“It didn’t sell well in the States at all, but I learned later how popular it was in Europe”: cult US rockers LeRoux’s lost 1980 AOR masterpiece Up is the missing link between Toto, Kansas and Survivor

Rock band Le Roux onstage
(Image credit: Le Roux)

Although long considered a pomp rock classic, LeRoux’s 1980 album Up was met with bemusement from their fanbase, perhaps expecting more of the southern, funk, country and R&B-influenced sounds of their previous two albums.

Founded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1975, when bassist Leon Medica teamed up with vocalist/guitarist Jeff Pollard, guitarist Tony Haselden, keyboard player Rod Roddy, percussionist Bobby Campo and drummer David Peters, they christened themselves The Jeff Pollard Group, before changing their name to Louisiana’s LeRoux, after a a Cajun-French term for a gravy base used in the making of gumbo.

LeRoux’s self-titled 1978 debut album was a modest success, though the sophomore effort, 1979’s Keep The Fire Burning, was a rushed mixture of first album leftovers and underdeveloped newer tracks that didn’t match the promise of the debut record sales-wise. Their label Capitol thus decided to bring in outside producer Jai Winding, an accomplished keyboard player on sessions with the likes of Jackson Browne, Boz Scaggs, Cheap Trick and Cher.

“Disco was big at that time, but Capitol had noticed that certain bands like Toto and Journey were breaking through,” notes Leon. “Rupert Perry from Capitol called and told us that he wanted to bring in a new producer and cut the third album in Los Angeles. Jai Winding’s original intention was to just record with Jeff. He wasn’t going to use the rest of us, but Rupert insisted that it was recorded as a LeRoux album by LeRoux.”

Pollard had played a major part in the writing process for the first two albums, but was now being handed the opportunity to become an even bigger force within the band, which changed LeRoux’s dynamic and, indeed, destiny. “He had that rockin’ background, so I was pleased for him because he deserved it,” states Leon.

Medica was pretty relaxed about another producer taking over a job he had already been handling pretty admirably himself. “There wasn’t any friction,” he laughs. “I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I got the whole thing together so I knew how hard it was to get a deal. I got to play on the record. I enjoyed making it. Jai had actually never heard of us or our music before he came down to meet us, but I had fun doing that record.” 

Capitol decided to drop the ‘Louisiana’ prefix from the band’s name for the new release, which every AOR fan should fall in love with the moment opening track Let Me Be Your Fantasy glides majestically from your hi-fi’s speakers. Even though Leon later proved beyond doubt that he was more than capable of producing this kind of music equally as well on subsequent LeRoux albums, Jai Winding’s production is first class, highlights Get It Right The First Time, Mystery and Crying Inside making Up a jaw-dropping experience.

Many of the songs on Up contain a certain religious influence, thanks to Jeff Pollard’s increasingly fervent Christian beliefs which would eventually force him to leave the group and begin a new life as a preacher, perhaps without realising that his initial vocation in life actually gave him the opportunity to reach a far wider audience than his eventual position as a church elder in Pensacola, Florida would allow him.

Roll Away The Stone is, perhaps, the biggest giveaway lyrically, but It Could Be The Fever and I Know Trouble When I See It also hint at Pollard’s beliefs, with the latter revealing his dissatisfaction with the music business and the lifestyle that goes with being in a secular band. “Jeff put a lot of Christian songs on Up, like Roll Away The Stone, which was about the Resurrection of Christ,” acknowledges Leon. “So I saw his eventual departure from the group coming before it actually happened.”

Like a mixture of the very cream of Kansas, Survivor, Toto and Hotel (a reference for AOR anoraks there), Up was far and away one of the best hard rock albums of the year. Yet, when the band toured in support of it, LeRoux’s hardcore fans had some difficulty in adjusting to this remarkable new direction. Although the album reached No.145 in the Billboard Top 200, it was deemed something of a disappointment sales-wise by both Capitol and the band. 

“It didn’t sell well in the States at all, but I learned later how popular it was in Europe,” says Leon. “We played some of that stuff in concert. Our fans tried to get into it, but it’s fair to say that we did lose a portion of our audience because of that record. The majority of the people just wanted to hear the songs from the first record. It took them a while to get into the new sound. We’d gotten a serious fanbase from the first two records that stretched from Washington DC to Texas, and we were pretty popular in the likes of Chicago, Denver and a few places out on the West Coast too.”

 By the time the band returned home to Louisiana after the Up tour, new manager Budd Carr chose to negotiate LeRoux away from Capitol and eventually the six-piece found a new home at RCA. With the new deal they would release one more album with Pollard in the ranks, ’81’s Last Safe Place, before his by-now-inevitable departure (just as the group had scored their all-time biggest hit when the single Nobody Said It Was Easy hit No.18). 

Jeff was replaced by former Trillion (and future Toto) vocalist Dennis ‘Fergie’ Frederiksen, who had just spent a year working on material with Gregg Giuffria, Punky Meadows, Barry Brandt and Ricky Phillips in a post-Casablanca Records line-up of Angel that, sadly, didn’t gain the quintet a deal. Frederiksen’s addition to the LeRoux ranks gave the band a real boost, and the album he recorded with them, So Fired Up, is another cult classic.

Following a lengthy period of inactivity throughout the rest of the 80s and early 90s, LeRoux have sporadically reunited, releasing a string of new albums, including 2000’’s Ain’t Nothing But A Gris Gris, 2002’s Higher Up and 2020’s One Of Those Days. Leon Medica left in 2014, but the group he helped start remain one of AOR’s great lost bands.