, Shenandoah is closer to Topeka than to Iowa’s major universities. Washburn was the choice for Wil to continue his musical journey, and Jim joined him three years later.

Making Music at Washburn

“We chose Washburn because it was smaller and we’d have more personal time with the professors,” Jim said. “There was a good lineup of music professors, and I think there still is. Plus, I wanted to spend some time with my brother and play together before he moved on.”

As he had done since sixth grade, Wil played in rock and roll bands while at Washburn, including Kansas Music Hall of Fame bands The Jerms and the Young Raiders.

Two obstacles got in his way while at Washburn but didn’t stop him. His drum set was destroyed in the June 8, 1966, tornado. And then as a senior he was injured in a car crash and spent months recovering. He returned and graduated.

“I think Washburn had a very positive impact on him and he always spoke highly of it,” said Smrha, a retired insurance agent who played in Washburn bands with the brothers and was in Kappa Sigma with Jim. “His natural gifts and his Washburn education let Willie share his musical talents with audiences around the world.”

Coming Home and Giving Back

Friendly, memorable and a good storyteller, Wil enjoyed meeting fans and musicians from all over the world, but he always returned to the Midwest during tour breaks.

“We'd hang out with the Washburn percussion camp in the summer because we both hold Washburn dear in our hearts,” said Jim, who taught 10 years 
in the Shawnee Mission School District and 30 years at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kansas. “I always had a student assembly concert on the last day before winter break. Wil would work with my drum kids. We'd knock 'em down, wake everybody up and send them on their way to vacation. I still have students tell me they will never forget having Wil there.”

Jim Leacox teaching

(Jim Leacox, b music ’72, teaching music in 2000. He has since retired. Photo submitted)

After retiring, the brothers created the Leacox Family Music Scholarship for music education students at Washburn. Several people donated in Wil’s memory upon his death. Jim and his wife, Karin Leacox, created an additional scholarship in their name.

“When I was at Washburn, I needed help. I either had to borrow money or get a scholarship,” Jim said. “Wil and I thought this was one way we can support music education.”

From leaving home for Washburn to his bold move to LA, Wil’s choices paid off. A quote from him, which he compiled from other sources, sums up his journey:

“You never know until you go, and even then, you never can tell. So, I just go with the flow, play the notes I know and keep my best lick in my pocket.”

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

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