1939 - 2020
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Donal Richard Leace, singer/songwriter, educator, civil rights advocate and world traveler, passed away from COVID-19, on November 21, 2020. David Pitts, author/journalist, said "Don(al) is quite simply an American treasure whose music speaks to all the world". Donal was born on May 6, 1939 in Huntington, West Virginia to Antoinette and Nathan Leace. He came of age in Philadelphia, and moved to New York City in 1959, where his skills and passion as a singer-guitarist developed. He earned his undergraduate degree at Howard University in Washington, DC, where he served as President of the Howard Players. Donal earned graduate degrees from Georgetown University and George Washington University; he was also honored as both a Fulbright Scholar and US Presidential Scholar.  During the 60's Donal was known as "Washington's Favorite Folk Singer", working for over nine years at the famed Cellar Door in Georgetown. Over the years he performed with many of the musical greats, including John Denver, Odetta, Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Ramsey Lewis, Keter Betts, and Emmylou Harris; as well as comedians Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Donal recorded for Franc, Gateway, JBL and Atlantic Records, touring nationally with Nancy Wilson and internationally with Roberta Flack. He recorded his first album "Donal Leace" in 1972, and later released CDs "Leace on Life" in 1992 and "Leace Renewed" followed in 2002. Donal's music inspired many, including Kanye West, who sampled "Today Won't Come Again" on his 2005 hit, "Hey Mama". Donal was deeply committed to the Washington theater community. For many years, Donal served as Chair of the Drama Department at the Ellington School of the Arts, Washington, DC, where he taught and mentored young artists including Dave Chappelle and Denyce Graves. Among his many contributions, Donal served as a judge for the Washington Theater Awards Society's Helen Hayes Awards. In 2000 Donal was named to the Washington Area Music Awards Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Washingtonian Magazine's "Washington Music Hall of Fame" in 2003. Donal leaves to cherish his memory: his lifelong friend and former wife, Jakki Browner; siblings Myra Carter, Scheli Leace and Sheldon Leace; cousins, C. Michael Gray, Olivia Stewart, Oneida Lacey; godson, Josh Dow; goddaughter, Marie Mann Bibbs; and a host of relatives, friends and former students. Final arrangements were handled by Local Cremation and Funerals, and he will be interred at Forest Lawn Memory Gardens in Huntington, WV. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Donal Leace Endowment at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, 3500 R Street, NW Washington, DC 20007. A memorial service will be held in January 2021. Please share your thoughts in the Legacy Book for Donal located at

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Published in The Washington Post on Nov. 29, 2020.
Memories & Condolences
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19 entries
January 1, 2021
Great friend and great spirit. We met when we were 18 in the village and stayed friends all these years. He was an important part of my life. So sad that he is gone.
Stephen Robin
December 20, 2020
Donal was a kind and gentle friend and neighbor of for many years here in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington DC. He is missed.
Shelley Waitt
December 15, 2020
Wayne Kahn
December 10, 2020
"Donnie" was my father's (his uncle) favorite nephew; he was so proud of his artistic and academic successes, and they had very similar personalities. I visited him in D.C. whenever I had the chance to be there. My husband, Jack, and I became very close to him in his later years, and enjoyed stays at his lovely home. He was a gentle, beautiful soul and I will always cherish his memory. Leslie (Leace) Fatum
Leslie Fatum
December 6, 2020
My heart goes out to his family! He was one of my favorite teachers❣
Valerie Scott
December 6, 2020
My fondest memory of Donal Leace was the day that I auditioned for Ellington, I so unprepared but he saw something in a nervous 13 year old me that read she belongs in this school. Throughout my years at Ellington Mr. Leace was that teacher who actually cared about his students and we loved him for that. Even those who weren’t theatre students loved him. After graduation his caring never ceased, Donal Leace became your mentor and friend. He will be missed but the memory of Donal Leace will forever remain within us.
Linda Madison
December 4, 2020
Hanging out with Donal in Mr. Henry’s back room on Wisconsin made such wonderful memories. He even let me sing back up with him. I will always think of him when I hear “You’ve Got a Friend”.
