Five minutes with Seventies hit-maker Leo Sayer - graphic design, hit records and Elvis
Seventies chart-topper Leo Sayer returns to our shores for a 25-date tour. Here talks about his life and career.
A career spanning six decades began in the sixties with Courtney and Faith, was music always a chosen career path, if not what were alternatives, and how did you get into music?
“I was trained a graphic designer and initially that was my chosen profession which brought me close to the music business when I designed record covers for artists like Bob Marley in the late 60s. I had always been around bands and also played harmonica with blues musicians, some of whom went on to great things themselves. I didn’t decide to give it a serious go until I met Courtney and Faith, David’s musical abilities as a co-writer and Adam’s talent as a manager was enough to persuade me.”
Although the debut single was unsuccessful, your second achieved national acclaim as well as your debut album - how was that early success?
“There were two attempts at singles before that, the first with my group Patches in 1972, then with Why Is Everybody Going Home in 1974 from my debut album, Silverbird, both produced by Adam and David. The Show Must Go On was next up and was a runaway hit. Things happened very quickly after that and I became a star when I performed as the Pierrot which seemed to capture the world’s attention in 1974.”
It would be your seventh, and eighth releases - you Make Me Feel Like Dancing, and, When I Need You, that would hit top spot, including the achievement of gold certifications - did you expect to reach top spot sooner in your mind or were these an apt pairing in which to do so?
“Well I started getting used to being number two in the charts, it happened about five times. I don’t mind though, the songs and albums sold well and I was building a following. It’s not always about being number one and for me the collective of songs and a good show is what I used to concentrate on. I was happy with the results, but then the album with Richard Perry catapulted me to even greater heights. It certainly was a more commercially driven project, and though different to the music that I made before, I enjoyed the success of it immensely.”
When I Need You actually made number one on both sides of the Atlantic, how was achieving such a feat?
“It was great, and interesting, as I became a big name in the States and all over the world because of these hits. It opened up so many doors including living in Los Angeles, playing in Las Vegas, touring all over the world, and back at home, starring in my own television series.”
Some three decades would elapse before you would reach the top again, Thunder in My Heart Again w. Meck doing so in 2006, I assume you weren't expecting to take so long in doing so, so were there any deciding factors in your not making the top over that period?
“Just fashion. We artists go in and out of fashion. It’s always like that, you just have to plough on and, if you’re good, you will have more great moments. I’ve survived pub rock, punk, boy bands and talent show artists, and have never really changed my essential approach. A good song is a good song. Meck (and the guys who actually made the remix – Bimbo Jones) believed in its potential to go to number one, and they were right.”
Regarding album releases, six of your first seven albums made the top ten of the UK charts with The Very Best of Leo Sayer hitting the top spot, one went platinum and five gold - differing success for albums than single releases, what's your thoughts on that differentiation?
“I don’t think about these things. I write songs, record other writers songs (if I like those), but mostly concentrate on trying to make good records. What happens next is in the lap of the gods.”
All This and World War Two, the 1976 music documentary, you recorded three classic Beatles tracks for it, how did your involvement come about and how was doing that for you?
“I met Lou Reizner, the producer, when writing and recording at Roger Daltrey’s house. He produced the orchestral version of The Who’s track, Tommy. We got on great and he asked me if I’d like to take part in the project. It was my first experience of singing in front of a full symphony orchestra, which was wonderful.”
1977 was perhaps the career pinnacle for you not only achieving two US number ones, but the first, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, winning a Grammy for 'Best Rhythm & Blues Song' - talk about winning a Grammy, the ceremony and honour that it brought?
“It was a surprise. We were also up for Record of the Year with ‘When I Need You’ and expected that one to win. I was late for the awards and missed the presentation due to my plane from the UK getting delayed. When I sat down, Count Basie on my left told me “Son, you just won a Grammy!” it was such a thrill.”
It is said you were to be meeting The King himself, Elvis, but he unfortunately passed on the day you were to meet at Graceland - what are your thoughts about that specific occasion?
