Was born in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. His first lessons he got from his father, who was as a clarinet-player, member of the RIAS-Symphonic -Orchestra Berlin. Between 1953–1956 he studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and 1957, at the age of 19, was already solo clarinet-player at the Komische Oper Berlin under Vaclav Neumann and Walter Felsenstein.
1959 he began his work as solo clarinet-player at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan. The 30 years of working together with Karajan was the most important and characterizing time for Karl Leister. At the same time his international career as Soloist and chamber musician began. His chamber music partners were moreover the Amadeus-Quartet, Vermeer-Quartet, Leipzig String Quartet, Pierre Fournier, Gidon Kremer, Rita Streich, Kathleen Battle, as well as the pianists Wilhelm Kempff, James Levine, Ricardo Muti, Gerhard Oppitz, Christoph Eschenbach, Bruno Canino, Elena Bashkirova, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Paul Gulda, Stefan Vladar and Ferenc Bognár. Furthermore he played as soloist under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, Seiji Ozawa, Eugen Jochum, Raphael Kubelik, Aron Copland, Sir Neville Merriner, Paavo Berglund, R. Frühbeck de Bourgos and Kent Nagano. Karl Leister is one of the founder of the ensemble “Bläser der Berliner Philharmoniker”, Berlin Soloists as well as of the Ensemble Wien-Berlin.
Since the foundation of the Herbert von Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Leister has been teaching the young generation. Today many of his former students work in important positions of German or international Orchestras. Simultaneously Karl Leister is requested at international Festivals and Masterclasses.
Karl Leister obtained numerous awards and distinctions at national and international music competitions. Beyond that he recorded nearly all compositions of the clarinet literature at following labels: DGG, EMI, Phillips, Teldec / Warner, Orfeo, MDG, BIS, Nimbus, Sony and Camerata Tokyo.
1987 he became honorary member and guest professor of the Royal Academy of Music London. Between 1993 and 2002 Karl Leister was professor at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin.