The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Leo Sayer – “When I Need You”

HIT #1: May 14, 1977

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

Before he found fame as a pop singer and literal clown, Leo Sayer was a songwriter. Sayer and David Courtney wrote 1973’s “Giving It All Away,” the debut solo single from the Who’s Roger Daltrey, before Sayer came out with any songs of his own. “Giving It All Away” didn’t chart in the US, but it was a #5 hit in the UK. Sayer made his first impact on the US charts in 1974, when Three Dog Night covered his UK hit “The Show Must Go On” to #4. (Three Dog Night’s version is a 3.)

So Leo Sayer knew how to write a pop song. But when he took his songs to Richard Perry, the star-making producer who’d notched hits with people like Nilsson and Carly Simon, Perry rejected all of Sayer’s demos. As recounted in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Perry once told this to Rolling Stone: “When I first started working with Leo, he came in with a cassette of 12 new songs, none of which got recorded. That’s a pretty heavy blow for an artist, to be told that none of these songs are of any interest to me.”

Sayer, who’d made a few hits but who was mostly only famous in his native UK, was essentially getting called up to the majors when he got to work with Perry. So he had to do what he had to do, even if that meant swallowing his pride and throwing his own songs away. Sayer actually did co-write his first #1 hit, the loathsome “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” That song was basically a studio improvisation, and it clearly did well for him. But that same Perry-produced album, 1976’s Endless Flight, also had Sayer’s second and final #1 hit. Sayer didn’t have anything to do with writing that one. It was a cover of someone else’s not-especially-original song.

Albert Hammond had a long, long run writing hits for other people. Hammond co-wrote his first hit — Leapy Lee’s “Little Arrows,” which peaked at #16 — in 1968. He first landed in the top 10 when he co-wrote the Pipkins’ “Gimme Dat Ding” in 1970. (It peaked at #9, and it’s a 4.) And Hammond kept writing big songs into the late ’80s. He is partially responsible, for instance, for Whitney Houston’s “One Moment In Time,” which peaked at #5 in 1988. (It’s a 7.) And Hammond was still showing up on the pop charts into the ’90s. “Don’t Turn Around,” a song that Hammond and Diane Warren wrote for Tina Turner in 1986, became a #4 hit for Ace Of Base in 1993. (It’s an 8.) That’s a 25-year chart run.

As a performer, though, Albert Hammond only ever had one real hit. In 1972, Hammond made it to #5 with his solo song “It Never Rains In Southern California.” (That song is a 5.) Hammond kept putting out solo records for years afterwards, and he never came anywhere near the top 10. (That one chart hit is more than his son ever managed, though. If you are reading Stereogum, then you probably already know that Albert Hammond, Jr. is the guitarist for the Strokes. Only one Strokes single has ever charted on the Hot 100: 2005’s “Juicebox,” which peaked at #98.)

In 1977, Albert Hammond released an album called When I Need You. That album’s title track is a ballad about the lovelorn life of a touring musician. Hammond misses someone, and he knows that she misses him: “It’s not easy when the road is your driver/ Honey, that’s a heavy load that we bear.” So he sings to her about that loneliness: “Miles and miles of empty space in between us/ A telephone can’t take the place of your smile.” Hammond wrote the song’s music, and Carole Bayer Sager wrote the lyrics. Sager had co-written “A Groovy Kind Of Love,” a 1965 single from the Mindbenders that had peaked at #2. (The Mindbenders’ “A Groovy Kind Of Love” is a 6. A different version of the song will eventually appear in this column.)

“When I Need You” has a nice hook, but Hammond didn’t come up with it himself. The song’s chorus has the exact same melody as Leonard Cohen’s 1971 classic “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Cohen talked about this a bit in a 2006 interview with The Globe & Mail: “Somebody sued [Hammond and Sager] on my behalf… And they did settle, even though they hired a musicologist, who said that particular motif was in the public domain and, in fact, could be traced back as far as Schubert.” If you’re going to steal, it makes sense to steal from the best. (Leonard Cohen has only charted once on the Hot 100: A reissued version of the 1984 single “Hallelujah,” which peaked at #59 in 2007 for American Idol-related reasons.)

Hammond’s version of “When I Need You” is a mellow, downbeat ballad, and he never released it as a single. Leo Sayer wasn’t especially excited about the idea of singing a bunch of other people’s songs, but he loved “When I Need You.” The song reminded Sayer of his wife, at home in England. He heard it as a soul song. At first he tried, recording it with the great Stax Records keyboardist Booker T. Jones. But Sayer didn’t like how that version turned out. So instead, he recorded it with a group of session musician assassins, including future Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and future film-score composer James Newton Howard.

“When I Need You” puts Sayer in a position to succeed in every possible way. He has a mostly-unheard song from two hitmaking songwriters, a golden-touch producer, and a crack studio band. And to Sayer’s credit, he does everything he can to sell “When I Need You.” I truly detest the falsetto that Sayer uses on “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” He commits no such infractions on “When I Need You.”

On “When I Need You,” Sayer reaches for big notes, belts them out with conviction, and takes pains to convey the bittersweet longing that the lyrics describe. Sayer doesn’t have the showstopping R&B-balladeer voice that he seems to think he has, but there’s something to be said for the confidence he brings to the song. As thin as that voice might be, he really reaches out for those big notes at the end of the song, and he sounds sincere. He makes it work.

“When I Need You” also has a nicely classicist arrangement. The production is all ’70s slickness, but the slow-rotating guitars and glimmering pianos come from an earlier era. Even the smooth-jazz sax soloing from Rolling Stones sideman and prolific studio guy Bobby Keys fits the mood of the song. The band finds the exact right moment to drop out on the final chorus. We’re dealing with professionals here.

But even though all the people involved do their jobs commendably, “When I Need You” is just not a special song. It’s a perfectly OK piece of ’70s balladry, warm and comforting and inert. Sayer sings the song hard enough to convince me that he means it, but he doesn’t convince me that I should care.

Sayer pulled off two #1 hits within a few months of each other, and then he never did it again. Sayer kept cranking out records for the next few years, and he did well in the UK, where “When I Need You” was his first #1. But Sayer only got into the American top 10 one more time: a 1980 cover of the Crickets’ “More Than I Can Say,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.)

In the years that followed, Sayer got into a bunch of court battles with his old managers and labels, and he found himself in financial trouble, at least partly thanks to original manager Adam Faith’s disastrous decisions. But Sayer kept working. In 2006, the British DJ Meck remixed Sayer’s 1977 single “Thunder In My Heart,” and the resulting remix became a freak hit in the UK, going to #1. (It didn’t chart in the US.) These days, Sayer is living in Australia and still doing shows. He put out an album in May. He seems to be doing fine.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Leo Sayer performing “When I Need You” with some forest mammals on a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show: