Obituary: Mike Leander

Edward Seago
Friday 03 May 1996 23:02

Mike Leander stamped his distinctive arrangement and production style on British popular music in the Sixties, his influence continuing through the Seventies with the creation of the glam rock star Gary Glitter, and into the Eighties as the writer of the West End musical Matador.

Mike Leander was born Michael Farr in 1941 in Walthamstow, East London. He won a scholarship to Bancroft's school in Woodford Green, Essex, where he boarded from 1952 until 1959. His consuming interests were cricket, at which he represented the school at all levels, and music of all kinds. At school he regularly attended Sunday classical music evenings in the library, which met with the approval of his housemaster; and formed a skittle group, which didn't.

He studied law, more to appease his elders than through any innate desire, but the lure of the music business was too strong and, after less than a year, he gave it up and found a job as office junior in a small music publishing company. He had soon discovered a singer and written some songs and, having quickly realised the huge financial potential in leasing finished recordings to record companies, persuaded me to finance the making of such a recording. Leander arranged and produced the record which was duly leased to Decca Records, sadly for no advance and a rather lower royalty rate than had been expected. It flopped but, as a result, Decca offered Leander a contract as an arranger; not bad for someone who, at that time, was still teaching himself to read and write music.

His foot was on the first rung of a ladder, to the top of which he climbed in record time. An intelligent deep thinker, he knew what he wanted and how to make it happen. He found time to study orchestration at the Trinity College of Music and with his unshakeable belief in his own ability, created a classical-pop style of arranging in the early Sixties which quickly established him as a major influence on the popular music of the time. In the early Sixties he arranged and in many cases produced records by the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, Marianne Faithfull, Marc Bolan, The Small Faces, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Alan Price, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, Jimmy Page, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney.

His influence on British popular music did not go unnoticed in America, and in 1964 Atlantic Records brought him to the United States to work with the legendary Ben E. King and the Drifters, where he had an immediate No 1 in the Billboard chart with "Under The Boardwalk". During a period in which he also wrote "Lady Godiva" for Peter and Gordon and "I've Been A Bad Bad Boy" and "High Time" for Paul Jones, the arrangement he was most proud of was for "She's Leaving Home" on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album in 1967.

Stylish and charismatic, a commanding and respected figure in and out of the recording studio, he was not only a leading contributor to the music of the Sixties he was a leading light on the swinging social scene. He was a celebrity and loved to celebrate. Whether a record reached No 1 or No 31 it was still worth a table for 12 at the Arethusa, and the fact that in some cases the restaurant bill would exceed the aggregate of royalties to come was of little concern to Leander.

In the latter part of the Sixties, he signed a six-figure contract with MCA Records as a writer and producer. He produced and arranged hits for several MCA artists; recorded an album, Migration, with the Mike Leander Orchestra; was executive producer of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice concept album Jesus Christ Superstar; producer of the soundtrack album of Godspell and an album of Rupert Brooke poems read by Sir John Gielgud; and composed the music for several films, including Privilege and Run A Crooked Mile. In the early Seventies his writing partnership with me (we were old school friends) produced worldwide hits for Englebert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard and Vanity Fair, whose song "Early In The Morning" received a BMI award for exceeding one million broadcast performances in the United States.

In 1972 Leander's love of rock'n'roll music and his belief in the stagecraft of a hitherto unsuccessful rocker, Paul Gadd, led to his instigation of the glam rock movement when he created the music and persona of Gary Glitter. Apart from writing, arranging and producing 11 consecutive Top Ten hits for Gary, including three Number Ones, Leander played all the instruments on the records except the brass. The unique drum and guitar sounds on these records were the envy of many subsequent imitators, none of whom could quite achieve the distinctive quality of Leander's originals. Another 10 hits followed, featuring either Gary or the Glitter Band, and Leander received an Ivor Novello Award and a Certificate of Honour for Services to British Popular Music.

From the late Seventies Leander shared his time between London and Majorca. He had a great love of Spain and all things Spanish and in conceived the idea for a musical based on the bullfighter El Cordobes, called Matador, which we started writing in 1983. He produced a concept album of the show in 1987 which included the hit single "A Boy From Nowhere" by Tom Jones. Acclaimed productions of the show followed in Chicago and Miami in 1989/90 and a long time ambition of Leander's was fulfilled in 1991 when Matador opened at the Queen's Theatre in the West End of London. It ran for four months, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Choreography. Plans are in place for further productions in four theatres in America in 1997.

Outside music, Mike Leander's great passion was cricket. In his later, lazier days, he considered carrying his bat for 19 to be most satisfactory, despite perhaps running out three or four members of his team in the process. He was a proud member of the MCC and loved nothing more than watching a test match from the balcony of the Pavilion Bar. Mike Leander will be much missed; he was not only hugely talented but generous with that talent, he made an enormous contribution to the world of music and was a great influence on the lives of many people inside and outside of the music business.

Edward Seago

Michael Farr (Mike Leander), songwriter, record producer, arranger: born London 30 June 1941; married 1974 Penny Carter (two sons); died London 18 April 1996.

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