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Al Jarreau: The Most Gifted

One of the most brilliant and recognizable Jazz and Pop vocalists of all time, Al Jarreau, would have turned 80 on March 12th, 2020, had he not died three years ago, after a life of singing, recording and touring. I knew him.

The singing psychologist is just one of a million labels which could have been put on the brilliant Al Jarreau. At Ripon College in Wisconsin he got his Bachelor of Science degree in psychology in 1962. But there was something he was even more interested in. Singing. During his college days, he sang with the band The Indigos. Later, he joined a young pianist’s trio as a singer. The bandleader on the keys was the late George Duke.

Live at ‘Onkel Pö’

Al quickly took a big decision. He was going to forget psychology and opt for a singing career. It did not take long until he appeared on television a lot. Also, he sang in comedy theaters, in between performances by John Belushi and other greats. As the son of a Seventh Day Adventist minister and a church organist, he was religious and curious at the same time. So he tried religious organizations and Scientology, but only for a short time. This little experiment gave him trouble in Europe, when he was a superstar decades later, since Scientology is being seen as a religion in the U.S., but as a dangerous cult on the “old continent”.

The singing genius Al Jarreau, who got a total of seven Grammy Awards during his career, was finally discovered by Warner Bros. Records in 1975, when he was already 35 years old. His first album “We Got By”, released in 1975, immediately became one of the most important recordings in the Jazz and Soul worlds. Al’s approach, voice and energy got him a huge fan community. They cheered for him in New York and Atlanta, they gave him never ending ovations in London and Manchester. At the “Onkel Pö” venue in Hamburg, he had to perform several nights in a row in order to satisfy every fan in the northern German city.

‘L is for Lover’ in Huge Halls

After 1975, Al Jarreau never really stopped touring and recording. The albums “Glow”, “All Fly Home”, “This Time” and “Breakin’ Away” were all more than brilliant. He was now a Soul, Jazz and Pop singer. He was a singer. Period.

It was in the 1980s, when he became a huge Pop star. Several tunes from his “Jarreau” album, especially the song “Mornin'” got to be aired by radio stations all over America, Europe and parts of Asia. The record “L is for Lover”, released in 1986, was actually composed to sound more like a Pop album than anything else. That record might have disgruntled quite a few Jazz and Soul purists within his fan community, including me, for a while, but it got him so many other fans from within the much larger Pop world. The concerts during the “L is for Lover” tour were huge. They took place in sports arenas and comparable venues.

Tune for Susan

When Al Jarreau hit Bulgarian soil for the first time, in 2005, for a concert I organized for my former partners at Jazz FM Radio, founded by Vassil Dimitrov, he had been touring for thirty years, with little interruption. I had met him before, in Germany, some twenty years earlier, but around the Sofia gig there was more time for some conversations. Al turned out to be the nicest guy on Earth. He loved talking about his early days, how he hit stages with George Duke and about his albums. When I told him I liked the song “Bright’N’Sunny Babe” from the “All Fly Home” album, he explained how he wrote it for his wife Susan.

Al Jarreau (center) in Sofia, in 2005, with Vassil Dimitrov (right) and Imanuel Marcus (left).

A year later, he came to Sofia again, for another gig we organized. This time he had joined the fellow legend George Benson on a tour, since the two had recorded the album “Givin’ It Up” together. More conversations followed. Another year later, I met him yet again, in Bremen, Germany and spoke to him more. He was always very open-minded, funny and interested.

Lucky Strike in Hamburg

His health problems were obvious. Maybe not so much on stage, but definitely backstage. Ten years ago, Al Jarreau could hardly stand, on stage or basically anywhere, due to a spine condition. He had to be pulled up from any chair. That was one reason why he did not attend too many after-show parties anymore. After his gigs, he would rather sit in his hotel room, have a glass of red wine and smoke a cigarette. When he asked me for a smoke in Bremen, I gave him a Lucky Strike. After trying it, he got dizzy and had to sit down immediately.

Al Jarreau’s concerts were perfect every single time. This applied to the Sofia gigs too. At the National Palace of culture, the fans cheered. The Bulgarian painter Pancho Malezanov gave him a funky piece of art he had painted just for him. We probably could have filled hall no. 1 at the National Palace of Culture with him again, a few years later, but we stopped doing gigs.

‘No Bigger Heart and Soul’

Al’s gigs were perfect because of his gift and excellent showmanship, but also because of the great people around him. Larry Williams, a genius multi-instrumentalist who was Al’s keyboarder, saxophone player and musical director for a long time, said Al was “an incredible light to the world”. In a message on Facebook, Larry wrote this on the day of Al Jarreau’s death in 2017: “I’ve had the great pleasure to play, compose and arrange music and travel the world with my friend and musical partner Al Jarreau, on and off, for 39 years. This morning at 5:30 a.m., he passed away peacefully. (…) I am so very grateful to have been a part of his life and music. No one I’ve every met had a bigger heart and soul.”

Al Jarreau will live on in his music and our memories.

By the way: The publication you are reading, The Berlin Spectator, was established in January of 2019. We have worked a whole lot, as you can see. But there has hardly been any income. This is something we urgently need to change. Would you consider contributing? We would be very thankful. Our donations page can be found here.