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Leo Sayer on His 'Restless Years' With Hendrix, McCartney and Daltrey (Q&A)
There is no easy characterization of the Leo Sayer sound. The singer-songwriter broke out in the U.S. with 1974’s Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance), a quirky story-song that made the Top 10.
Sayer followed with a pair of No. 1 hits: the disco-flavored You Make Me Feel Like Dancing and a ballad, When I Need You. Hits like How Much Love and More Than I Can Say followed.
Sayer’s career’s took off in 1973 under the tutelage of British pop star Adam Faith, whom Sayer calls an “incredibly charismatic rogue.” Faith introduced the young writer to the Who‘s Roger Daltrey, who asked Sayer and co-writer David Courtney to compose songs for his debut solo album, Daltrey.
The LP included Giving It All Away, a big U.K. hit.
Early on, Sayer adopted the costume of the pierrot, the sad clown popular in France in the late seventeenth century. Sayer abandoned the costume after early successes like The Show Must Go On, a U.K. hit for him that Three Dog Night successfully covered in the States.
Sayer has had his share of bad financial breaks. Sayer later split with Faith, thinking he was mismanaged, and fell victim to another manager who brought him to the brink of financial ruin.
Here Sayer tells the stories behind the hits and the headaches in a career that included a record-buying spree with Paul McCartney and a jam session with Jimi Hendrix.
Sayer continues to record new material at his home studio in Sydney, Australia. His 2015 LP, Restless Years, features original songs that showcase a voice and wit unchanged over time. Today Sayer maintains a busy touring schedule, with concerts in England and the Far East as well as Down Under. Sayer hopes a U.S. tour can be staged that would return the singer-songwriter to the country where he’s had some of his biggest hits – and some of his wildest adventures.
One of the most memorable songs on Restless Years is I Got It All Back. Is it a reference to your bad management?
Leo Sayer: It’s all about the ripoff. A very crooked manager came along and told Warners in America that I was retired, I wasn’t going to be making music any longer and they could buy my entire catalog. So with a couple of forged signatures and some crafty lawyers he managed to sell me off to Warners.
He set up an office with a very, very pretty girl. And of course the pretty girl was working for him. I thought she was working for me. And they were just thieves! They set me up well and truly. Unfortunately he was very clever and I must say – I’m not going to give you his name because that would get too detailed – he ripped off the Rolling Stones before he ripped off me. I did get a call from Mick Jagger saying, “I’m sorry, Leo.”
But I told him where to get off [laughs]. “Thanks for helping! You’re no mate!”
My partner, Donatella, took over managing me and saved my life after all of that stuff. A wonderful man called Bob Emmer, who was a good friend of ours in the old Warner Bros. days, got involved and told them, “Look, Leo’s gotten ripped off by this guy. Please pay him some bloody royalties” because I was getting nothing. We’re free of all of that now.
How did Roger Daltrey come to record Giving It All Away? You weren’t well known at the time.
Leo Sayer: I was totally unknown. Adam Faith was a very big name in the U.K. as an actor and as a singer. He had an incredible career as a rock and roll singer in the time of Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and all those other British guys.
There was a little bit of the rogue in him but at the same time there was an incredible character, amazing charisma, absolutely fearless. He’s like one of those Michael Caine-type characters that you see in the movies.
He says, “Come on lad, you wanna be a star?” And I say, “OK, yes, mister!” So he takes me under his wing. He signs me to an absolutely draconian contract that I didn’t really understand. I’m closing the door to the life I had before and jumping into bed with this kind of rogue as it were. But an incredibly charismatic rogue. And a rogue who was totally experienced in life.
The first thing he did with me, the first day we met, was take me to a brothel and get me laid. That’s the kind of character [laughs] that I was with.
Adam knew everybody. The second meeting we had, we went to a restaurant and out of a back door comes Paul McCartney. All Paul McCartney said to me was, “Don’t cut your hair.” He wouldn’t give me any other advice. I kept saying, “But what’s it like when you’re on microphone, do you prefer a Neumann or an AKG?” “No, can’t tell you that. You’ll have to find out yourself.”