Deborah Richardson
December 3, 2020
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December 3, 2020
Lost a mentor the other day Mr. Donal Leace my theater history cum mentor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I’ll never forget his words of wisdom, as I was just talking about his famous once a week speech “You know, some of you may not belong here, and that doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna perform, but this may not be the right place for you” as we all rolled our eyes at hearing the infamous speech yet again. But he was right. I can remember sending him the postcard of the solo show I directed, wrote and choreographed on my wife Shawnta Taylor EXODUS OF THE FLYING GOOSE: the first flight of Harriet Tubman. He informed me that he was raised in the neighborhood around the corner from where the theater was in Philly and he came to see the production. I was in shock. Donal (he asked us to call him by his first name even though we still resorted to MR. LEACE) was an amazing folk guitarist and was rumored to be the “he” Robert Flack sang about in Killing Me Softly. He had recorded several albums, one song of which Kanye West used. One of my favorite memories of him was him treating the class to one of his recorded folk songs OH BLUE on his guitar. He would hit this sort of yodel at the end that would have us all in tears. Loved this guy. He helped me to embrace new ideas and concepts as a high school student. He demanded excellence and didn’t fool with too much nonsense. REST IN POWER MR. LEACE
Arthur Taylor
November 30, 2020
I remember when our English/homeroom teacher Nancy Neugass had to be out on extended medical leave from Western Senior High School, Donal became our substitute teacher. We -- the class of '68 -- eventually petitioned the school to have him hired as our permanent teacher and, perhaps in the first triumph of activism most of us had ever experienced, we prevailed. Of course I'm sure the school administration saw his giftedness so it wasn't a hard call. I also personally remember that he invited a friend of his -- a writer -- to one of our classes and introduced me to him which made me feel how much Donal appreciated my own writing. Years later, I visited Duke Ellington when my daughter was a student there and was so happy to see him again. He was a gem.
Gina Sangster
November 30, 2020
Donal was a lovely man, musician, and friend. He treated me like an equal amongst people I looked up to and he is sorely missed.
Sean McGhee
November 30, 2020
So very sorry to hear of the passing of Donal Leace. He was an important artist and administrator and inspiration to young people . It was always wonderful to work with him and be advised by him through the years. R.I.P.
Joy Zinoman
November 30, 2020
Don bought this painting from me in the 1960's. The date on it is the date he photographed it to send to me. Alana (Kimbel) Miller
You literally saved my life back when you lived above the Shadows. I gave you one of my paintings to show my appreciation. It was a monoprint with a wine bottle and a pair of my glasses. That's when we really became friends. You gave me a book to read that you said would help me to understand you. It did. It was beautiful. We hung out a lot. We used to walk Bourbon together along the C&O canal. I was in the audience when you and Carole made the album "Live At the Shadows." You invited me and my boyfriend, Joe Marks. Later, you bought one of my paintings and had it on your wall for many years. Aug 12, 1989 you played two songs at my wedding to Bill, as a wedding gift. You were a large part of my life. I love you.
Alana Miller
November 30, 2020
...A thoughtful, talented, perfectionist role model for artistry and advocacy who will live in perpetuity through the many he mentored and inspired.....
Davey Yarborough
November 29, 2020
Donal was an institution in the Washington, DC music community, which is where he and I met. I had the privilege of seeing him sing many times, and I got to open for him as a supporting act at the Cellar Door on several occasions. Donal made himself available often as a sounding board, and he always had good suggestions and thoughtful advice if you were willing to listen. He was a friend, and I am richer for having known him. May his memory be a blessing for all of us. He will be missed.
Len Jaffe
November 29, 2020
He was really there for me through so many difficult times, including the deaths of both my parents and so many other times. I miss him dearly.
Josh Dow
November 29, 2020
I will miss Donal, his style, artistry, intellect, passion for life. My condolences go to the entire extended Leace family and his lifelong friends. I am thankful that I have been so warmly embraced by the family, as we worked to make life as comfortable and fulfilling as possible for Donal.
From our time on Porter Street, I could always depend on Donal to have goodies..Klondike bars, graham crackers, nuts. Over the years he exposed me to new music, performers and theater. Donal became a part of our family... and I have become a part of his.
To Donal...thank you for all the beautiful things in life we shared, for your inspired friendship, for singing at my wedding, for remembering my Mom at her memorial service, and inviting me on your adventures. My life is richer for having you in it.
As I always takes a village...thank you for welcoming me into yours.
With Love, Marie
Marie Bibbs
November 29, 2020
Donal radiated gental warmth to my wife Evelyn and myself since meeting in 1968. He welcomed many into his home that were recients of his powerful goodwill. The signature Donal song for our memory was “Old Blue” that we can still visualize and hear Donal Singing. Donal’s boundless energy was motivated by affection that tethered all to his side. A wonderful man. Richard& Evelyn Norman
Richard Norman
November 29, 2020
Donal Leace is a cultural treasure. I was honored to share a stage with him in the 1960s folk music scene. At the time, I played bass in the bluegrass group The Country Gentlemen. It was great to hang with Donal backstage. He was a kind-heartedsoul. As an African-American from West Virginia, Donal was proud of folk-hero John Henry the steel driving man who met his doom winning a race against a steam drill. There is a memorial at the spot along the Greenbrier River. RIP Donal!
Tom Gray
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