Alwin Lopez “Al” Jarreau (March 12, 1940 – February 12, 2017) was an American singer and musician. He received a total of seven Grammy Awards and was nominated for over a dozen more. Jarreau is perhaps best known for his 1981 album Breakin’ Away. He also sang the theme song of the late-1980s television series Moonlighting, and was among the performers on the 1985 charity song “We Are the World.”
Early life and career
Jarreau was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 12, 1940, the fifth of six children. The Jarreau website refers to Reservoir Avenue, the name of the street where he lived. Jarreau’s father was a Seventh-day Adventist Church minister and singer, and his mother was a church pianist. Jarreau and his family sang together in church concerts and in benefits, and he and his mother performed at PTA meetings.
Jarreau was student council president and Badger Boys State delegate for Lincoln High School. At Boys State, he was elected governor. Jarreau went on to attend Ripon College, where he also sang with a group called the Indigos. He graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. Two years later, in 1964, he earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa. Jarreau also worked as a rehabilitation counselor in San Francisco, and moonlighted with a jazz trio headed by George Duke. In 1967, he joined forces with acoustic guitarist Julio Martinez. The duo became the star attraction at a small Sausalito night club called Gatsby’s. This success contributed to Jarreau’s decision to make professional singing his life and full-time career.
In 1968, Jarreau made jazz his primary occupation. In 1969, Jarreau and Martinez headed south, where Jarreau appeared at Dino’s, The Troubadour, and Bitter End West. Television exposure came from Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and David Frost. He expanded his nightclub appearances, performing at The Improv between the acts of such rising stars as Bette Midler, Jimmie Walker, and John Belushi. During this period, he became involved with the United Church of Religious Science and the Church of Scientology. Also, roughly at the same time, he began writing his own lyrics, finding that his Christian spirituality began to influence his work.
In 1975, Jarreau was working with pianist Tom Canning when he was spotted by Warner Bros. Records. On Valentine’s Day 1976 he sang on the thirteenth episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, that week hosted by Peter Boyle. Soon he released his critically acclaimed debut album, We Got By, which catapulted him to international fame and won an Echo Award (the German equivalent of the Grammys in the United States). A second Echo Award would follow with the release of his second album, Glow. In 1978, he won his first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for his album, Look To The Rainbow.
One of Jarreau’s most commercially successful albums is Breakin’ Away (1981), which includes the hit song “We’re in This Love Together”. He won the 1982 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for Breakin’ Away. In 1984, his single “After All” reached 69 on the US Hot 100 chart and number 26 on the R&B chart. It was especially popular in the Philippines. His last big hit was the Grammy-nominated theme to the 1980s American television show Moonlighting, for which he wrote the lyrics. Among other things, he was well known for his extensive use of scat singing (for which he was called “Acrobat of Scat”), and vocal percussion. He was also a featured vocalist on USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” in which he sang the line, “…and so we all must lend a helping hand.” Another charitable media event, HBO’s Comic Relief, featured him in a duet with Natalie Cole singing the song “Mr. President”, written by Joe Sterling, Mike Loveless, and Ray Reach.
Jarreau took an extended break from recording in the 1990s. As he explained in an interview with Jazz Review: “I was still touring, in fact, I toured more than I ever had in the past, so I kept in touch with my audience. I got my symphony program under way, which included my music and that of other people too, and I performed on the Broadway production of Grease. I was busier than ever! For the most part, I was doing what I have always done…perform live. I was shopping for a record deal and was letting people know that there is a new album coming. I was just waiting for the right label (Verve), but I toured more than ever.” In 2003, Jarreau and conductor Larry Baird collaborated on symphony shows around the United States, with Baird arranging additional orchestral material for Jarreau’s shows.
Jarreau toured and performed with Joe Sample, Chick Corea, Kathleen Battle, Gregor Praecht, Miles Davis, George Duke, David Sanborn Rick Braun, and George Benson. He also performed the role of the Teen Angel in a 1996 Broadway production of Grease. On March 6, 2001, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. In 2006, Jarreau appeared in a duet with American Idol finalist Paris Bennett during the Season 5 finale and on Celebrity Duets singing with actor Cheech Marin. In 2010, Jarreau was a guest on a Eumir Deodato album, with the song “Double Face” written by Jarreau, Deodato, and Nicolosi. The song was produced by the Italian company Nicolosi Productions. On February 16, 2012, he was invited to the famous Italian Festival di Sanremo to sing with the Italian group Matia Bazar.
Jarreau was married twice. Jarreau and Phyllis Hall were married from 1964 until their divorce in 1968. Jarreau’s second wife was model Susan Elaine Player, who was fourteen years his junior. They were married from 1977 until his death in 2017 and had a son. In 2009, children’s author Carmen Rubin published the story Ashti Meets Birdman Al, inspired by Jarreau’s music. He wrote the foreword for the book and read from it across the world. Al and Carmen worked together to promote literacy and the importance of keeping music alive in children.
Illness and death
It was reported on July 23, 2010, that Jarreau was critically ill at a hospital in France, after performing in Barcelonnette, and was being treated for respiratory problems and cardiac arrhythmias. Jarreau was conscious, in stable condition, and in the cardiology unit of La Timone hospital in Marseilles, the Marseilles Hospital Authority said. He remained there for about a week for tests.
In June 2012, Jarreau was diagnosed with pneumonia, which caused him to cancel several concerts in France. Jarreau made a full recovery and continued to tour extensively for the next 5 years until February 2017.
On February 8, 2017, after being hospitalized for exhaustion in Los Angeles, Jarreau cancelled his remaining 2017 tour dates. On that date, the Montreux Jazz Academy, part of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, announced Jarreau would not return as a mentor to ten young artists, as he had done in 2015.
On February 12, 2017, Jarreau died of respiratory failure, at the age of 76, just two days after announcing his retirement.
He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills).
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