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Leo Sayer

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Like so many singer-songwriters of the 70s competing with – or inspired by – the likes of stalwarts ELTON JOHN, and The BEATLES (both band and solo), English soft-rocker LEO SAYER had one foot in the past and one in the present. Initially a near novelty pop act with his cabaret-clown attire drawing attention; until he acquired a more professional look in the mid-70s, Leo turned his cheeky, feisty falsetto vocals into more mainstream ballads and choreographed disco tunes. Not only did SAYER secure several massive hits in the 70s (from `The Show Must Go On’, `One Man Band’, `Long Tall Glasses’ and `Moonlighting’, to `You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’, `When I Need You’ and `Thunder In My Heart’) – plus platinum LPs – he continued to ride the tide of the 80s… and beyond. Just don’t mention Celebrity Big Brother or the year 2007. Incidentally, he was nicknamed “Leo” by ADAM FAITH’s wife Jackie because of his petite (5’4”) demeanor and curly mane that resembled a little lion.
Leo was born Gerard Hugh Sayer, 21 May 1948, in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, from English and Irish parentage. In 1967, he worked as a hall porter at the King’s Hotel in Hove (near Brighton), where his bravery would become local legend when he helped evacuate elderly guests from a blazing first floor fire. He played harmonica in night clubs, though the dyslexic Gerard suffered a nervous breakdown.
In the early 70s, he joined the Terrorplane Blues Band, but soon formed own groups, Jester, then PATCHES; the latter combo – which also featured lead guitarist Max Chetwynd, bassist Ian Whitmore, drummer Mike Darcy (and fellow scribe David Courtney) – issued a one-off 45 in August ’72 for Warner Bros: `Living In America’ (b/w `The Hour Is Love’). His aforementioned manager/producer ADAM FAITH duly gleaned a solo deal at Chrysalis Records, and in spring 1973, the team began recording at ROGER DALTREY’s new studio; The WHO frontman utilising several Courtney-Sayer songs for his own eponymous “Daltrey” debut (including the ballad, `Giving It All Away’).
Ready to launch his own career that August, SAYER suffered a set back when `Why Is Everybody Going Home’ failed to register anticipated airplay. Despite this minor knock, the rather poignantly-titled `The Show Must Go On’ (bolstered by his TOTP appearance in a circus clown suit) danced its way to No.2, and helped debut set SILVERBIRD (1973) {*7} do likewise; covers specialists THREE DOG NIGHT showcased the said song for American audiences by hitting the Top 5. The album was significant for balancing a smattering of ELTON JOHN or a “Hunky Dory” BOWIE, whereupon opening salvo, `Innocent Bystander’, recalled the Fab Four. The carousel-esque title track only stretched to just over a minute, but the star attractions came through tearful ballads, `The Dancer’ and `Don’t Say It’s Over’.
Previewing his sophomore set, JUST A BOY (1974) {*7}, by spinning out big hitters, `One Man Band’ (from “DALTREY”) and the breezy blues-y piano-led `Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)’ (a US Top 10 smash), the starry-eyed SAYER entered the fray just as would-be rival GILBERT O’SULLIVAN began petering out. Leo had a few aces up his sleeve; the re-claiming of `Giving It All Away’ was another master-stroke; as was the cutting crescendo, `Another Time’, `Solo’ and the quaver-y BRYAN FERRY-esque opening salvo, `Telepath’.
The absence of Courtney, who was finding his own solo path (though unsuccessfully), SAYER and fresh co-writer/keyboardist/bassist Frank Farrell (from SUPERTRAMP and RENAISSANCE) worked on album three; produced by FAITH and former ARGENT musician RUSS BALLARD. Bolstered by the near No.1 of classy 45, `Moonlighting’, ANOTHER YEAR (1975) {*6} was Leo’s third consecutive Top 10 breaker. `Streets Of Your Town’ recalled RALPH McTELL’s folky equivalent, whilst the sympathetic tramps and poverty motif continued on `An Old Dirt Road’. Déjà vu seemed never far from the singer-songwriter’s agenda, and in `The Kids Grown Up’ and `The Last Gig Of Johnny B. Goode’, the soothing SAYER unfettered his nostalgic flair.
A cover of `Let It Be’ was the Leo man’s first mishap and was one of three cuts alongside `I Am The Walrus’ and `The Long And Winding Road’ from BEATLES/Various Artists soundtrack “All This And World War II”). However he was quick to bounce back into contention with his move into BEE GEES disco territory a la `You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ – a Vini Poncia joint effort and US chart-topper. For L.A.-cut parent set, ENDLESS FLIGHT (1976) {*6}, Leo worked in collaboration with others such as Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, and Johnny Vastano, but apart from covers of ANDREW GOLD’s title track, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Reflections’ and DANNY O’KEEFE’s `Magdalena’, the prize track lay in No.1 ballad, `When I Need You’ (penned by ALBERT HAMMOND and CAROLE BAYER SAGER); Mann and SAYER’s `How Much Love’ duly dented the Top 10.
