Leo Sayer: 'Alex Higgins ended up asleep on my hotel floor one crazy night'
The star has fond memories of many summers spent in Northern Ireland as a child, he tells Maureen Coleman
At the height of the Troubles, when Belfast was a no-go zone for many musicians and bands, Sussex singer Leo Sayer was more than happy to include 'the old town', as he calls it, in his touring itinerary.
Born Gerard Hugh Sayer on May 21, 1948, he spent his childhood summers in Maguiresbridge, Co Fermanagh, where his mother, Teresa Nolan, was originally from.
Though the relative calm and enchanting beauty of Lough Erne was a world away from the epicentre of the violence, he formed an attachment with Belfast later on when he began performing in the city in the 1970s. And he says it still holds a special place in his heart. So it will be a homecoming of sorts for the 65-year-old songwriter when he returns to Belfast on November 2 to perform at the Ulster Hall.
The UK and Ireland tour marks the 40th anniversary of the release of his debut album, Silverbird. And Leo, who has lived in Sydney since 2005, says he can't wait to get back on the road and to play Belfast again.
"In a way it feels like I've come full circle, playing the Ulster Hall again," he says. "That's where I played my very first headline show in Northern Ireland in 1974.
"I have so many happy memories of Belfast and the shows I played there. I remember on one occasion, towards the end of the Troubles, it had been a particularly difficult time with a lot of shootings and killings. Everyone was lying low in town.
"Then we steamed in on our tour bus to play the King's Hall, the American band hiding on the floor because they were terrified. But it turned out to be an amazing night, with everyone singing the songs back at us. There was a real spirit of Belfast that night and I've never forgotten it. That's why I always insisted I play Belfast, even where there was a lot of bad stuff going on. I felt like the place was part of my roots."
The creative middle child of three siblings, he has fond memories of the summer holidays he spent with his extended Northern Irish family. And he says his mum, who passed away within a few years of her husband Thomas, would have been proud that he was back performing in Belfast.
"I'm playing a lot of places on this tour that have a special meaning to me," he says. "It's a homecoming for my late mother, I guess. And I still have family in Belfast and Dublin.
"We used to spend a lot of time as kids in Northern Ireland, on the border and in southern Ireland as well. We had family in Cavan, Fermanagh, Meath and Derry. Every school holidays we'd pack up and tear over to Ireland and spend the whole summer holiday there, so that's where we grew up.
"I still remember my dad's terrible attempts at salmon fishing in Lough Erne, donkey derbies and wonderful ceilidhs in different houses.
"My mum came from an incredibly big family. Every time I used to come over to play, I was always meeting another cousin or niece or nephew."
A particular stand-out memory for Sayer involved the late snooker legend and notorious hell-raiser, Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins. What started out as a fairly tame evening deteriorated into mayhem and madness. But Sayer still laughs when he recalls the events of that night. And he has nothing but kind words for the flawed Belfast sportsman.
"I was playing at some big charity show in the Grand Opera House in the mid-90s," he recalls. "Lily Savage and a few comedians were on the same bill. I came on, did a few numbers and got a rapturous reception. It was great being back in the old town.
"Then somehow I ended up in the company of Hurricane Higgins. I remember thinking 'oh s**t, how am I going to deal with this?' But two hours later, it was a case of 'man, you're beautiful, I love you'.
"That's the thing with Alex. He was actually a lovely bloke. But sometimes the mavericks of this world aren't the easiest company to keep up with. At the same time, that's what makes them fascinating.
"Alex was a great Belfast man, a real individualist who had a big heart, but his insecurity and shyness led him to get drunk all the time. And that was the problem. Either you saw this warm, lovely side to him or else you saw the verbal fisticuffs.
"During that evening, we did actually hit a snooker room and though he could barely stand up, you could see the real beauty of his talent. He ended up spending the night on the floor in my hotel. It was pretty crazy."
I ask him if he'd ever met another Belfast sporting hero, George Best?
"I certainly did," he replies. "And he was another great man from the North. I used to go to George's club in Manchester and have a drink with him, after a show.
"He was a beautiful man. Men like Best and Higgins, they were artists, not just sportsmen. And how could you knock an artist? Artists are inspiring."