We were making the first record together, Silverbird – me and David Courtney, my co-writer and Adam’s great old friend – because he used to play drums in Adam’s band. We had a wonderful publicist, a PR guy called Keith Altham. He was representing the Who as well at the time.
Keith said that Roger Daltrey was building a studio because he was rather pissed off with Pete Townshend releasing solo albums when he should have been loyal to the Who. So he said, “To hell with him, I’m going to release my own solo album.” Now Roger didn’t really have a clue of what to do but we had gone to Roger’s studio. That was amazing for me to hang out with one of my real rock and roll heroes. Amazing singer!
Roger used to sit in the studio while we were making tracks, even engineered the tracks. If I’d be going with the little band that I had off to do a gig, Roger would drive me there and set up the PA! We borrowed the late Jimi Hendrix’s PA from Mitch Mitchell‘s house and we’d set up and Roger would say, “Hands off, I’ll do all that.” So I had this fantastic friend and ally who was also a very famous person.
So we’re recording in his studio and one day he just came around to me and Dave and said, “Look, I’ll make no bones about it, I want to make a solo album. And I want you to write all the songs.”
So there we were. We got hit by the bombshell. And he said, “And I want Adam to produce it,” because he and Adam had become great friends. We were ready to release my first album but we held it up and let the Roger Daltrey album come out first, which was a clever move on Adam’s part because Giving It All Away became a hit and everybody suddenly wants to know about the kid who wrote the songs. So it was a good launch for the career.
The Show Must Go On was your first U.K. hit but Three Dog Night had the hit here in the U.S.
Leo Sayer: I know. Very tiresome. They saw me performing in England and I was dressed as a pierrot, as the whiteface, and they thought, “Hang on, here’s something we can grab and make a hit out of.” So they went straight back to the States and they made their own version of it. I just couldn’t believe how banal it was that they walk around like clowns. It was a little like someone takin’ the piss out of me. I didn’t understand how somebody would take an original item like that and claim that it was their own idea in the way that they performed it.
But you were getting royalties on it, right?
Leo Sayer: I didn’t understand all that. Adam had never explained that part to me. Perhaps he didn’t want me to get the royalties! [Laughs]
It’s kind of open season and you can’t stop other people singing your songs. The Show Must Go On has a lyric in the chorus that says, “I won’t let the show go on.” That was the core of the song: Look, he’s not getting into fucking show business. And Three Dog Night sang, “We must let the show go on.” So I thought, you bunch of bloody idiots.
The irony was later on I’m playing at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and I get a visit. Three Dog Night. And they’ve come to thank me for the song. I did a quick head change and I pretended that I was really thrilled that they recorded it and we had a lovely conversation but inwardly I kind of hated them for doing it.
It was a big hit. I’m not sure I ever got the money but there it is in my royalties and they still pay me now. So hey, things aren’t too bad.
Long Tall Glasses was your first U.S. hit.
Leo Sayer: It was based on my reaction to success in America. I was blown over to be in the States, the place of all my favorite singers like Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King. They’re all telling me I could sing and I’m going, “No I can’t. Those guys can sing, I can’t sing.”
But they all persuaded me, you can sing, you can sing. So I thought OK, I’ll give in, I can sing, I accept it. And in the song the guy, like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, goes into the bar and he can’t dance but he’s got to get the girl and he’s got to impress her. So he pretends, even in his tramp’s costume, and he persuades them that he can dance.
You Make Me Feel Like Dancing takes another turn. It’s kind of a disco style.
Leo Sayer: That’s because I had a bunch of musicians around me who were very inspiring, principally Jeff Porcaro, who became a great friend, and Ray Parker Jr., a great classic Motown guitarist from Stevie Wonder‘s band.