As the punk and new wave movement eased out soft-rock artists by the cart-load, time was indeed short for Leo to keep up a momentum. And though the title track from the session-friendly Richard Perry-produced Top 10 set, THUNDER IN MY HEART (1977) {*5}, reeled off another moderate hit, Vastano’s `There Isn’t Anything I Wouldn’t Do’ was a complete wash-out. If there was compensation, the US and Canada were happy to entertain the MOR delights of `Easy To Love’, though these were tough times for major label stars.
Once a promising singer-songwriter on the fringes of legendary rock/pop status, SAYER had little option but to take the BBC-TV showcase light entertainment route in order to compete with the day-glo rivals biting at his ankles. The eponymous LEO SAYER (1978) {*6} LP reached the Top 20, despite `Dancing The Night Away’ (a cover of an AMAZING RHYTHM ACES cut) being given the cold shoulder. In fact, the said set was a part covers record, peppered with songs penned by SAYER and Tom Snow. Notwithstanding renditions of JACKSON BROWNE’s `Something Fine’ and ANDY FAIRWEATHER LOW’s `La Booga Rooga’, subsequent high-end chart volleys came in the shape of BILLY NICHOLLS’ `I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try)’ and the BUDDY HOLLY nugget, `Raining In My Heart’.
On the back of a chart-topping “The Very Best Of…” collection, it was indeed difficult, by comparison, to merit Leo’s seventh set, HERE (1979) {*5}. With no hits to combat the tide of criticism awaiting him, the mere Top 50 recording was as uncoordinated as his previous album, though songs such as `The End’, `Who Will The Next Fool Be’ and `Takin’ The Easy Way Out’, did reunite him with producer Courtney; The CHI-LITES’ `Oh Girl’ and AL KOOPER’s `Lost Control’ were the token covers.
What was desperately needed was a bona fide big hitter, and in transatlantic near No.1 smash, `More Than I Can Say’ (once sung by BOBBY VEE), there was renewed interest in an album by SAYER. 1980’s LIVING IN A FANTASY {*6} was augmented by a tight-knit band that included co-writer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Alan Tarney (Nick Glennie-Smith played keyboards and Trevor Spencer, drums), so for a few months Leo was back in vogue.
Subsequently sandwiched between two moderate chart entries, `Have You Ever Been In Love’ (an Ivor Novello winner) and BEE GEES song, `Heart (Stop Beating In Time)’, the Top 30 WORLD RADIO (1982) {*4} proved SAYER was just about keeping his head above water. And what was certainly noticeable on Leo’s follow-up LP, HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN LOVE (1983) {*5}, was the lack of his own material; with the exception of his – and Tarney’s – equally-performing Top 20 breaker, `Orchard Road’; his reading of STEVIE WONDER’s `Till You Come Back To Me’ stalled outside the Top 50; `Sea Of Heartbreak’ fared worse.
SAYER was divorced from his first wife Janice in ’85, but he kept ticking along with the odd comeback single; however staple `Unchained Melody’ was hardly worth the wait. Chrysalis Records let him go into the arms of E.M.I. for 1990’s Europop album, COOL TOUCH {*4}, an album arriving after his former manager ADAM FAITH had been served papers by Leo’s lawyers to pay him back royalties of over half a million pounds; a case he won in 1992.
The rest of the decade was dogged by another legal fight with Chrysalis, in order to regain the rights to his work; with surmounting costs the case was abandoned, as was another bitter feud with his new management company. With little on the horizon other than a 1998 Groove Generation (featuring SAYER) Top 40 version of `You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ forthcoming, SAYER finally re-emerged with concert set, LIVE IN LONDON (2000) {*5}; recorded 12-18 June 1999.
For the previous several years Leo had been living with girlfriend Donatella Piccinetti in Sydney, Australia, though they separated in 2007, which allowed the singer’s manager (on the back of DJ Meck’s remix of `Thunder In My Heart’ gate-crashing the UK No.1 spot) to book him into that year’s Celebrity Big Brother. One suspected Leo hadn’t seen much of the Reality TV show when he pulled a grumpy strop and broke the inner doors to escape out the back. Bad press ensued for his wilder than wild antics, and it was understandable that he duly became a fully-fledged Australian citizen thereafter.
But for the odd chart compilation, SAYER’s recording career had hit an all-time low with 2005’s VOICE IN MY HEAD {*5}; his re-recordings album, DON’T WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW (2008) {*4}, only received an Australian release. On his 65th birthday in 2013, and with a family history of cancer, Leo fought his next fight, battling with intestinal ulcers and a tumour; a further colonoscopy and surgery successfully rid of him of the disease.
Leo returned to the studio and has since unveiled a couple of sets, namely RESTLESS YEARS (2015) {*5} – which reached Top 40 status in Oz – and the Demon/Edsel UK commission, SELFIE (2019) {*4}.
© MC Strong 1994-?/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2019

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