Then he adds: "I must admit, I cried all day when Alex died. The wonderful thing about him was the passion he had for his sport, just like Georgie Best. Our heroes are imperfect. Look at Michael Jackson and Elvis. Yet we love them, in spite of their flaws."
One of his great musical idols is singer/songwriter Van Morrison, who "encapsulates everything about the old town". Not surprisingly, given their lengthy careers, their paths have crossed several times. While working for a radio station in San Francisco, Sayer was asked to interview Van the Man about his new album. The pair chatted amicably before going on air, but once the show went live, Morrison clammed up.
Sayer slips easily into a Belfast accent as he impersonates the star.
"He came bundling into the studio and said, in that brusque way of his 'Ah Leo, my man, good to see you, let's talk'," he says. "I asked him about the new album, he told me he was very excited about it. Everything was going well. But then we went on air and I said 'So tell me about the new songs' and Van replied 'why?'."
Sayer laughs loudly as he recalls the incident.
"It all went downhill from there," he says. "It was probably the worst interview that I did in the whole series.
"The station manager asked me if I'd done something to annoy him, but I said 'no, that's just Van'."
His anecdotes about Belfast have been so amusing, we've barely touched on the subject of his upcoming tour or career. It's obviously part of his Northern Irish heritage but Sayer could win Olympic gold for story-telling. So it's with some gentle coaxing on my part, that we eventually get round to chatting about his 40th anniversary tour.
Taking in around 15 towns and cities across the UK and Ireland, the tour will not only celebrate 40 years since the release of Sayer's iconic first album, but will also mark the global success he has enjoyed since then. During his career, he has notched up almost 30 top 40 singles, including chart-toppers You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, When I Need You and Thunder In My Heart, a Grammy award, platinum-selling albums and a Celebrity Big Brother appearance. But more of that later.
A former choir boy who sang in his local church, Sayer performed in a few bands before moving to Brighton where he met co-songwriter David Courtney and his dynamic first manager Adam Faith. Courtney persuaded him to change his name from Gerard to Leo – a nod to his trademark lionesque mane of curls.
With Silverbird, he set out to tell the story of his life. The album went to number two in the charts, as did the second single The Show Must Go On.
Sayer says: "Silverbird was so important to me, and with David's musicianship and Adam's experience, we felt like we were an unbeatable team.
"I had to learn very quickly how to perform, how to act, how to look, to always say what I wanted to say in my songs. Adam and David gave me that platform. Everything I am today comes from there."
The Ulster Hall show will feature a two-hour set of songs stretching back to Silverbird, and taking in all the hits and a few rarities too. Coincidentally, the man leading the band is Ronnie Johnson, who was guitarist and musical director for Van Morrison for many years.
Sayer says he aims to tell the 'whole Leo story' during the show and that he is well prepped for the tour. To boost his energy levels, he's recently given up caffeine and dairy products and says he is in the best of health.
"It doesn't feel like 40 years at all," he says. "It's all gone by in a whistle-stop.
"But I treat all my songs as if I've just written them. I may be 65 but I feel like a 20-year-old. Living in Australia certainly helps. You have all this wide open space, which kind of fills you with a sense of optimism and wellbeing. It's good for the soul, the sense of not being too cramped.
"And anyway, I've always enjoyed living in exile. During the 70s and early 80s, I lived in the States. I really loved being away from home. In a way it makes you work a little bit harder, the focus of distance as a friend of mine calls it. Right now, I'm in great spirits and raring to go."
Following the success of Silverbird, Sayer was hailed by music magazines and the tabloids as 'the star of 1974'. Along with his then wife Janice he relocated to LA and started writing more material, including the chart-topper You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.
The next single, When I Need You, a ballad penned by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer-Sager, made him a global household name, dominating the charts in not only the UK and US, but also Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
During the 1970s, the hits kept coming, songs like Thunder In My Heart and I Can't Stop Loving you. In 1979 The Very Best of Leo Sayer saw him break his own and Chrysalis's sales records, with the album selling over two million units in the UK alone.
