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Al Jarreau, jazz singer who won 7 Grammys, dies at 76

Yvonne Villarreal
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Al Jarreau, the legendary jazz artist and seven-time Grammy winner, died Sunday at age 76.

The singer died at a Los Angeles hospital surrounded by family and friends, his agent said. His death came two days after he announced his retirement from touring and was admitted to the hospital for exhaustion.

Known as the “Acrobat of Scat” for his vocal delivery and admired by fans for his imaginative and improvisational qualities, Jarreau had a career that spanned five decades and 20 albums. His biggest single was “We’re in This Love Together” from 1981. He also sang the theme song for TV’s “Moonlighting.”

He was the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, pop and R&B categories.

A statement on his website read: “His 2nd priority in life was music. There was no 3rd. His 1st priority, far ahead of the other, was healing or comforting anyone in need.”

He was born Alwin Lopez-Jarreau in Milwaukee in 1940. His father was a minister, and his mother was a piano teacher. Jarreau began singing in a church choir at age 4 and later counted jazz scat artist Jon Hendricks and ballad singer Johnny Mathis among his greatest influences.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1960 from Wisconsin’s Ripon College, where he performed on weekends with a group called the Indigos. He went on to the University of Iowa, earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation and later moved to San Francisco to begin a brief career as a social worker.

But his call to singing persisted, and he realized that rehabilitation counseling would not be his life’s work.

“I was feeling bad about my performance as a counselor — I had a huge caseload, and it was overwhelming — and it made me think about what my real career should be,” Jarreau told The Los Angeles Times in 1991.

By the late ’60s, Jarreau moved to Los Angeles and began to sing in clubs such as the Troubadour and the Bitter West End.

He released his first album, “We Got By,” in 1975 at the age of 35. Within two years, he won his first Grammy. He began attracting a wider following with his 1981 album, “Breaking Away,” which included the Top 20 hit “We’re in This Love Together.” The album won Grammy Awards in the jazz and pop vocal categories.

Not one to fit into a mold, Jarreau dabbled with rock and reggae and recorded the theme song for the TV series “Moonlighting” in the ’80s. His 1992 album, “Heaven and Earth,” won a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance, giving the artist Grammys in three categories.

Despite his many TV appearances and touring schedule, Jarreau often lamented the recording business.

“I’m this strange kind of fusion of jazz, pop and R&B,” Jarreau said. “Since the beginning of my recording career in 1975, I have had a little difficulty because the pop stations think I’m a jazzer who doesn’t have a feeling for pop, so it’s hard to get my records played. Similarly, black urban radio doesn’t understand that with my R&B roots, I am more than a jazz singer. So I get pigeonholed.”

Jarreau stretched his talents in other ways, performing with symphony orchestras and acting on Broadway in 1996 in the role of Teen Angel in “Grease.”

He eventually came full-circle in 2004 and recorded a straight-ahead jazz album, “Accentuate the Positive.”

He picked up two more Grammys in 2007 for a recording made with guitarist George Benson, “Givin’ It Up.” He remained an active performer until his death, playing about 50 concerts last year.

Jarreau is survived by his wife, Susan, and son, Ryan.