Leo Sayer has recently put together a box set which compiles and celebrates most of his studio output from the last 40 years. Just A Box includes all his studio albums and comes with two bonus CDs of rarities. Not only that, the musician and songwriter has also taken to the road in the UK and plays the 229 Venue tonight.
We caught up with Leo recently, and in the first part of a two part interview we talked to him about the early years and his initial success in England before he became a massive star in North America…
SuperDeluxeEdition: How did you get into music in the first place?
Leo Sayer: The first record I bought was Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls Of Fire”, and my dad heard a little bit of me playing it in the bedroom, came storming in, picked it up and said ‘I don’t want to hear that in my house again’ – opened the window and threw it into the garden. And at that moment my rebellion was set. It was always going to be the voice of family or authority that would set the meter for my expression.
I suppose there’s a rambling collection [of memories] from me starting to sing in the church choir – didn’t really do much at school – although we had a school band and the drummer couldn’t afford a drum-kit. He had a bass drum and a hi-hat and the rest of it was books on tables. So we were a crude band. But I remember how seriously we took it, even though we were probably crap! I knew even then, if we were going to do this thing, let’s do it the best we can. I remember hours and hours of rehearsing, even for that school book banging performance! The teacher came up and said “you’re damaging your books with your rock ‘n’ roll.” This would have been ’62 or ’63 – The Beatles were just coming out. I hated them because I loved blues. We adored all the originals like Buddy Holly. We were kind of snobby about the fact that people like Boo Diddley, Chuck Berry and even Bobby Vee and Del Shannon made this music first. When the Rolling Stones came out we were into them because they were faithful to the original meter.
So then I left school and went to art school. I was a Mod and it was the Summer Of Love. We were listening to Tamla Motown and Soul Music. I did two years at art school in the end (I think it was a three year course) and I came up to London and the whole blues scene was really happening. In the evenings after working in art studios, we’d always go to see music at places like the 100 Club…
SDE: Had you already decided at this point that you wanted to do music for a living?
LS: No, not really – I was just curious. But I could play the harmonica, because I learnt how to do that at art school and I could bend a few notes. Friends of mine knew I could play and they were always trying to get me to get up on stage and play. I never did until Les Cousins (famous folk and blues club) in Greek Street. It was one of those ‘come all ye’ nights and John Martyn was hosting it and I think I asked Mr Martyn if I could get up and play with my harmonica. So I just grabbed the microphone and played this thing extraordinarily loudly. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it woke the whole place up and I got a standing ovation and everybody cheered! It was a great moment because I suddenly thought ‘shit, I enjoyed that’. After that there was a little bit more of working in art studios, but it all crashed around me because I was trying to be too adventurous…
SDE: So were you looking at a career in graphic design…
LS: I was already in graphic design. I was doing covers for Bob Marley, ads for Moulton Brown… I was pretty much there, working in a studio with top illustrators. I was holding my own, but I was slowly but surely working towards music. The idea of standing up on stage with a band was fascinating to me. I was working a lot with record company people, like Chris Blackwell – our company did all the Island Record covers.
SDE: Quite fortuitous, in a way, working with record labels…
LS: Yes, I’d had a little bit of an overview of the scene. My sister was a big jazz fan as well and I used to go with her to see gigs like Monty Sunshine and Chris Barber. She was really into trad jazz. But that kind of involved the blues because that got to people like Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner. Lonnie Donegan was also playing, although he’d had his hits by this time but he’d always go back and sit in with Chris Barber. Chris was bringing over very interesting people like Big Bill Broonzy, and Champion Jack Dupree to play in his shows, because he was a blues fanatic as well. So he’d play a bit of trad jazz and in the interval he’d say ‘Now I have a little bit of a surprise for you… Mr Big Bill Broonzy!’. So it was very interesting. There was lots of blues around.
And me being involved in the record scene [meant] I got to blag to go and see these people live, like Muddy Waters. In fact one night I was up, again at Les Cousins and Muddy Waters was there. He got up and jammed and I just jumped on the stand and started playing harmonica with him!
SDE: Sounds like you took your harmonica everywhere with you!
LS: [Laughs] Absolutely, it was like an umbilical cord. Anyway, the commercial art thing was alright, until I made a stupid decision to go and get my own studio. I started my own business and I had a bunch of artists I liked, who were friends, working with me. But it all went wrong because we never got paid. You do work and you’re chasing bills. I’m dyslexic, I could never chase a bill. I couldn’t even remember how much they owed me, I’d have to get paperwork out and read it. And then the artists would say ‘we’re not making enough money’ worrying that the place might fold. This was winter 1970. Anyway, one day I posted the keys through the letterbox and told my mates they’d have to argue with the landlord to get their stuff out. I felt really bad about it and I’d had a few blackouts at the time – I was feeling incredibly stressed. It had been my second unsuccessful trip to London, because one time I’d been up there having run away from home and was sleeping on the streets and ended up coming hope with acute hepatitis. So this time it was like, I’d really fucked it.
