Print Shortlink

Sayer, Leo (21 May 1948-Present)

Gerard Hugh Sayer is a singer-songwriter from Shoreham-By-Sea, Sussex, England, who was discovered by David Courtney and Adam Faith, and turned out to be instrumental in the launching of Roger Daltrey’s solo career.

Courtney held an audition for his fledgling talent agency at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton.  Sayer, who was going by the first name Gerry, was in a band called Patches at the time, and they passed the audition.  Courtney and Sayer became fast friends and started co-writing songs together at David’s flat, Courtney at the piano and Sayer in the other room, vetting lyrics and poems he had written for usable material.  They threw down a demo and tried shilling it to George Martin, eventually finding an audience with the aforementioned Faith, for whom Courtney had played drums.  Faith booked Patches to record a single at Olympic Studios in London, where The Who just happened to be laying down tracks for a new album.  Courtney and Faith had little production experience, and Roger Daltrey generously donated his studio and time to their freshman effort.  It proved to be a lucrative arrangement for all sides, as Daltrey was smitten with some of Courtney’s and Sayer’s songs, and they repaid him in kind by giving him several compositions that had been earmarked for Sayer’s next album.  As a result, Daltrey hit the streets well before Silverbird, which was fine and dandy for all parties involved, as they knew they were into something good.  Besides, Faith was underwhelmed by Patches, whose first single flopped, and decided to market Sayer as a solo act, retaining only guitarist Max Chetwynd from the original band.

Faith’s wife Jackie coined the first name “Leo” in honour of Sayer’s trademark mane of hair.  (Never mind that lions don’t have afros.)  Things started happening fast:  Joe Smith, the big cheese at Warner Bros. Records, traveled to Brighton to see the young phenom in action and immediately signed him to a ten-record deal, which covered most of the Americas, including Canada, South America, and the United States.  Chrysalis got in on the act and signed Sayer to a contract that would allow them to distribute his records throughout the rest of the world.  Sayer was poised for international stardom, touring tirelessly to promote his new album, the paternal Faith in tow.  Adam Faith was involved in a serious automobile accident after one of the shows, winding up in the hospital to recover from his injuries.  Ever the promoter, all he talked about in the midst of his trauma was how great the first single of Silverbird was.

As a result of Faith’s indefatigible marketing efforts, Sayer landed a spot on the BBC television programme, The Old Grey Whistle Test, shortly before embarking on a European tour.  It was the time for flashy stage acts and outlandish costumes, and Sayer was no exception.  He dressed himself up as a Pierrot, possibly as a tribute to one of his idols, Marcel Marceau, with his wife Janice patiently applying his clown makeup and sewing his costumes.  All of this hard work paid off, as Silverbird went to #2 on the U.K. album chart, with “The Show Must Go On” reaching the same status on the singles chart.  A BBC concert followed.  Sayer made his mark on American audiences in a most unusual way.  Three Dog Night took “The Show Must Go On” to #1, going so far as to pay homage to Sayer by dressing up as clowns to support the single on television.  The time was ripe for a U.S. tour.  Sayer’s reputation had preceded him, as audiences flocked to get a glimpse of this British phenom, specifically at The Bottom Line in New York, where Hall & Oates opened for him, and The Troubador in L.A.

He returned home to England in the summer of 1974 and dropped the Pierrot gimmick, which had always been his plan, once the persona had served its purpose and put him on the musical map.  (Besides, it must have been hot on stage in those costumes and all that makeup.)  He was pleased to find the audience accepted the change, happy to see the man behind the mask, as it were, and pouring into the Crystal Palace Bowl to see him open for Rick Wakeman.

A second album, Just A Boy, produced his first top-ten success in the States, a song called “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)” which Sayer says reflects his first experiences in the States.  (We’re not sure what that says about the States.)  It also charted in the U.K., along with “One Man Band”.  Sayer’s popularity was spreading to France, where he lived the dream of playing The Theatre d’Champs Elysees, home base of the aforementioned Marcel Marceau.  Later that same year, Paul Dainty, a British promoter, encouraged Leo to tour Australia.  Much to his surprise, Sayer found himself getting a Beatlesesque mob scene at Sydney Airport.  His two albums had captured the Aussies’ fancy, and “Leo-Mania” was sweeping across the continent, selling out every venue and shattering box-office records Down Under.  It was an affectionate and loyal following he would find with no other country, an allegiance that would lead him back to Australia time and again.

” Leo-Mania” wasn’t confined to Australia, as Sayer had already made positive in-roads with the French, so much so that when he appeared at the Cannes Midem music business festival in 1975, his set was followed by such a rambunction ovation, Nino Rota and the symphony orchestra he was supposed to conduct reportedly were “unable” to go on.  (Perhaps it was an example of the old show-business adage, “How do you follow that?”)

It was around this time that Sayer and his long-time songwriting partner David Courtney went their separate ways.  Courtney was embarking on his own solo career, and Sayer hooked up with composer Frank Farrell, a former bassist and pianist for Supertramp.  Another Year was slapped together in two weeks at the behest of Adam Faith, who was preoccupied with his own album at the time.  It didn’t stop Another Year from being another crowd-pleaser, however, yielding the #2 single “Moonlighting” and capturing the imagination of the Irish with a song called “I Will Not Stop Fighting”.  (Go figure.)  Leo supported the album relentlessly with an international tour that included Australia, Europe, The Far East, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa.  Around Christmastime of the same year, Sayer suffered a rare setback, releasing an ill-advised cover of “Let It Be”.  It did not stop him, however, from re-making “I Am The Walrus” and “The Long And Winding Road” for the box-office disaster All This and World War II.

