Nearly 50 years after he scored a hit with The Show Must Go On, Leo Sayer is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s currently back on the road celebrating his milestone of 50 years as a recording artist and will play Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on September 30.
One of the most successful British recording artists of all time, Leo has racked up millions of album sales, plus transatlantic No.1 singles. Fans can expect to hear a multitude of hits in his anniversary shows including You Make Me feel Like Dancing, One Man Band, How Much Love?, Long Tall Glasses, Thunder In My Heart and When I Need You.
Leo, who has released an album of songs by The Beatles entitled Northern Songs, recently took time out to chat with Andy Howells about the past and present, plus his ambitions for the future!
You’re finally returning to Wales on your 50th anniversary tour!
I’m thrilled that we can come to Cardiff. Every tour that I’ve done, I’ve been pushing for gigs in Wales, usually the closest I get scheduled is Prestatyn! As I have so many Welsh friends like Andy Fairweather-Low, I’m thinking why not Swansea? Why not Cardiff? I’m glad to be back at St David’s Hall because that’s a gig of memories for me, it’s always a place that’s been very special!
As well as the tour, you also have a new album entitled Northern Songs?
Yeah, it’s a tribute to The Beatles and done in a very “Leo” way as well! I thought everybody does covers exactly like the original. I just don’t think that cuts it really, I always think you’ve got to do something with the song, develop them, give them some life! So, I messed around with them quite a bit. I thought I was going to get into a lot of trouble from dedicated Beatles fans and they’d all diss me like mad, but that doesn’t seem to be the case and they all seem to love it!
I was listening again to your version of Eleanor Rigby and its interesting because there’s a bit of a Michael Jackson vibe going on with it.
That was deliberate and I was trying to look at The Beatles through other artists eyes, wondering how I could mix things up. There’s a slow blues version of Can’t Buy Me Love, a Cuban take on Yesterday, reggae with Nowhere Man and even a bit of Van Morrison influenced R&B with A Hard Day’s Night. I tried to mix up the genres a little bit and do something with it. It’s been an interesting, fantastic reaction and I’m very proud of the record.
You’ve got a great back catalogue of your own songs to be proud of as well.
It’s a tricky one, I mean we can’t have a support act and haven’t for the last ten years, because we sing all the songs. I come straight out and sing The Show Must Go On and end with Giving it All Away. Between that, there’s so many hits and songs to fit in that we can only represent 90% of it.
I’ve recently played three gigs in Ireland that originally, I was meant to do in 2020 which got curtailed because of COVID. The rules came down for no more gigs of more than 200 people at normal gatherings in Ireland, while the same thing happened pretty much in England around about the same time. I rushed back to Australia and since then it’s been very quiet. Now, finally we were able to do the remaining three shows on the Irish tour in Belfast, Cork and Dublin and we just had a fantastic reaction. It’s great to be back.
Well, you sang The Show Must Go On to coin one of your early hits and it appears it does!
Absolutely, I still have ambitions. I still want to headline Glastonbury, play Madison Square Garden, make my Bio-pic…
Given the imagery and storytelling you use in many of your songs have you ever considered making a musical?
I have, but you must get people interested in it! The weird thing in our business is that you go in and out of fashion. I remember speaking to one of Cameron Mackintosh’s crew when I came up with a concept for a musical. About six months later, We Will Rock You came out and I swear some of my concepts were in there! (That kind of happens, like I borrowed Michael Jackson’s riff to do Eleanor Rigby!) But I don’t know about the musical. Maybe in the right moment? All the songs are true stories. Moonlighting features the roadie that ran off to Gretna Green with the daughter of the Worthing Chief of Police. Orchard Road was about me taking up with a young fan, then pleading with my wife to take me back, and then there was nearly been run over by a taxicab in One Man Band. I suppose my life is a musical in a way!
I’ve just finished my book, so I’m going to be putting that out soon, that could stir up some ideas! I was waiting for someone to write a book about me and there were quite a few people who stepped into the frame, but then it just never came off. There was a time when I was asked to my write my memoirs, but then the contract came through and it was all about serialisation rights in the Daily Mail and things like that. Then I sent them a few chapters and it was like – “not scandalous enough!”
We’ve gone through a bit of a sad time with things like Britain’s Got Talent where sensationalism has been overriding the real story, so thank God we’ve come through that period and I’ve attracted some people who are really interested in my story as it happened. It’s been an incredible life and I’ve had some amazing experiences just by been in the right place at the right time. Then there’s all the stories behind the hits, the things that happened and the wonderful musicians I’ve worked with.