I couldn’t face my parents – because I’d told them I was a big success, and I wasn’t – so I lived on a houseboat in the River Adur, in Shoreham-by-Sea, where I can from, with my parents living probably not even two miles up the road, [laughs] so it was quite hilarious really. But a couple of mates of mine that I’d met were all in bands. So I ended up fronting some of these bands and the guitarist in one of them ended up moving out of his girlfriend’s and moving in to the boat with me. So Max Chetwyn and I starting writing songs and we rejigged a band we were in at the time, got another member and called it Patches. That’s how it all started. We went to an audition that David Courtney held.
SDE: What was the audition for?
LS: Talent, basically. David Courtney’s dad had said ‘I’ll give you some money if you set up an agency’. A local talent agency. So there was this ad in the Evening Argus, the local paper, and me and the band said ‘let’s go along to that’. We’d been runners-up in the Melody Maker ‘Battle Of The Bands’ contest that went all around. It was like an early version of the X-Factor, and the area finals were in Worthing. We weren’t as professional as some of the other bands , but we were still runners-up, so that was really encouraging. We had some songs – maybe a bit rough and ready – but there was something there. The Evening Argus audition was the next week, so we thought, let’s strike while we’re in this mode. You never know, something might happen – and it did! Adam Faith was apparently at that audition as well and saw it, and said to Dave ‘bring this kid to meet me’. Dave and I had started to write some songs together, because he told me he didn’t really want to be an impresario. He’d also got us no gigs, because he wasn’t very good [laughs]. But he took us to see Adam, and we played some songs that David and I had written, plus a couple of songs that me and Max, the guitarist, had written and he just said ‘right, you’re in the studio’ and he made a booking, just like that!
SDE: What’s interesting about this period is that you were writing material and presumably working towards your first album, when the opportunity to write for Roger Daltrey came along.
LS: Yes, that was all down to Adam’s entrepreneurism, really. As soon as Adam got involved, we went up to London to record a song called “Living In America” with the group Patches. I’ve included it on the box set. It was released in 1971 on the Warner label – I think it sold 50 copies – but undaunted, and with Adam’s great chutzpah, we were marching on to make the “Living In America”, Patches album. But I think he already had designs that ‘Leo Sayer’ was going to come out of the band and be a solo artist. So as soon as we went up to The Manor in Oxfordshire, he fired all the band and I was on my own. That was pretty soon after that first recording, and so he had the job of launching me. Every moment in London he’d be taking me to Radio One, taking me to meet people and pushing me forward. So I had this amazing mentor.
Keith Altham, publicist for the Stones, came onboard and when Keith got involved suddenly it was like “why don’t you try this?” or “I’ll put an article in the New Musical Express”. He said, “one of my clients, Roger Daltrey, has built a studio in his home, because he’s a bit pissed off with Pete Towshend doing a solo album, so he’s built a studio himself and he wants somebody to be a guinea pig and try it out. Why don’t I suggest you guys?”. So he did, and Roger said “bring it on, I love Adam, we were born in the same street” – and it’s true, they were. Roger got really hands on as soon as we were in there. Even assistant engineering, putting on the tapes, that’s Mr Daltrey for you! [laughs]. I’d be doing a couple of local gigs with the band and he’d go along to Mitch Mitchell’s and get the Hendrix PA together, drive it to the gig himself in the Range Rover, set it all up for us and roadie me! We got on like a house on fire – he was amazing.
He loved us all very much and one day he turned around and said “I’m not going to pussyfoot around anymore, I’ve love your songs, Adam played me them and the reason I let you come up here is that I want to record your songs. I am going to do a solo album, so will you give me some songs?” Adam immediately chipped in and said “Look, let’s hold up Leo’s album” – which was pretty advanced by this time – “and let’s put out Roger’s first”
SDE: But how did you feel about that? On the one hand it’s a fantastic opportunity, this big star, singing your songs. But on the other hand you are giving away some of what you must have considered to be your best songs at the time.
LS: I was kind of scared and out on a limb. I knew what I wanted to do and I knew by this time that it was my life. And don’t forget, Adam was a tight bastard so there wasn’t much money hanging around. So it was like, where am I going to live? I got fed up with sleeping on the studio floor at Roger’s. It looked like it was never going to happen. You know, maybe Adam will lose interest, go off and manage Roger Daltrey and not be interested in me! But being a Gemini I was able to see it from two sides. The artist in me was totally pissed off and angry, but the other side of it was this guy who was just a good bloke and loved hanging around with famous people – Roger would bring people like Jimmy Page, Paul Kossof and Ronnie Wood to the sessions – so that side of me was like, “no Leo, just hang on”.
