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Send Out the Clowns: the New Leo Sayer Show Makes the World 'Feel Like Dancing'

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Some time back in London a hustling manager type reluctantly played a demo tape and, to his surprise, heard “a note that literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up—I knew that was it.” So he sought out It, and inquired, “How big do you want to be?” That seemed rather ridiculous, because Leo Sayer was 5’4″ and so puny (98 pounds, 28″ chest) in those early days his wife had to make his shirts. But the manager—appropriately named Adam Faith (and a British pop idol himself in his day)—sank $250,000 into Leo’s unlikely future. Today, five years later, Faith has been rewarded. From one LP, Endless Flight, Sayer has spun three hit singles—You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, When I Need You and the current How Much Love—and has just completed a 56-city, $2.5 million mop-up tour of the U.S.

A driving live entertainer with a chilling three-octave range and the irresistible warmth of an Elton John, Leo is, at 29, certainly a more modest chap than in his struggling years. Then, out of insecurity, he would boast about outlasting Elton or Dylan. Now he’s scaled down his aspirations to be as “big as Frank Sinatra but a nicer guy.” To his credit, Leo’s still with the lady who did his shirts. “I do get a kick out of knowing all those women are at my fingertips,” he admits, then adds, “but because it’s there, why should you take up the option?” In fact, he never tours without wife Janice, an ex-librarian who doesn’t really like rock but has a slight hearing deficiency that makes it bearable. Actually, Janice says she is “happiest” on the road, because “I get to have Leo more to myself.” Between gigs, as at present, he’s either rehearsing or locked off in the recording studio with producer Richard Perry, whose other clients have included Carly, Barbra and Ringo.

“A lot of my fantasies have come true,” exults Leo, who was born Gerald to a movie projectionist in Sussex. His musical interests came from a parish priest (“I developed the falsetto so I could sing The Wings of a Dove,”) and an Irish granddad who played the harmonica and fiddle until his death at 101. Though a good student, Leo was bullied and made miserable in school because of his size but stayed long enough to master commercial art. “I was always the village idiot, the toast of the local pub,” he recalls. “I would be standing on tables entertaining everybody.” At folk clubs Sayer began emulating Dylan and jamming with transient talent like Al Stewart and Muddy Waters. By 1973 he had given up art completely for music and developed the clown guise that he discarded after his first U.S. tour a year later.

He was based back then in a quasi-commune on a converted PT boat, where he first met Janice. She was constantly being stood up by Sayer’s guitarist and songwriting partner. Similarly, Leo’s own girlfriend had left him and, observes Janice, “I felt sorry for him and he felt sorry for me.” So she came aboard, and now, after four years of marriage and touring, still keeps him on an even keel. “Without her,” Leo feels, “I’d start believing my own publicity and all the danger and evil that that involves.” Adds Janice, the librarian: “There are a lot of nice, normal people in the business, but there are a lot of weird ones too. Neither of us drinks or takes drugs or parties a lot.”

The Sayers are homeless at the moment, having just given up a rental in L.A. and sold their house in London. But they are, says Leo, whose main influence in his teens besides Dylan was Jack (On the Road) Kerouac, “dreaming of a house in Pacific Palisades. We’re picking rooms from the hotels we stay in that we’d like to copy. The rooms in [New York’s] Sherry-Nether-land are kind of nice, but the bathrooms in the Beverly [Hills] Wilshire are the ones. We’ll probably deck it all out like a hotel—we’ll have a Holiday Inn room…”