Composing in the Classroom

Grammy Award-winning producer and journalist empowers students to find their own voice

PhotoCredit: The Recording Academy
PhotoCredit: The Recording Academy

He looks like a figure from the world of jazz. The black leather blazer sets the tone as he steps into a campus café. Glen-plaid pants blended with the colors of a pinkish sunset accentuate his stride. A black fedora and sunglasses punctuate his beat. Soon a conversation with Leo Sacks will take on a rhythm of its own.

As a producer for Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, Sacks has helped some of our greatest musical creators preserve their legacies. His face alights as he recalls his work with legends, such as Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire and Gamble and Huff.

“It’s been a great privilege as a fan,” he says, “and an even greater responsibility as a historian.”

But Sacks has also had a long career as a journalist. He has worked “in the trenches” as a print reporter, broadcast news writer and producer at the highest echelon of the media. And now he is helping students at Rutgers to find their own voice as an adjunct professor in the Rutgers journalism and media studies program.
Sacks has taught two semesters of Writing for Media with a semester of Music Journalism in between.

“I may be learning more from my students than they’re learning from me,” he admits.

Sacks attributes his passion for teaching to the encouragement he received from his own professors at the City College of New York during the mid-1970s. “They nurtured my interests in all kinds of writing,” he recalls, “from reporting a news story to the art of interviewing, to the skill set required for a life in the newsroom. They taught me how to think critically. Most of all, they showed me that they cared about my journey and challenged me to go to any lengths to improve my writing. “Which is what I’m trying to do at Rutgers now,” he continues. “Pay it forward.”

Sacks came to Rutgers on the strength of a recommendation from John Pavlik, the former chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. “We’re neighbors in a tiny hamlet along the mighty Hudson,” Sacks says.

“One day in our neighborhood café, we began a conversation. It may have been about the weather. But the greater probability is that John was wearing his Green Bay Packers colors in a New York Giants country, and I complimented him on his bravery. The point is that we shared a mutual admiration, and when I said that I dreamed of teaching, he encouraged me to apply to Rutgers.”

Sacks vividly recalls his first telephone conversation with Steven Miller, coordinator of undergraduate studies for the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Miller was thrilled to know that Sacks had worked with the legendary soul musician and songwriter Bill Withers (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Use Me”). “Steve wanted to know why Bill walked away from music at the height of his fame,” Sacks says. “I knew I had found a long-lost friend in Steve.

“I was concerned about my limitations. Steve walked me through my fears. He gave me the confidence to express what I was feeling. He gave me the freedom to be vulnerable.”
According to Sacks, Miller quickly became a mentor, “someone who is simpatico, a true consigliere.”

Miller shares the same admiration for Sacks. “He’s one of a kind,” says Miller. “He has an ability to get people to express themselves, not only in their writing but also verbally. Every student has a song, and Leo can teach them to play as magnificently as Mozart.”

Ciana Davis, a senior in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, and a former student of Sacks, says, “He challenged me to find the words to say what I am feeling.”

Andrew Suydam, a junior in the Department of Communication, says that Sacks has helped him to feel more confident and determined. “He made me see that I’ve been writing too much from my head when I could be thinking with my heart.”

At age 60, Sacks acknowledges the references that have shaped him have “come from another lifetime. I’m merely teaching as I was taught: that there’s a cultural, political, historical, racial and socio-economic context to every kind of critical thinking.”

“Your life experiences are going to frame you as a writer, frame you as a journalist, frame you as a citizen,” says Miller. “We wanted someone who would share great passion and information. Leo does that.”

Sacks is an imposing figure in the classroom. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, he prowls the area around the lectern like a caged lion. During a recent class, he grew frustrated when it became apparent that none of his students were reading The New York Times; a fundamental requirement for his class. He slammed his hand down abruptly on the table.

“Why aren’t you following my lead?” he demanded. “Our time is precious here. How can I teach you if you’re not fully engaged?”

“It was my own ‘teachable moment,’” Sacks reveals. “How do I manage my own personal expectations for each student? I can’t make them want the same level of excellence that I aspire them to reach.”

Sacks tells a story of a privileged yet troubled childhood. He was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where his mother was a medical copywriter, and his father was a clinical psychologist who saw his patients in their home.

He says his heart is heavy when he reflects on his adolescence and a “more tumultuous time in my 20s.”
“I wasted a lot of years rebelling against my father by hurting myself,” Sacks admits. “It took me years to realize that he only wanted the best for me. How I used marijuana and Jack Daniels as a means to escape. Until there was no place left to run or hide. Now I’m the father of a 7-year-old who’s charming and delightful but also absolutely willful. So the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

“My dad was a habitual clothes horse,” he says, “and he was always late for his appointments. Which meant, as the oldest of his three children, I had to make small talk until he came home. ‘So how was your day, Mr. Jones?’ I’d say. It was surreal.”

Sacks had his favorite patients, including the parish priest whose romantic feelings for his secretary gave him heart palpitations; the Holocaust survivor who couldn’t stop his compulsive eating; and the scion of a construction company who turned his back on the business rather than tell his father he was gay.

“Life was entertaining and inscrutable,” he says.

“My mother would put the well-thumbed Webster’s Dictionary beside me that she kept in the kitchen,” he recalls. She would have him circle every word on the front page of The New York Times that he did not know. “Now look them up!” he remembers her saying.

As his love for music grew, and he began to write about music for his high school newspaper, his mother would edit his copy. “It didn’t matter that she was unfamiliar with the music,” Sacks says. “She was connecting with the passion in my voice.”

That passion led to his first professional job writing about the music industry for Cash Box and subsequently for Billboard, the “bible” of the music business. But he felt restrained by the formulaic demands of writing for a trade publication. So he began to write freelance articles for People, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. He became a freelance reporter for the Post. That led to new writing and producing jobs at CNN, CBS News and Reuters International Television; freelance work as a contributor to The New York Times Book Review; and steady work as the weekend news editor for “NBC Nightly News” from 1992 through 1997. (He returned briefly in 2013 to write about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial, and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.)

At Sony, Sacks has worked with America’s most celebrated artists. He has compiled and produced lavish boxed sets and packages for legends Aretha Franklin (“Take A Look: Complete On Columbia”), Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire and Gamble and Huff (architects of the “Sound of Philadelphia”).

He compiled and produced “Bill Withers: The Columbia & Sussex Albums,” which received a Grammy Award for Best Historical Recording in 2014. Afterwards, he co-produced a tribute concert for Withers at Carnegie Hall. He currently juggles his teaching duties with his responsibilities as an A&R consultant for Sony Masterworks, the pop division of Sony Classical, where he is in charge of finding and developing new artists. He recently brought the folk duo Tall Heights and the Accidentals, an Americana trio, the company.

Sacks is currently directing and producing his first documentary called “A Taste of Heaven” about the short, turbulent life of the New Orleans gospel artist Raymond Myles, who was murdered in 1998 on the brink of music stardom.

“Raymond had the gift of greatness,” he says, “but he was also the victim of his own human nature.”

Sacks says that teaching at Rutgers has been one of the most enriching and fulfilling experiences of his lifetime. “It’s a privilege to shape hungry hearts and minds,” he concludes. “My premise is that if you can learn to write a strong sentence, you can re-write that sentence for any platform. I can only hope that I might be making a difference in a student’s life because–well, I’m always starting on new chapters of my own. I just have a rearview mirror to guide me.”