Leo Sayer celebrates five decades in the business. He tells us about being managed by Adam Faith, meeting The Beatles and why he moved to Australia
Early life in England
The very first thing I remember…
…was being thrown out of a pram by our dog when I was barely a year old. Our dog was a big Labrador named Joey who was very boisterous and I think he just jumped up to look into the pram. I was such a lightweight baby that I flew out of the pram and landed on my head. I ended up with a bump that I’ve still got.
Dad was an engineer at a hospital in Shoreham-on-Sea.
Leo and his mum
Mum was a nurse in Ireland who met him after she moved to England just before the war. She was a staunch Catholic and my father converted in order to marry her. He was very straight-down-the-line and when I brought home the "Great Balls of Fire" record he threw it into the garden, saying, "I don’t want none of that heathen music in here!" Mum was very loving and caring but Dad was disappointed in me because, unlike my sister and brother, I was this dyslexic kid who had learning difficulties and a dreamer who had trouble concentrating.
We spent a lot of time at the parish church and I became an altar boy.
I was in the choir and the parish priest took me under his wing, telling me, "You’ve got a gift". I sang solos and I also sang in a school band, singing Peggy Sue without a microphone while the drummer was banging his text books. Later we got proper instruments and people would tell me I was a good singer.
Leo as an altar boy
I was branded a hero when I worked as a porter at the Kings Hotel in Brighton.
I helped five people escape after a bad fire broke out. It was the first press I ever got! Having studied art and design, I also worked at an art studio in Brighton among several other jobs I held down in those early years.
Getting his big break
I met John Lennon when I worked as a graphic designer.
This was in London before my music career took off. The design studio was in the same building where Yoko Ono had a flat and John would pop down to the back yard to have a smoke. We’d often share a fag but I never had the courage to say, "Hello Mr Lennon, I’m a big fan," so instead I’d go, "Want a light?" Years later I was in a recording studio finishing my first album and I bumped into John. He went, "It’s you, isn’t it? We shared a fag, didn’t we?" and he wished me well with the record.
Leo in Record Mirror 1977
Before I went solo I was in a band called Patches.
We auditioned for David Courtney, who was a manager and songwriter. He became my co-writer and introduced me to Adam Faith, who he’d worked with previously. David played him my demos and he said, "Right, tomorrow you’re in the studio." Neither our first single as Patches nor my first single as a solo act made the charts, but then I did "The Show Must Go On" in 1973 and suddenly I was at number two.
I was born Gerard Sayer but changed my name to Leo.
Adam’s wife remarked, "He looks like a little lion," because of my curly hair. We all remembered the 1960s TV series Leo the Lion and Adam went, "There you go, you’re Leo the lion." Then the idea for the pierrot costume came from my love of the French film Les Enfants du Paradis, in which Jean-Louis Barrault played a mime artist.
Leo in 1975 by Terry O'Neill
Adam was such a good teacher.
He was a huge star in the 1960s, he’d known the fame game and he prepared me for it brilliantly. He made me do something like 1,000 gigs before he let me make a record. He’d also come to every gig and every time I’d done something wrong, like, "You threw the jacket off too early," or, "The way you held the mic wasn’t right." He was so critical and tough, but he trained me well.
Paul McCartney was one of the first people I met after signing with Adam.
He invited Paul to a lunch we were at, we got chatting and McCartney said, "I’ll give you one piece of advice: Don’t cut your hair." I never did. I wonder what Paul would make of my new album [Northern Songs: Leo Sayer Sings The Beatles] but I think he’d get the spirit of it. I also knew George Harrison really well. We became close friends because of our mutual love of Formula 1 motor racing, and I got to know Ringo Starr when we played together on a Lonnie Donegan album. We ended up going to lunch together and hanging out, and he’s this beautiful character and very funny.
Leo and Sir Paul McCartney
I was in the middle of making my first album when I worked with Roger Daltrey.
He knew Adam, liked the songs I was recording and asked, "Have you got anything for me?" Suddenly myself and David were giving Roger some spare songs and creating new ones for him, including "Giving It All Away" which was a top five hit. That was an incredible moment.
When I did the old grey whistle test in 1973 singing "The Show Must Go On" I was primed and ready.
If you look at the clip on YouTube you can see I’m pretty cool and knew what I was doing, which is all thanks to Adam. When fame came shortly afterwards I was prepared to handle it. I count myself very lucky because he opened doors for me and for the first five or six years of my career he was very hands-on. He was so powerful that I couldn’t bear to leave him, although I should have done because he started ripping me off. [Sayer eventually sued Faith for mismanagement.] I went to his funeral, despite the fact he still owed me millions. I loved him even though he was a rogue.
Going to America
I played at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
The first night the front row consisted of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Marty Feldman, John Cleese, Henry "The Fonz" Winkler, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood and an up-and-coming comedian named Robin Williams. I walked out in the pierrot costume and thought Thank God I’m covered in make-up to hide the terror I felt from being in front of all those famous people. But it was a fantastic night, then the next day in The LA Times there was this glowing review hailing me as the next Elton.
Leo and Adam in USA 1977
I came this close to meeting Elvis when I was touring the States in 1977.
I’d injured myself after falling off stage and was getting physio from an ex-footballer, who it turned out worked for Elvis. Elvis rang up one day and announced, "This is Elvis Aaron Presley, you make me feel like dancing." He invited me to his home the next morning but at 10am I heard on the radio that he’d died.
Settling down in Australia
I moved to Australia in 2005 with my partner Donatella.
I’d had other money troubles. She worked in the restaurant trade, then she became my manager and helped dig me out of near bankruptcy. There were better work opportunities in Australia so we moved there, and we love it. We lived in Sydney and now we’re in the village of Berrima, which is lovely and quiet and kind of resembles Sussex. We moved here six years ago and it’s a blissful place where there are quite a lot of artists and musicians who have all escaped the city to live the country life.
Leo at home in Sydney in 2000
Doing Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 was the worst decision I ever made.
I’d just left England so people were down on me already, going, "He comes in and tells us how much he loves Australia." It was so claustrophobic in the house and I think I went into mime at one point, refusing to speak. I was breathing on the glass and writing things like "Help" backwards for the cameras, and eventually I walked out.
The thing I miss most about the UK is Marks and Spencers sandwiches.
I’ll be having a few of those when I tour there again later this year. England feels like unfinished business for me because I feel underrated by the industry, though not of course by the fans. I’d love to be performing somewhere like Glastonbury but it feels like I’ve slipped through the cracks.
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