Al Jarreau's silky-smooth vocals and impeccable skill at vocalese - a style of jazz singing that applied lyrics to established instrumental numbers - made him one of the genre's most popular vocalists for over four decades, as well as one of the rare singers to win Grammys in three different musical genres. A polished performer who incorporated elements of R&B and pop into his material, Jarreau began minting hit records for Warner Bros. in the mid-1970s, scoring numerous Top 10 albums on the Jazz and R&B charts. By the early 1980s, he had branched into pop with hits like "Boogie Down" and the theme to the hit series "Moonlighting" (ABC, 1985-89), but focused largely on touring in the 1990s. The new millennium saw him return to his jazz roots while maintaining a tireless concert schedule around the globe; his celebrated career, which included multiple Grammys and Top 10 hits in jazz, pop and R&B, made Al Jarreau an accomplished listener favorite. Al Jarreau died of respiratory failure on February 12, 2017, only days after canceling an upcoming tour and announcing his retirement from music.
The fifth of six children, Alwin Lopez Jarreau was born March 12, 1940 in Milwaukee, WI. Music was almost immediately part of his upbringing; his father was a Seventh-Day Adventist Church minister and singer, while his mother was a church pianist. Not surprisingly, Jarreau began performing with his family at church events by the time he was four years old. Singing, however, would not become the focus of his life for many years. An above-average student and athlete throughout his scholastic career, Jarreau earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Ripon College in 1962, and went on to receive his master's degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa. He worked in that field after relocating to San Francisco, but soon found the lure of the city's music clubs too strong. Jarreau began performing in jazz clubs with a trio led by pianist George Duke, but found greater success as part of a duo with guitarist Julio Martinez. By 1968, Jarreau had given up vocational rehabilitation to perform fulltime as a jazz singer.
The following year, Jarreau moved south to Los Angeles, where he found steady work at many of the city's most acclaimed nightclubs, including the famed Troubadour and The Improv, where he performed between stand-up sets by the likes of Jimmie Walker and Robert Klein. Television appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992) and "The Mike Douglas Show" (syndicated, 1962-1982) soon led to a contract with Warner Bros., which yielded his first album, We Got By, in 1975. Critics praised his warm tone, which drew comparisons to such esteemed vocalists as Johnny Mathis and Billy Eckstine, and his seemingly effortless skill at vocalese. His second album, Glow (1976), broke the Top 10 on the Jazz charts, as well as the Top 40 on the R&B charts, but its follow-up, the double live LP Look to the Rainbow (1977), established Jarreau as a hitmaker in multiple fields, with Top 10 and 20 placement in Jazz and R&B, respectively, as well as Top 50 on the Pop Album charts. The release also earned him his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, and he would repeat the win the following year with 1978's All the Way Home.
Jarreau's true breakout album was 1981's Breakin' Away, a polished collection of jazz and R&B featuring some of the top session musicians in Los Angeles, including David Foster, George Duke, Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro. The million-selling record not only reaped Jarreau Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocalist and Best Male Jazz Vocalist, but also helped to lay the foundation for the breezy, R&B-driven sounds of light or smooth jazz. Between 1983 and 1988, Jarreau seemed unstoppable, scoring two chart-topping jazz albums with Jarreau (1983) and Heart's Horizon (1988), as well as two Top 10 pop singles with the effervescent "Boogie Down" (1983) and "Mornin'," from Jarreau. He also recorded the theme to the Cybill Shepherd/Bruce Willis dramedy, "Moonlighting" (ABC, 1985-89) generating another Top 30 pop hit, and participated in the historic "We Are the World" benefit single in 1985.
Jarreau scored his fifth Grammy for Best R&B Vocal with 1992's Heaven and Earth, making him one of the few artists in recording history to earn Grammys in three separate categories (jazz, R&B and pop). The live album Tenderness (1994) preceded a lengthy period away from the studio, during which Jarreau ended his lengthy relationship with Warner Bros. and flirted with acting, most notably as the Teen Angel in a three-month stint in the Broadway production of Grease!. He concentrated largely on touring throughout the globe for the remainder of the 20th century before signing with GPR Records to record Tomorrow Today (2001), which reunited him with Tommy LiPuma, the esteemed jazz producer that oversaw his 1975 debut album. That same year, Jarreau earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Critical acclaim followed his next three efforts for GRP, including All I Got (2002) and Accentuate the Positive (2004). In 2006, he teamed with jazz guitar great George Benson to record what many considered one of his best albums, Givin' It Up, which earned a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for his rendition of "God Bless the Child," featuring Benson and singer Jill Scott. Jarreau released his first holiday album, Christmas, in 2008, shortly before compiling The Very Best of Al Jarreau: An Excellent Adventure (2009) for Rhino Records. The year was also marked by the publication of Ashti Meets Birdman Al, a children's story inspired by Jarreau's music. On July 23, 2010, Jarreau was hospitalized for respiratory and heart trouble while touring in France. After a short stay in intensive care, he made a complete recovery and completed his concert dates. Although Jarreau continued to perform over the next several years and released a final album, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke, in 2014, his health was in decline. In early February 2017, Al Jarreau announced that he was canceling his upcoming tour dates and retiring from music. He died in Los Angeles of respiratory failure on February 12, 2017, at the age of 76.
By Paul Gaita