Your early hits were produced by Adam Faith, who scored many of his own hits in the early 1960s.
Adam was a big promoter for me in the early days, he opened such doors. I remember the day after he got involved, my group Patches had a single out and we strode right up to Radio One, holding my hand, making me follow him straight up to the Alan Freeman Chart Show. He said to Alan who was playing whatever was number 17, “Get that rubbish off and put this on. This is the future!” Then, right there, with all of England listening was Patches featuring Leo Sayer, singing “Living in America.” It stopped the show, I think it came back at number 6 or something because time was running out. A whole load of people didn’t get played that day because of Adam!
In 1976, you worked with Richard Perry on the album Endless Flight. That album was a bit of a game-changer for you, wasn’t it?
When I first met Richard, I wasn’t totally happy. I was looking for more of a soulful vibe and looking for a different producer. Richard didn’t like my songs very much, but we finally got to a meeting point and when I finally got into the studio with him, he was incredible and brought so many incredible musicians into the fold. The band Toto formed out of those sessions, because all those guys were playing in the background. Suddenly, I was singing with “A-Class” players such as Ray Parker Junior, Larry Carlton and Steve Gadd. That changes your game, you just become better for it. I was writing songs with people like Barry Mann, who wrote You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ while Tom Snow who wrote hits for Whitney Houston co-wrote Thunder In My Heart with me.
I was suddenly in the big league; it was an incredible experience and taught me so much. In America, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing went straight to number one. That was one of the highlights of my life – the boy from Shoreham who wrote and created a number one record in the States! Then of course, When I Need You, which was my first British number one, became my second American Number One, so I was the top of my game!
The album, Thunder In My Heart followed in 1977, but that wasn’t as big a success?
The single went Top 20, but Richard Perry was quite disappointed as we believed we had bettered the Endless Flight album. Maybe we were a bit ahead of our time. That blue-eyed soul stuff did go off with Hall & Oates and Boz Scaggs but for some reason it didn’t happen. I personally think it was because my management were so greedy, as they pocketed all the money rather than leave it with the record company for promotion.
To have it rediscovered later in 2005 was fantastic, it gave Thunder in My Heart a second chance. The boys who did Thunder in My Heart (Again) were a group called Bimbo Jones. Although it was Meck’s name on the record, it was Bimbo Jones who produced it. They’d had massive dance hits before and were outsourced to do it. They are great guys and I’ve made records with them since. When it came out, it was a magical record. I’d just moved to Australia, and I’d been kind of forgotten about here, then suddenly I’ve got another number one! You pinch yourself, because the funniest thing was going on to all those Saturday morning kids shows, miming to a vocal I sang in 1977! Its extraordinary really!
What inspired your singing style Leo?
I listened to one of the greatest singers of all time, BB King, not only a passionate blues guitarist but also a passionate singer. Also Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding were my heroes. People who pushed their heads back and shouted it out. Its all about the passion. I’ve always been a very passionate singer; I give it my all.
I’m also very fortunate that in the early years of my life I had a wonderful parish priest who taught me how to bring the voice from the whole body rather than just from the throat. I had some great schooling there when I was a boy soprano. That gave me a very loud and powerful voice and that’s always been my forte. With producers like Richard Perry and Arif Mardin, we’d set up in the studio like it was a live gig and they’d have me singing with the band. A lot of people don’t do that. The inspiration was having great musicians in the room with me. Tracks like Thunder In My Heart were usually first takes, you’re sweating like a pig afterwards, totally destroyed, but you know you’ve got it in the can!
So the current tour, will see you performing many of your hits?
Yes, we’ve even added some classic tracks like Bedsitterland, Train, Raining in My Heart, we might be doing Saturday Girl from Voice in My Head.
It’s very hard doing a three-hour show, they keep warning me about curfews! If Bruce Springsteen can do a three and a half hour show, I can do a four-hour show. For now though, we must look at the economics. If we could afford the fines for going over time, we’d do a longer show!
One day I’d like to tour with an orchestra and do tracks like Why Is Everybody Going Home? Who knows? I’m getting a certain amount of recognition now which hasn’t always come in the past, so, the future’s bright!
- Leo Sayer plays Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on September 30. For ticket availability visit St David’s Hall’s website.