We start talking about favorite songs. Jeff and I phoned each other in the morning. I said, “Have you heard this fucking song on the radio: Shirley & Company, Shame, Shame, Shame. So he stopped by Tower Records on the way to the studio and we put it on the player and we said, “Fuck, man, what a groove!”
And then a break comes and Jeff starts playing the groove of that record and I start singing. And Ray is playing the guitar groove although he’s reinvented it and he’s playing this pluck thing on his Les Paul. And I’m just jamming along.
And [producer] Richard Perry is in the studio. So he rushed to the tape machine, threw the tape on and started recording us. And a few days later, he said, “That is the hit. That is the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard. That is a crossover.”
We got a Grammy for Best R&B Song. I remember being at a party afterwards and Natalie Cole said, “You’ve stolen our music!” I said, “I’m not stealing anything, I grew up with this shit! I’m as black as you, baby!” [Laughs]
You take another turn with When I Need You, written by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager.
Leo Sayer: I’d get boxes of records given to me. There was a lovely lady, Carol Pincus, at Motown’s publishing company Jobete. She turned up with a box of songs and in there was a ballad. She’d listened to me singing and she thought this might be suitable. She was damned right.
We couldn’t afford to bring my ex-wife Janice over with me so I would speak to her on the trans-Atlantic phone every other night and tell her I loved her but the lines were so shit in those days. This song comes along and all the words are what I want to say to Janice. I wrote down the lyrics and phoned her. I said all these words and she cried. It was all so emotional. She said, “That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said to me.” I said, “Well it comes from a song.” She said, “You have to record this song.”
We put it on the album. There was no sax solo on there but I was touring at the time and Bobby Keys was in the band. We played it every night on stage. Richard came up to see us in San Francisco. He got blown away by Bobby’s solo and he said, “I’ve gotta put that on the record.”
They cut Bobby onto the record and then released the single. It was the second big hit after You Make Me Feel Like Dancing. Some people thought it was a peculiar choice because it was a completely different song but I didn’t mind. It showed how I could sing ballads as well.
We were encouraged to be as wild and creative as possible and surprise our audience, always be one step ahead of your audience. Now you’re not supposed to. Now we all got to be bloody Katy Perry. Which is dull for me.
More Than I Can Say was a comeback for you in the U.S. That was a 1959 song by the Crickets. How did that come to you?
Leo Sayer: I’d just recorded an album with Alan Tarney, a total genius. Plays everything. We’d written the album together. We hadn’t realized that we had two extra days in the studio that we’d paid for.
We just thought, let’s do a cover just to be mad. Maybe it won’t make it onto the album, who cares? We were watching TV, bereft of ideas. Then on came this ad and it was The Greatest Hits of Bobby Vee. And in the middle was this song that we remembered: More Than I Can Say.
The liner notes said it came from the album Bobby Vee Meets the Crickets. When Buddy Holly died the Crickets were left on Coral Records. So Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison, who were writing songs at the time, were put together with another Coral artist called Bobby Vee and they made an album. The record company thought it was a fine way to get them out of a jam.
The thing becomes a big hit. There we are 20 years later picking up this song. We recorded it in about three or four hours. We played the album for the record company and we said, we’ve got one extra track, we should play it for you, we don’t know what to do with it. And they all turned around and said, “That’s your hit.” And bang – that was the first single.
Later on I go to America and it became a country hit in the States. It topped the country charts at the time, which was pretty unique for me. So I walk into a Nashville station and some guy says [in Southern accent], “Here’s Leon Sayers, country star!”
He says, “I’ve got a surprise for you, I’ve got a man on the phone and it’s Sonny Curtis.” Sonny tells me, “I love you man, you’ve just bought me a new tractor!”
When are you coming back to the U.S.?
Leo Sayer: I don’t get to connect with the States very much, sadly, but I’m always trying to get back. Currently I’m working and singing as good as ever, my voice has not changed. I’m still as strong as ever. I work all the time down here in Australia. I’m just off to Beijing and I work all over the Far East – Japan, Korea, and I’m just off to Europe to do some TV shows there because I’m still big in England. The only thing missing is America.
