In the early 1970s, singer-songwriter Leo Sayer enjoyed a stellar run on the charts in both his native England and the United States with such upbeat pop-R&B hybrids as "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," "When I Need You" and "More Than I Can Say. " With his songwriting partner, musician David Courtney, and the patronage of manager and ex-pop star Adam Faith, Sayer enjoyed seven straight Top 10 singles on the U.K. chart, beginning in 1973 with "The Show Must Go On" and concluding with 1977's "How Much Love." Between these hits, he generated two No. 1 hits in America with "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," which reaped a Grammy for Best R&B song, and the ballad "When I Need You," which topped the charts in 1976 and 1977, respectively. His tenure at the top of the music scene, however, proved short-lived; by 1978, his brand of highly theatrical, polished pop had been supplanted in both American and the U.K. by disco, New Wave and straightforward rock-n-roll, among other things. Sayer would sit out most of the ensuing two decades while continuing to draw huge crowds around the world, most notably in Australia, where he maintained his status as a pop idol well into the new millennium. His participation in remixes of "Dancing" and the 1977 single "Thunder in My Heart" in 1998 and 2006 revived interest in his career in England, underscoring his knack for producing some of the most enduring pop material of the 1970s.
Born Gerard Hugh Sayer on May 21, 1948 in Shoreham-by-Sea, a small seaside resort town in West Sussex, England, he was the second of three children by an English father, Thomas Sayer, and an Irish mother, Teresa Nolan. He first sang in the church choir before performing in his school's band. By his teenaged years, Sayer had discovered American rock-n-roll acts like Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly, both of whom would greatly influence his own music career. While studying commercial art and graphic design at the West Sussex College of Art and Design, he began singing and playing harmonica in local bands. Eventually, he formed an arts and music club, the Worthing Workshop, where he performed as part of the house band, Terraplane Blues. He soon grew tired of his regimented studies and took a job at a design studio before moving to London at the height of the counterculture movement in 1967. For a while, Sayer balanced his illustration and design career with forays into poetry and music, but his efforts yielded precious little money.
He soon returned to Shoreham to recover from a mild breakdown, but within a few years, Sayer had returned to performing music with a band called Patches, which found some success on the club scene. In 1970, Sayer and Patches auditioned for singer-songwriter-producer David Courtney, who had launched a talent agency. Courtney was impressed with the group and in particular, Sayer's vocals and songwriting ability. After recording several demos with the band, Courtney took the material to his former employer, '60s pop star Adam Faith, who quickly booked the group into London's Olympic Studios to record their first single, "Living in America" backed with "The Hour is Love." Released by Warner Bros. in the U.K., the single failed to chart, prompting Patches to disband shortly thereafter. But Faith and Courtney remained convinced of Sayer's talent and soon agreed to co-manage him as a solo act, but not before renaming him "Leo Sayer," a moniker inspired by the singer's leonine mane of hair. Sayer and Courtney soon began work on songs at a variety of locations, including Barn Studio, owned by the Who's vocalist Roger Daltrey, who also lived in Sussex. Daltrey was so impressed with the material the pair was writing that he asked them to contribute songs for his upcoming solo album, Daltrey (1973). One of the tracks, "Giving it All Away," reached No. 5 on the U.K. singles chart, which led to recording contracts for Sayer with Chrysalis in England and Warner Bros. in North America.
"Why is Everybody Going Home," the first single from Sayer's solo debut album, Silverbird (1973), failed to find an audience, but its follow-up, "The Show Must Go On, " rose to No. 2 on the U.K. pop singles chart. Sayer promoted the single tirelessly through television appearances and an opening slot on Roxy Music's British and European tour, for which he frequently donned the clown-like guise of the Commedia dell'Arte character Pierrot. The American rock band Three Dog Night would release their own version of the song in 1974, which reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, effectively preventing Sayer's original take to find purchase on the stateside charts. But Silverbird still rose to No. 2 on the U.K. albums chart, which launched Sayer's career in earnest. Following a successful tour of the United States and Australia in 1974, he released his second album, Just a Boy (1974), which featured a Top 10 U.K. hit with "One Man Band," a song originally penned for and recorded by Roger Daltrey, and "Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)," which marked his debut on the American pop singles chart at No. 9.
