By Joseph Hanneman
UNION GROVE, Wisconsin — Louis Armstrong, Liberace and Tiny Tim made concert appearances here Thursday. Well, not really, but it was probably as close as anyone has ever come to imitating the performers.
For nearly two hours, Leslie Lemke, 35, of Arpin, Wis., performed flawless piano and voice renditions of “Satchmo,” the king of the candelabra and the man who tiptoed through the tulips, among others.
If any of the 700 or so students and teachers in attendance at Union Grove High School had closed their eyes, they could have easily imagined Liberace’s glittery Rolls Royce, Tiny Tim’s ukulele or Armstrong’s smiling face and sassy delivery.
All this came from Leslie, a man with no eyes, severe brain damage, cerebral palsy and an IQ of of 58.
Leslie cannot carry on a dialogue or feed himself, and he requires constant care. He has never taken music lessons, plays piano with only nine fingers and cannot see the keyboard.
Yet he is a musical virtuoso.
In 1971, Leslie sat down at the piano and shocked his parents by playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
It is difficult to come up with words to describe or explain Leslie’s abilities. Those who see him perform call it amazing. His family chooses stronger terms.
“I feel it is a miracle from God,” said Juanita Voge, Leslie’s niece. “I’ve been around him all my life, and it still amazes me.”
“I believe it’s a gift that God has given Leslie,” said Mary Parker Larsen, Leslie’s sister and caretaker. “He has the mentality of being 1 to 3 years old, yet, in this field, he’s a genius.”
Leslie has been featured on television’s “That’s Incredible” and in was the subject of an ABC Afterschool Special, “The Woman who Willed a Miracle.”
Leslie’s ability is known as the savant syndrome. Despite his disabilities, he has an island of brilliance that allows him, based on one listen, to reproduce any piece of music, even years later.
And reproduce he did.
A smooth baritone by nature Leslie’s vocal range is as broad as his piano repertoire, from the lowest gravel of Armstrong to the highest falsetto of Tiny Tim.
The Union Grove students, who might be expected to be restless with distraction during an assembly, were mesmerized. They heard Leslie perform near-perfect renditions of Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire,” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly.”
He then accepted challenges from students and teachers, who came on stage and played short songs on drums, trumpet, trombone, flute and oboe. Then they listened to Leslie play the tunes note-for-note.
Union Grove was the latest concert stop for Leslie, who continues his tour into North Dakota and Iowa. He recently played 31 concerts in 33 days in Japan.
“We like to compare Leslie’s story with a rose,” Larsen told the group. “It starts out as a rosebud and it slowly opens up into a beautiful flower.”
Larsen said Leslie – one of 12 known savants in the world – keeps expanding his ability and learning more music. He has never studied a sheet of music. He has always learned by repetition,” Larsen said.
“If we weren’t so busy flying around the world … he could probably master every instrument we gave him.”
Despite a repertoire that includes many classics, Leslie will never admit he doesn’t know a song.
“Leslie always says yes,” Larsen said. “Then he nicely makes up a song to replace the one he doesn’t know.”
Larsen said she and Leslie travel the country performing to try to have an impact on people, as part of a “ministry of love.”
The idea is to “bring a miracle of l love,” she said. “That’s one of our main purposes – to bring happiness to other people.” ♦
– This article originally appeared on Page 1 of the Racine Journal Times on October 2, 1987. View the original newspaper page. This blog post has been updated with more information on Leslie in 2017.
Postscript: Leslie’s adoptive mother, Mae Lemke, died in 1993. According to Dr. Darold Treffert, an internationally recognized expert on savant syndrome, Leslie is doing well and “playing as marvelously as ever.” He lives with his sister, Mary Parker, in north central Wisconsin.
Further Reading: Whatever Happened to Leslie Lemke? (Scientific American)