Back on English soil, the pressures of showbiz life were taking their toll and Sayer's marriage broke up. Not long after, he also broke away from his manager Adam Faith, in a highly publicised split. He continued to write, record and tour and found himself a new partner (now manager) Donatella Piccinetti in 1986.
With huge changes in the music industry and the rise of the MTV generation, Sayer's career took a dip, though he still continued to write and perform. Then in 2005, as he was preparing to emigrate to Australia, he was approached by a UK dance DJ who asked if he could remix his 1977 hit Thunder In My Heart. The reworked version by DJ Meck became a huge dance hit.
Sayer chuckles as he describes the number one track as his "revenge".
"I'd been written off in England and had jumped ship to Australia when the song became a hit," he says. "There was a big campaign to get it played on radio, although they kept my name out of it, almost like one of those forbidden delights. Quite a few of the contemporary DJs got a real kick out of the fact that nobody knew it was me.
"It was reported that I didn't know about it, but of course I did. It wouldn't have been released without my knowledge. They just had to pretend. There was a lot of bulls**t going on in the industry.
"But I must admit, I did get a buzz walking into Radio One and seeing all these idiots saying 'so good to see you back Leo'.
As part of the promotion for Thunder In My Heart, Sayer agreed – rather naively – to appear in Celebrity Big Brother. But after only nine days of involvement with "the obnoxious production" he broke free from the house. The 2007 series turned out to be the most controversial in the show's history, due to the racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty by the late Jade Goody among others.
Sayer says: "You know, strange as it sounds, I didn't do any research, I didn't know what I was walking into.
"Right from the start, they set me up as the fall guy. I just got fed up with it really. They were trying to trip me up every five minutes. I'm afraid I rather lost it. I started giving rude gestures and using four-lettered words and thoroughly enjoying myself.
"I did some brilliant stuff in there that they never showed. Instead they turned me into the baddie.
"The next thing was, poor Jade came back in with instructions to mess it all up and that's what she did. This is the worst of television."
Sayer is equally despondent about talent shows like The Voice and The X Factor, which he says are ruining the music industry.
"It's a completely different business now from the one than I'm in," he says.
"I was very creative, I wrote songs. Record companies would come to me and say 'give us your ideas and we will release them'. It's not like that now. Now the record company tells you what to do.
"Shows like The X Factor aren't about creativity. They're about headlines and scandals. It's the Miley Cyrus equation really. Just how far can an innocent kid go to create shock, to get everyone talking about it and see her record sales go through the roof?
"That's not the reason I'm here."
Sayer says that he is most proud of the fact that his records have stood the test of time and still sound as relevant as the day he first wrote them.
And he says he still "owned" tracks like When I Need You, though he may not have written it himself.
"The trick with a song like that is that you made it sound like your thoughts, your imagination," he says. "Take a song like Rod Stewart's Sailing. You really believed in it. Rod was actually sailing. It never was anyone else.
"I don't know if you get that nowadays. The song is part of a whole compendium of people. The result might be great but it doesn't have that lasting quality. The passion just isn't there any more."
Then Sayer rounds up our chat with another celebrity story.
"The loveliest thing happened to me when Celine Dion called me up and asked if she could sing When I Need You," he says.
"I told her I was honoured by her call but I hadn't written it. She said 'I didn't know that, you sing it like you wrote it'.
"And do you know something? That's the most flattering thing anyone could have said to me. I'll take that with me to the grave."
Grammy a career high point
Born in Sussex in 1948 to an Irish mother and English father
He bgean his recording career in 1973 and soon had a chart hit with the song The Show Must Go On, (top right) which reached Number 2
Further singles included One Man Band, Long Tall Glasses and Moonlighting, but his breakthrough came in 1977 with the records You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, which won a Grammy award, and romantic ballad When I Need You, which reached Number One in the UK and US
In 2006, he made Number One in the UK chart again, with a remix of Thunder In My Heart
Has also appeared in numerous television shows, including The Muppet Show in 1978 and Celebrity Big Brother UK in 2007
Leo Sayer plays the Ulster Hall on Saturday, November 2. Tickets are available from Ulster Hall and Waterfront Hall box offices. To mark his 40th anniversary in music, he releases a boxset 'Just A Box - The Studio Recordings' on October 28.