You’ve recorded a lot of songs by the Beatles including Yes It Is on the latest album. Did you ever meet Paul McCartney again?
Leo Sayer: It had to be eleven years later, 1985 or ’86. I’m walking down Sunset Boulevard to go to Tower Records because we had this wonderful record store in those days that was open all night. After you’ve had dinner and smoked a joint, you could walk down the street and buy some records! Great! A Mercedes pulls up beside me. “Get in!” sounds the voice. It’s Macca! It’s just him in the car and I’m thinking, “Fuck me, this is a Beatle. And he’s driving by himself.”
So I said, “Paul, how are you?” I hadn’t seen him in years. And he said, “I just saw you walking, I knew it was you. You did what I said.” I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “You didn’t cut your hair.”
I had to think for a minute. I said, “Oh my God, yeah, I do remember, when we first met you gave me some advice.” He said, “Yeah, I wasn’t gonna give you any more because I knew you’d learn it all yourself. Come on, let’s go shopping.”
We highly entertained everybody by walking ’round for about two hours buying records in Tower, which was wonderful. That night I got a hint to Paul McCartney’s music tastes. There’s Stockhausen and strange old American Indian music and I’m giving him some old blues and Moses Asch folk music, Folkways stuff, and some modern gospel.
You also had an early encounter with Jimi Hendrix.
Leo Sayer: Before my career started, I’m in Brighton and I got a job working in an art studio. An American started working there. She was just incredible. She was from Detroit. She said, “I’ve got an old boyfriend coming over from the States. Would you want to come with me, take the train up to London? I’ll buy the tickets.” I didn’t have any money at that time. So I said, “Yeah, fuck yeah.”
We go to this hotel, the Strand Palace. This straggly-haired, tall skinny black dude comes out and says hi. They went to the bedroom and obviously they’re bonking like mad. He’s got a really nice acoustic guitar and a couple of harmonicas. So I start playing the harmonica.
He came into the room just dressed in his shorts and he says, “Hey, you play man?” He grabs the guitar, catches the key that I’m in and we start jamming together. He’s singing and I’m singing. She comes in the room and says, “Will you fucking come back to bed?” He says, “No, leave it babe” and lights a cigarette and we just play away. We’re chatting away like mad – “What’s your name?” “I’m James.” “What’s your name? “Gerry.” My real name is Gerard. We’re getting on like a house on fire.
Maybe a month later, this girl has left work. She’s in London, she calls me out of the blue and says, “Jimi’s doing a show, why don’t you come up?” So I go up, it’s at the Lyceum Ballroom. Afterwards we go to a club, the Speakeasy, kind of small and tight. I’m standing by the side of the stage and he sees me. And he says “Gerry!” He’s supposed to be taking the stage and he’s just gone over and given me a hug, “Good to see you man, you wanna play some harp tonight?” And I’m going, “I don’t think so.”
And he’s fucking outrageous. Over in the corner on the other side are Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Pete Townshend. They’re all looking on in awe. Jeff Beck was there as well. Jeff wasn’t looking on in awe but then that’s Jeff.
Later there’s a time when we go backstage and say hello. I’m in the room with the holy of holies. Clapton walks in: “You were amazing.” Didn’t know what to say, completely blabber-mouthed, and I’m standing with them all and Jimi introduced me: “This is my friend Gerry.”
I never got to see him again. That was it. He slipped off to the States the next day. That was my encounter with Jimi, a really nice man. Very civil, very polite. He became an animal on stage but he was just the quietest, most gentle dude.
To me he was really nice. He also gave me some good advice as well. I wish I’d have taken it. He said that every single person in this business is a crook. And you can only listen to yourself. “Don’t trust anybody,” he said. And he was dead right.
And yet the irony is that you have to go with things or else you’ll never get anywhere. You know you’re gonna get fucked but you’ve gotta say yes. And that’s the story of my life [laughs].