Golden year for hitmaker Leo Sayer

Leo Sayer. Picture: Kristian DowlingLeo Sayer. Picture: Kristian Dowling
Leo Sayer. Picture: Kristian Dowling
With the world having emerged from a two-year hiatus, Leo Sayer will be celebrating the milestone of 50 years as a recording artist the only way he knows how – via a huge UK tour.

Now 74, and living in New South Wales, having settled in Australia at the turn of the Millennium, Sayer has quite a catalogue of hits to draw upon, including the UK Number Ones When I Need You and Thunder in my Heart, as well as songs such as You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, More Than I Can Say and Moonlighting.

During the lockdown period he released two new songs, My City In Lockdown and How Did We Get Here?, as well as collaborating on a tribute single to his friend and late guitarist, Al Hodge. He also found time to self-produce a new album – Northern Songs, his own take on songs written by The Beatles.

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Born Gerard Hugh Sayer in Shoreham-by-Sea in 1948, he was ‘discovered’ by David Courtney, then manager of Adam Faith. Initially, they wrote songs together, penning Roger Daltrey’s solo hit Giving It All Away, before Sayer launched his recording career and struck the big time with his second solo single The Show Must Go On.

Leo Sayer. Picture: Larnce GoldLeo Sayer. Picture: Larnce Gold
Leo Sayer. Picture: Larnce Gold

Sayer says he adopted the stage name Leo because of his “huge head of hair” when he first met Adam Faith. “His wife Jackie said I reminded them of a TV cartoon called ‘Leo The Lion’. I tried using the name and it stuck.”

When Leo first appeared on the BBC show ‘Top Of The Pops’ he cut a striking figure dressed in a ‘Pierrot’ costume which certainly made people sit up and take notice.

“It was from an old French movie made at the end of the Second World War called Les Enfants Du Paradis,” he says. “The central character was the Peirrot played by actor Jean Louis Barrault. I was always fascinated by the movie so chose to put the costume on for the first album photoshoot with Graham Hughes at the start of my career.”

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Sayer is also a songwriter and co-wrote many of his hits. Of the inspirations for his songs, he says: “Too many influences to list, really, but I was a visual artist (he studied Commercial Art and Graphic Design at the West Sussex College of Art and Design) before I became a singer, as well as a poet. So therefore, I guess the inspiration has always been literature and art. And heroes like Bob Dylan.”

Explaining why he emigrated to Australia, he says: “At 55 years old I needed a career restart. There were so many new opportunities awaiting me here that weren’t on offer any more in the UK. I always loved visiting here on tour in the 70s and had some wonderful experiences, so I couldn’t think of a better place to move to.”

Sayer’s latest album, Northern Songs, was released earlier this year. It’s Sayer’s take on songs originally recorded by The Beatles. And apart from Mark Kennedy’s drums on one track (Hey Jude), Sayer played all the instruments as well as arranging the songs and producing the album.

“Mark plays in my band down here – a great musician,” he says. “I find that I’ve become a ‘One Man Band’, recording wise. It’s something I’ve always wanted to be able to do, and I’m always imaging fully finished songs in my head. I guess I just had to wait until the technology caught up, and now I can do it all. This process does take a lot longer though, but it feels highly rewarding to me.”

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The album contains Sayer’s interpretations of 18 Beatles songs, mainly by Lennon and McCartney, but two by George Harrison. He explains why he chose these particular tracks.

“These are the ones I heard in my head, recollections of my favourites from the boys. Going over them like this, but not playing back the originals led me to some interesting interpretations.”

In particular, Sayer has re-imagined George Harrison’s Only A Northern Song, one of The Beatles’ more off-the-wall psychedelic tracks. So much so that even the tribute band The Bootleg Beatles haven’t attempted it yet.

“I was once talking to George and he told me all about why he wrote it,” the singer says. “They boys were fed up with their publisher Dick James (who ran Northern Songs) and George was also fed up with people’s expectancy of them. Thus the line ‘It’s only a northern song’ is to me very cutting and acerbic. I think it’s an important song. There are a lot of random samples of guitars in there to give it some ‘colour’ and discordancy.”

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Sayer is no stranger to Beatles’ songs, having recorded The Long and Winding Road, Let It Be and I Am The Walrus for the ill-fated film All This And World War II in 1976. However, he decided not to re-record those particular songs as he explains.

“What’s the point in re-doing stuff? I enjoyed making those recordings, but they are firmly in the past.”

Sayer says it wasn’t an ambition to pay homage to the Fab Four. “I didn’t pre-conceive it but it kind of presented itself when I was experimenting with working on my own. The Beatles’ song-writing is a collection of musical masterpieces, so they are great songs to interpret, and I found myself thinking of what could be done with them. By the time I’d tried approaching three of the tracks, and got them finished to my satisfaction, I knew I had to continue.”

So for the tour, Sayer promises us the hits and more. “I always like to include some of the more obscure songs from the catalogue, album tracks that don’t always get noticed. When I get together with the band for rehearsals (in August), we’ll have a go at some of these,” he says.

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And the new album? “Not sure yet but at least two or three of the songs will be in there.”

He plans to have a basic backing band. “It’s just four guys, who all sing too. I like to keep the live shows honest and straightforward, no sequences or backing sounds. Everything played and performed by the guys you see onstage. Keeping it simple.”

Another project from Sayer is his autobiography. “I’m working on that right now,” he says. “It’s chock full of all the adventures in my crazy life and career.”

Leo Sayer plays at St George’s Hall, Bradford on October 11.

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