Sayer teamed with ex-Supertramp bassist-keyboardist Frank Farrell to pen his third record, Another Year (1975). The project was, by most accounts, a difficult one due to Courtney and Faith's focus on their own respective music projects, which prevented them from devoting more time to Sayer's record. Despite these challenges, Another Year peaked at No. 8 on the U.K. albums chart, while its lead single, "Moonlighting," reached No. 2 on their pop singles chart. After recording a cover of the Beatles' "Let It Be" as a Christmas single in late 1975, he teamed with Farrell and American producer Richard Perry, who had mined considerable success in the States with albums for Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, among others. Perry was keen to recast Sayer as a singer rather than a songwriter who sang his own material, which resulted into two of the biggest hits of his career: the ebullient, disco-flavored "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," which Sayer co-wrote with Vini Poncia, and "When I Need You," a melancholy ballad penned by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager. Both songs topped the pop charts in America in 1976, while "Dancing" netted Sayer his first Grammy for Best R&B Song. Endless Flight (1976), the album on which both songs were featured, sold over six million copies worldwide, prompting Perry to quickly begin work on a follow-up with Sayer.
However, Thunder in My Heart (1977) did not repeat the same global success as its predecessor. Despite songs co-written with Hammond, Tom Snow and Michael Omartian, the record only reached No. 38 on the U.S. albums chart, while the title track and its follow-up, "Easy to Love," stalled at the lower depths of the Top 40 on the pop singles chart. Manager Adam Faith convinced Perry and Sayer to direct their focus away from pop and R&B to embrace a more mainstream image that would include dates in Las Vegas and other major venues. The resulting album, simply titled Leo Sayer (1978), featured Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac on guitar and members of Toto and Linda Ronstadt's bands behind Sayer, but received an even chillier response from American listeners than Thunder in My Heart.. Its lead single, "I Can't Stop Loving You (Though I Try)," was a Top 10 hit in the U.K., but failed to reached the charts in America, which indicated to many that Sayer's run as an international hit maker was coming to an end, a notion underscored by his next album, Here (1979), which rose no higher than No. 44 on the U.K. albums chart, despite a reunion with David Courtney as Sayer's songwriting partner. Sayer rebounded briefly with a cover of "More Than I Can Say," a single originally penned by Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison of Buddy Holly's band the Crickets. It reached No. 2 in England and America. The single was featured on the album Living in a Fantasy (1980), which generated Sayer's last American chart hit with its title track, a No. 23 hit in 1981.
After that, he was absent from the U.S. Billboard charts, though he would remain a presence on the U.K. Top 20 for another two years thanks to hits like "Have You Ever Been in Love" (1982) and "Orchard Road" (1983). Sayer tempered the collapse of his pop career by hosting his own program on the BBC's Radio 1 and participating in Formula 1 racing. He also remained a popular attraction on the global market, drawing huge crowds to live performances in Australia, where he became a naturalized citizen in 2009, as well as Southeast Asia and Russia. He returned to the U.K. charts in 1998 with a remake of "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" with a British group called Groove Generation, while his original version was featured on the soundtrack to "Charlie's Angels" (2000), which reached No. 5 on the American pop albums chart. Six years later, a remix of "Thunder in My Heart" by British DJ Meck topped the U.K. pop charts, which continued Sayer's revival in his native country. The following year, Sayer made headlines in England for his participation on the controversial reality series "Celebrity Big Brother" (Channel 4/Channel 5, 2001- ), which saw him smash open a fire door in order to escape the show's heated atmosphere of racial comments and bullying behavior.
By Paul Gaita