SDE: But in the end it all worked out because when it was finally released, your first album “Silverbird” got to number two in the UK charts
LS: Yes, it was incredible, and Roger became my PR! Along with Keith Altham, every interview he did he’d get asked about The Who, and he’d say “That’s fine, that’s all happening, but you’ve got to hear this guy Leo Sayer”. It was incredible what he did for me. Roger’s a very upright guy. I even sensed that he felt my frustration, that I’d would have to wait for his album, so his gift to me was to use his album to promote me, which was a beautiful thing, and I’ll never forget that.
SDE: Were you surprised about the success of the first record? You had a big hit with your very first single “The Show Must Go On”.
LS: Semi-surprised. We worked so intensely on it. Adam was like a movie director, the way he made that record. I’d absorbed his confidence. We were a great team; me, David (Courtney) and Adam. We knew we had something really great.
SDE: When you recorded your second album “Just A Boy”, you must have been pleased to reclaim “Giving It All Away” and “One Man Band”, songs that Roger had recorded.
LS: That was always going to be. We gave Roger the songs that were ready for the second album. Just before Roger said that he wanted to do some of our material, we’d already started writing for the second album. We were very, very prolific. “Just A Boy” was a much more relaxed affair. We started off doing the tracks in America, because I was on tour there, so Dave came over. “One Man Band” has Ry Cooder playing acoustic guitar on it. So that’s pretty cool. But that’s Adam again, you see. He’d go to Warners and say “I want your best guitarist, we’re doing a session for Leo”. He had clout and persuasion.
SDE: Adam Faith also had that entrepreneurial spirit, didn’t he?
LS: He was an incredible character. Everybody loved him. His final friends were politicians, he’d found that he could charm them. He was a cockney charmer, he really was.
SDE: On your third album, “Another Year”, what happened to David Courtney? He went from being a co-writer and co-producer to not being involved at all. Did he fall out with Adam Faith?
LS: That was the other side of Adam. You could never really tell which way he was going to go. “Just A Boy” was a huge success, and it gave us an ‘in’ to America via “Long Tall Glasses”. So suddenly he’s taking me to America, with producers saying “can I work with your boy?” – that sort of stuff. And you know how it works in America, they always want a piece of the publishing. So I think Adam was trying to move after “Just A Boy” to an American scenario, but it didn’t quite work. Probably a financial thing. So we decamped to England and he told David that I didn’t want to work with him anymore! So I had all these songs in my head and Adam then says to me “Dave doesn’t want to work with you any longer” and I go “What?!” I’m about to pick up the phone and Adam says “Don’t pick up the phone to him, it’s all gone very strange”. So I’m thinking, “Shit, what am I going to do?”. But I had a great bass player with me, Frank Farrell, and he was terrific. So I said to him “I wonder if we could do something together” and he said “I’d love to get involved”.
Adam said “Just get the songs together, we’ve got to rush at this. I don’t want you here in England too much longer, but we’ve got to deliver an album to Chrysalis, so let’s just do it and get it out of the way.” I said “No, its important. I’ve written some great songs”, and he said “just finish them.”
SDE: He already had his sights set on America by this time?
LS: Exactly. So Frank and I put my piano on a truck and went off to Spain and rented this place. After a week we had all the songs and Adam just said “You’re finished”. That’s all he said. By this time he was getting cantankerous. He said we’ve got Russ Ballard producing, who was on the first two albums, and that was all right, because I knew Russ was an amazing musician. So he said “Come back and we’ll meet in London”. The studio is set and Adam hasn’t even heard the songs. Nor has Russ Ballard. So we go in, and Frank and I play the songs for about half a day, to them in the studio. The band’s all sitting around. And that evening we started cutting. And that’s “Another Year” which I think, personally, is songwriting-wise probably my best album. But it was all made in a week, finished in a week, rush mixed, and it wasn’t released in America because Adam wanted to clear the decks and make the next album there [the one] after “Just A Boy”.
SDE: Despite all this, “Moonlighting” was a really big hit in the UK.
LS: That really annoyed Adam. You’ve no idea. So the next scenario is that Adam goes off to the States. We basically decamped to America, and I’d moved there because I was going to get taxed ridiculously. And there was more work for me there by this time.
SDE: How did you find life in America when you first moved there?
LS: It was bloody amazing. I was mates with Little Feat, Ry (Cooder), Randy (Newman) and I was hanging out with amazing musicians like Donny Hathaway and Bobby Womack’s band. I knew Stevie Wonder… it was all fantastic. I didn’t want to go back to England because I was having a really exciting time!
Leo Sayer was talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition. READ Part 2 of this interview.
Just A Box is out now – full track listing can be viewed here.