Calvin James "Slim" Leavy (1940–2010)
Calvin James “Slim” Leavy, vocalist and guitarist, recorded “Cummins Prison Farm,” a blues song that debuted on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart on May 2, 1970, and stayed for five weeks, reaching No. 40. It was also the No. 1 song on the Memphis, Tennessee, station WDIA. Leavy was the first person charged under a 1989 Arkansas “drug kingpin law” targeting crime rings.
Calvin Leavy was born on April 20, 1940, in Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties), the youngest son of fifteen children born to the musical family of Johnny Leavy and Cora James Leavy. Both parents sang in the church choir at Mount Lake Baptist Church in Scott, and several family members played musical instruments. Leavy started out singing in the church choir and, as a teenager, sang with several gospel groups in the Little Rock (Pulaski County) area, including Sacred Fire, led by his oldest brother, Jake McKinley Leavy, and the Soul Savers. In 1954, he and his brother Hosea formed the Leavy Brothers Band. In addition to singing, Leavy played bass, drums, guitar, and piano. It was very popular in the Little Rock area, and, during the 1960s, they moved to Fresno, California, and toured the West Coast.
In December 1968, tired of big city life, they returned to Little Rock and played five nights a week at the 70 Club. Leavy’s version of the “Tennessee Waltz,” sung in the style of Sam Cooke, was very popular, and the club owner’s wife offered to pay for recording time to do a demo tape at E&M Studios in Little Rock. After finishing the demo tape, the band still had time left and was approached by Bill Cole, who had written a song about Cummins Prison Farm. Leavy improved the lyrics using information he had gained from a brother incarcerated at Cummins, and the band recorded it in one take. The song later became one of only twenty-seven blues songs to make the charts in 1970.
Leavy never recorded an album, but, during the 1970s, he recorded several 45 rpm records for Acquarian Records, Soul Beat Records, and Messenger Records: “Nothing But Your Love/I Won’t Be the Last to Cry,” “Cummins Prison Farm/Brought You to the City,” “Cummins Prison Farm/That’s Where I Am,” “Give Me a Love (That I Can Feel)/Born Unlucky,” “It Hurts Me Too/I’ve Got Troubles,” and “Goin’ to the Dogs Pt. 1/Goin’ to the Dogs Pt 2.”
In 1976, the Leavy Brothers Band did some recordings for the Arkansas Bicentennial Blues Project. Those recordings are archived at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In 1977, the band performed at the Beale Street Music Festival. Soon after, the band disbanded, but Leavy remained in Little Rock and formed Calvin Leavy and the Professionals, which was popular in the Little Rock area during the 1980s. They recorded “Is It Worth All (That I’m Going Through)/Funky Jam.” Leavy also recorded “Big Four/It’s a Miracle (What Love Can Do)” with Sonny Blake, Dan Craft, and Cyrus Hayes, as well as “What Kind of Love/Give Me Your Loving, Loving, Loving,” “Free From Cummins Prison Farm/Enjoy Being Hurt By You,” and “Thieves and Robbers/If Life Last Luck Is Bound to Change.” His last performance before his incarceration was with the gospel group the Zion Five as a singer and bass player.
In 1991, Leavy was the first to be charged under the Arkansas “drug kingpin law” targeting crime rings. According to Pulaski County prosecutors, Leavy made three $1,000 payments to an undercover police officer to page him when police were about to make a raid. In July 1992, he was convicted of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, delivery of a controlled substance, public servant bribery, and use of a communication facility—a pager—in the commission of a felony. This was the first time that Leavy had been convicted of a felony. On July 10, 1992, he was sentenced by the Pulaski County Court to life plus twenty-five years. Interestingly, his incarceration began at Cummins Prison, and, while there, he sang “He Walks With Me—Part 1 (The Story of Moses)/He Walks With Me—Part 2 (The Story of Job)” with the Cummins Prison Farm Singers.
In 1995, Leavy petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, but his petition was denied. In 2004, Governor Mike Huckabee commuted his sentence to seventy-five years. In 2007, Leavy applied for clemency, and the parole board recommended that it be granted. The following year, however, Governor Mike Beebe denied his request for clemency.
Leavy died on June 6, 2010, at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). He had been due to be eligible for parole in November or December 2011. He was survived by sixteen children, two of his children having died before him.
For additional information:
Herzhaft, Gerard. Encyclopedia of the Blues. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Kuhn, Jeff. “Calvin Leavy: The Story of Cummins Prison Farm.” Juke Blues 52 (Winter 2002/3): 30–37.
Scott, Frank. The Down Home Guide to the Blues. Atlanta, GA: A Cappella Books: 1991.
Gwendolyn L. Shelton
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
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