A year later, Sayer switched producers and hired Richard Perry, who had his own ideas about which tack Leo’s career should take, showcasing him as a vocalist as opposed to a singer-songwriter.  Perry exploited Sayer’s talent for R&B by encouraging him to cover “Reflections”, “Tears of a Clown”, and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”.  Sayer balked at first but quickly acceded when he realized his “back-up band” would include Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, and Ray Parker, Jr.  Ironically, it was in this climate that Leo would create his biggest hit, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”, which evolved from a good, old-fashioined jam session.  Vini Poncia would later put the spit and polish on it and it rocketed to #1 in the U.S. in September 1976, Leo’s first song to do so in the States.  He would repeat the feat with the follow-up single, the Albert Hammond/Carole Bayer-Sager love ballad, “When I Need You”, which also topped the charts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the U.K.  The following year, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” astonishingly won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song.

Endless Flight, which Sayer had originally been reluctant to board, was fitted with platinum wings in the U.K. and U.S., selling over one million copies, with its singles doing the same six times over.  Thunder In My Heart must have seemed like a disappointment in comparison, managing a paltry #38 on the Billboard charts, although it fared much better in the U.K., peaking at #8.  The title track and “Easy To Love” followed suit, each cracking the U.S. top forty.  ” Thunder in My Heart” peaked at #22 on the U.K. charts, whereas “Easy To Love” didn’t register a blip.  His eponymous follow-up featured an all-star band led by Lindsey Buckingham, as well as a collection of musicians who would soon be known as Toto.  Sayer gamely supported the album with another mind-numblingly exhaustive tour of Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States, including Hawaii.  It is little wonder this curly-haired ball of energy fell offstage at a concert in Wisconsin, in the middle of a 65-date tour.  The fall received widespread publicity, but the undaunted Sayer, who was injured in the incident, refused to miss a single show.  His resolve couldn’t have hurt his chances to win Best Male Artist of 1978, which was bestowed on him by The British Pop and Rock Awards.

Courtney and Sayer re-united in 1979 with another all-star band that included Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.  The same year, The Very Best Of Leo Sayer went straight to the top of the U.K. charts and went double-platinum, selling two million copies.  Unfortunately, Leo wasn’t reaping all the rewards of his hard work and success.  He wound up in a legal fight with Adam Faith, who had supposedly jilted him out of hundreds of thousands of pounds in royalties, a fraction of which he was awarded in court.  This meant going back on the road, not just to support an album, but to make money.  Fans across the world were happy to give it to him, in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and the high-rolling cities of Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Reno in the U.S., where he found himself curiously billed as a co-headliner with Bill Cosby.

The 1980s started out hopeful for Sayer, who hit #2 in the U.K. and U.S. with a remake of the old Bobby Vee song, “More Than I Can Say”.  He also hit the charts as a composer when Cliff Richard took “Dreaming” to #8 in the U.K.  Two years later, another international hit arrived in the form of the Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield-penned “Have You Ever Been In Love”.

Although the hits were coming fewer and farther between, Leo continued to enjoy his popularity, hosting his own TV shows on BBC, as well as a show on Radio 1, and co-hosting Solid Gold with Dionne Warwick.

1985 was not a good year for Leo, who split up with long-time wife Janice and long-time collaborator Adam Faith, presumably over the royalties issue.  Both were replaced the following year when Leo found a partner, in both senses of the word, in Donatella Piccinetti.  He left Chrysalis and started pitching himself to other record companies.  It was, ironically, a time for transformation for Sayer, who straightened his curly locks and sported a ponytail, causing audiences to do a double-take in Australia and the U.K., where he toured with great success.

In 1990, much to his surprise, Leo was greeted with unabashed fervor in, of all places, Moscow, where he played two dates and found the audience singing his own songs back to him.  Although the hits were drying up, he was still as popular as ever on the road, where he spent much of the ’90s.

In 1997, he was offered a contract with The Cafi Royal in London, where he found some unlikely allies in the tabloid press, eager to chat up a Leo Sayer comeback.  The ruse worked, as did the fortuitously timed Groove Generation cover of “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”, which hit the charts in the U.K. and introduced Leo to a new generation of fans in England, where disco was definitely not dead.

Touring continued to be his bread and butter after the turn of the century, and he returned to the studio to record Voice In My Head, a largely do-it-yourself project that employed the co-writing talents of Albert Hammond and Susie Webb.

In 2005, Leo was surprised to find himself atop the U.K. charts, with a re-working of “Thunder In My Heart”, mixed by Meck.  It continues to be a dance-club staple, from England to Australia, where Leo moved around the same time “Thunder In My Heart” was released.  In 2007, he made an ill-fated appearance on the British “reality” series, Celebrity Big Brother.  Not only was he the audience’s least favourite member of the household; he managed to quit the day he was to be “evicted”; he also stormed off the set, breaking things and lobbing obscenities at the security officers on the set.  To add insult to injury, his longtime parter Piccinetti had a fling with Donny Tourette, another member of the Celebrity Big Brother “cast”.  Piccinetti and Sayer called it quits after twenty-two years, in March 2007.

Leo Sayer recordings
In My Life (David Courtney/Leo Sayer)
Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance) (David Courtney/Leo Sayer)