“It’s a true story. I’d had a fall offstage, a big one, a few days earlier and when my 1977 US Tour got to Memphis, I had a bad reaction in the dressing room and couldn’t perform. A big guy came into the room, picked me up, and took me to his nearby gym to recuperate.
The next day, after I’d recovered, he said he worked for someone famous but wouldn’t tell me who. Later, he seemed to relent and put his boss on the phone to me. I fell out of my chair when I realised that I was talking to Elvis (at first I didn’t believe it was him, but Michael slowly nodded at me from across the room to confirm it).
He was charming and we had a great chat which finished with Elvis inviting me to Graceland the next day. Naturally I was so excited but the next morning, while preparing for the visit, I was listening to the radio when they announced the shocking news that the King had died.
Michael ran into the room saying he must go to the family and I slowly made my way home. For many years I almost didn’t believe it really happened but Elvis’ last girlfriend, Ginger Alden, flew to London one day saying she had to meet me. She told me how Elvis was so excited that night about our getting together the next day. I guess the rest is history.”
Everybody loved The Muppet Show, you performed three songs on the iconic show, some experience right there?
“I’d met Muppets creator, Jim Henson, a few years earlier on the set of Sesame Street, which he also created. We connected really well and I guess that’s what led to the invite to be a guest on the show. I wasn’t the most famous face during that series but Jim insisted to the producers that I’d be great TV viewing, and I think my performance, and the rapport with the characters on the show, made it a huge success. Jim was a great gut and I truly miss him.”
Following a return to the UK charts, you relocated to NSW, Australia becoming an Australian citizen near four years later, how's life been down under?
“It’s great! I count myself very lucky to have a wonderful band at home in the UK and I always look forward to coming back to perform. I love my life in Australia,, the space, the freedom, I’m always busy and it’s an exciting place to live, but home is where the heart is.”
Talk about being awarded the Gold Badge of Merit in 2015?
“It’s always nice to be recognised by your peers. Song-writing is the most important facet of my work, and it’s nice that my songs are popular, and according to this award, admired also.”
Still going strong, in fact since the turn of the Millennium you have released seven albums - what's keeping the fire burning within and how are you finding churning out sounds for the current market?
“I don’t churn out anything, believe me, it’s hard work that takes a lot of soul searching. I love my job and put everything into it. I've just completed an entirely self-made album that’s taken me three years to create ‘Selfie.’ I’m very driven, a bit of a perfectionist, always thinking my best work is still ahead of me. After 46 years of making records, and at the age of 70, that might sound crazy, but that’s how I am.”
Still touring, how have the past few years on the road been and what's your thoughts about the current 'Just A Boy At 70' road trip taking in many places including a 25-date UK tour throughout May and June?
“It’s always great to be back in the UK, from Soho to Brighton, by way of Cornwall and Glasgow, I like searching out all the places I used to haunt, and see if they’ve changed. Many haven’t at all, under the surface. It’s going to be another great tour and I’m looking forward to the shows immensely.”
You also have a new album due for release prior to the UK leg of your tour, tell me about it? (Selfie is due for release through the Demon Music Group on April 26)
“I wanted to make an album by myself I’ve always been envious of painters who never need to get anyone else in to help finish their artworks. Different people working on each colour or part of the canvas just doesn’t seem like true art. And this time I wanted to make an album by myself. With the technology and computer-based tools now available, I thought why not?
"I must admit it took a long time, I had to learn or invent techniques I never imagined or had attempted before to get the results I was hearing in my head. I had to trust my ears and my imagination to find the solutions.
"I don’t know if I’d do this again, but it’s been very satisfying. I’ve worked completely in a vacuum, alone in a studio at my new home in Australia, far away from all distractions.
"To my great surprise, friends and colleagues have been encouraging in their support. They knew I needed to do this, get it out of my system. So here it is - SELFIE.
"I hope you like it.”
Leo Sayer is at Bridlington Spa on Thursday May 16 at 7.30pm
Tickets: 01262 678258 or on line www.bridspa.com