Leo Sayer: Why I kept gigging during Northern Ireland Troubles
Ahead of a concert next month at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry, Leo Sayer talks to Lorraine Wylie about childhood visits to see his family in Co Fermanagh, coping with superstardom and his life now in Australia
At just 5ft 4in Leo Sayer didn't fare well in the stature stakes. But in the hair department, Mother Nature might have gone a bit OTT. At almost 70, his thick curly mane is still as luxuriant as it was in his heyday - as is his enthusiasm for performing. Speaking from his home in Australia, the star reflects on his childhood holidays in Fermanagh and how he's looking forward to his latest "gaggle of gigs".
"The Seventies was a golden era," he says in a surprisingly boyish voice that is so clear it sounds like he's in the next room instead of on the other side of the world. "Back then we had some incredible talent with bands like the Undertones, the Rolling Stones and artists like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.
"Since then we've had a few individuals like Prince and, yes, there's definitely talent out there. But, let's face it, we're never going to see the likes of Bolan or Bowie again. I think part of the magic then was the three-minute single. You'd hear a song, fall in love with it and it would become the soundtrack to a particular time in your life."
Of course, Leo first came to prominence in the early Seventies, when his debut single The Show Must Go On reached number two in the UK charts. A catchy number with a 'music hall' style, it's appeal was enhanced by a touch of theatre when Sayer appeared on Top of the Pops, all decked out in make-up and a Pierrot costume. Subsequent singles, especially the number one hits You Make me Feel Like Dancing and When I Need You, pushed him further up the ladder of success.
How did the singer cope with mega-stardom? "Fame is always a bit crazy," he explains. "You spend so long banging on the door trying to get in that when it suddenly opens, it's a very strange feeling. All that adulation, you begin to think it's real and forget, it can disappear overnight. It's easy to get caught up in the drink and drug culture. I was lucky though, I had good people around me. That's not to say I didn't cross the line now and then. I probably smoked a few joints, but nothing serious. I could always rely on my family to keep my feet on the ground."
For me personally, the hit that holds most memories is his romantic ballad, When I need You. As soon as I hear the opening bars I'm back to 1977, dancing with my husband on our wedding day. Interestingly, Leo didn't write the song. That credit belongs to Albert Hammond and Carole-Bayer Sager. Yet it was Sayer's infusion of emotion that turned it into every couple's personal love letter to each other.
"You don't necessarily have to write a song to make it your own," he says. "After all, Elvis never wrote a song in his life. Still, it wasn't hard to conjure up the emotion for When I need You. At the time, I was in America and my (then) wife Janice was in England. I was missing her like mad. This was a song about a long distance love affair so I could easily empathise. I remember ringing Janice up and singing it to her down the phone and she cried. That song was able to express my feelings far better than any words."
By the mid-Seventies, Sayer was an international star, living in America and rubbing shoulders with movie A-listers. Across the Atlantic, the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland and while promoters were finding it difficult to persuade artists to come to the province, Leo jumped at the chance.
"My mother was born in Maguiresbridge in Co Fermanagh so I've always had an affinity with the country," he says. "I have so many memories, especially of my grandad Nolan. Mum's father was married twice and had about 14 kids, so we had a lot of cousins. He was such a great character and I loved going to visit him at his beautiful farm in Edenmore. It was a magical place.
"I remember he had this 'test' he'd set each of his grandkids. He'd take us to a nearby mountain called Benaughlin and tell us to climb it. It wasn't a big mountain but, as a 12-year-old kid and the smallest of the lot, it was a big deal for me. My dad didn't think I'd manage it. But, I did and, afterwards I was the toast of my cousins. Even today, I think back to that time and consider it one of my biggest childhood achievements.
"Later, when the Troubles started and other artists were too frightened to come, I didn't have a problem. Sometimes, if the situation was particularly bad in Belfast, you'd think no one could possibly make the performance. Then I'd go out on stage in the King's Hall and it would be packed and I'd get a huge welcome. It was amazing."
With such lovely memories, I ask if he ever got the opportunity to revisit the places of his childhood.
"Yes, although, most of mum's family have all passed away now and the rest are scattered all over Ireland," he says. "Her youngest brother, Hugh, ran a post office in Newry and died a few years ago. I flew over some years back and drove out to the Swanlinbar Road where grandad had his farm. It sits right on the border and back in the Eighties, I saw that the Army had sequestered it to use as an outpost during the Troubles. But then, in 2000, when I drove up, I was so happy to see it back to the rolling farmland that I remember from my childhood. It still is a very beautiful place."
A born story-teller, Leo can't resist telling me about an encounter with legendary Belfast singer Van Morrison. (above). "Van is my hero, one of the best but he can be a little, now what's the word..." He laughs as searches for a suitable adjective. "I think 'truculent' is a good one."
He comes up with some anecdotal evidence.
"I was in America when Tom Donaghue asked if I'd like to do a radio interview with Van Morrison. Of course I did! Well Van came in and we chatted away beforehand, it was great. I thought I was going to be the first to get the big interview with him. Then the minute we went on, he clammed up, started giving monosyllabic answers. Afterwards I asked him what had happened and he said, 'You don't wanna give too much away on the radio Leo!' Still, that's just Van."
In the music world, communication can be equally challenging. I asked if he found it difficult to interpret and express another artist's song.
"Yes, of course, it can be very hard," he admits. "For example, covering the Beatles' Let it Be was the scariest thing I ever did. Adam Faith, my manager at the time told me, to just get in there and do it, he said I'd kill it. But, I was thinking, 'How the hell am I going to improve on the original?' Then you get into the studio and somehow you just put your heart into it and you do it. Now, when I listen back, it's a bloody good record."
The financial, legal and marital problems that turned Leo's life upside down in 1985 have been well-documented. In 2005, divorced and ready to start again, he emigrated to Australia with Donatella Piccinetti, from Italy, his manager and the woman he refers to throughout our interview as "my partner". A year later, DJ and recording artist Meck, made a re-mix of Thunder in My Heart and it went to number one in the UK charts.
"People assumed I didn't know about Meck's re-mix but of course I did, he couldn't have done it otherwise. I'd been written off in England, so yes, it felt a great."
In Australia, he's kept his profile high with regular TV appearances. However, in 2007, his entry into the Celebrity Big Brother House ended in chaos when he threw what was described at the time as a 'hissy fit' over underwear and departed on a flurry of expletives. "They took a nice guy like Leo and set him up," he says referring to himself in the third person, something I notice he does a lot. "It was crazy," he laughs now, shrugging off the incident.
Nowadays, Leo tries to avoid stress not to mention dairy, caffeine and junk food. He eats a healthy diet of steamed vegetables and drinks peppermint tea. He turned 70 in May and is increasingly health conscious with, he says, good reason.
"My mum died from bowel cancer and then a few years ago, a small tumour was discovered on my intestine.
"It tested benign and everything was fine but it made me re-think my lifestyle so I cut out all the junk and as a result lost a lot of weight."
How does he feel today?
"I have had a partial kneecap replacement, an irritable bowel and three stents in my heart. But overall I'm pretty good! Nothing is slowing me down and, I still have my hair! So, no complaints."
Leo Sayer plays the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on September 14. Tickets cost £25, £30 and £32.50 are available from www.millenniumforum.co.uk