Alan Merrill obituary

<span>Photograph: Erica Echenberg/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Erica Echenberg/Redferns

The singer and songwriter Alan Merrill, who has died aged 69 after contracting Covid-19, will be chiefly remembered for the song I Love Rock’n’Roll. Merrill composed it after hearing the Rolling Stones’ 1974 hit It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (But I Like It), which he considered took an unsuitably apologetic attitude to the music he loved. The Arrows’ 1975 version was not a hit, but a recording by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts spent seven weeks at the top of the US Billboard pop chart in 1982.

The song has exhibited impressive staying power. Britney Spears took it into the UK Top 20 in 2002, a comedy version for charity, I Love Sausage Rolls, by LadBaby, topped the British charts in December 2019, and it has been performed or recorded by Miley Cyrus, Alvin Stardust, Showaddywaddy, Johnny Hallyday and many more. In 2016 Jett’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

However Merrill was far from being a one-song wonder. He enjoyed a long and prolific career, which saw him spending several years in Japan, where he became a huge star both as a teen-pop act and a TV actor, and formed the glam-rock band Vodka Collins. After his stint with the Arrows he formed the band Runner, and later performed with Rick Derringer and Meat Loaf. He maintained a flow of solo releases and live performances that continued until 2019.

An only child, he was born Allan Sachs in the Bronx, New York City, into an intensely musical family. His mother was Helen Merrill (nee Jelena Ana Milcetic), an internationally renowned jazz singer who worked with numerous luminaries including Charlie Parker, Earl Hines, Gil Evans and Ennio Morricone. His father was the jazz saxophonist Aaron Sachs, who played with Benny Goodman and the Earl Hines band as well as recording with Stan Getz, Billie Holiday and others.

His parents divorced in 1956 and his mother subsequently worked regularly in Europe, living in Italy for a time. Aged nine, Allan was sent to Aiglon college, a British boarding school in Switzerland, then attended schools in New York and Los Angeles as well as Sophia University in Tokyo. Returning to New York, he began performing with semi-professional bands in Greenwich Village, including The Rayne and Watertower West. He was distantly related to the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro (Nyro’s uncle married Merrill’s aunt), with whom he went to see Eric Clapton’s band Cream perform at New York’s Music in the Fifth Dimension festival in 1967. In 1968 he auditioned successfully for the baroque pop group The Left Banke, but when the group abruptly split up, Merrill headed for Tokyo, where his mother was living.

Alan Merrill’s photogenic teen-idol looks made him a huge star in Japan in the early 1970s.
Alan Merrill’s photogenic teen-idol looks made him a huge star in Japan in the early 1970s. Photograph: Andre Csillag/Rex/Shutterstock

Having adopted her surname, he joined the Tokyo-based group The Lead and sang in Japanese on their hit Akuma Ga Kureta Aoi Bara. He then embarked on a solo career that would make him Japan’s biggest foreign-born pop artist, boosted by his photogenic teen-idol looks. He recorded the successful albums Alone in Tokyo (1971) and Merrill 2 (1972), hosted his own segment on the TV show Young 720, appeared in the soap opera Ji Kan Desuyo and modelled for clothing brands and Nissan cars. He regularly played on recording sessions with Japanese artists, then in 1972 formed Vodka Collins with the drummer Hiroshi Oguchi. Their album Tokyo – New York (1973) generated a trio of hit singles, all written by Merrill. However a dispute with the group’s management prompted Merrill to quit and relocate to London in 1974.

He formed the Arrows, singing and playing bass alongside drummer Paul Varley and guitarist Jake Hooker. Mickie Most produced their recordings for his RAK label. They hit the UK Top 10 with Touch Too Much (1974) and the Top 30 with My Last Night With You (1975), and although I Love Rock’n’Roll wasn’t a chart hit for them (it was originally the B-side to another release, Broken Down Heart), the Arrows’ performance of it on Granada TV’s 45 show earned them two series of their own weekly TV programme, in 1976 and 77. However Most was enraged when the group signed with MAM Management, and declared that he would never release another Arrows record. Their final single was released before their first TV series began. With the aid of Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, the Arrows tried to leave RAK and find a new label, but legal obstacles and personal differences between Merrill and Hooker led to the group splitting up.

He married the fashion model Cathee Dahmen in 1977. The next year he formed the four-piece rock band Runner, whose sole album appeared fleetingly on the US album chart, but they dissolved before completing a follow-up. He moved to New York, and from 1980 to 1983 recorded and toured with Rick Derringer, featuring on the albums Good Dirty Fun, Live at the Ritz and Rick Derringer and Friends.

In 1983 Lou Rawls’ recording of Merrill’s song When the Night Comes was broadcast from the space shuttle Challenger by the astronaut Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space. Merrill released a self-titled solo album in 1985, before spending several years in Meat Loaf’s touring band. In 1990 he toured Japan with the revived Vodka Collins, who went on to record four more albums. Among Merrill’s numerous later solo albums were Double Shot Rocks (2003), and a tribute to the Left Banke called Rive Gauche (2007). At the time of his death he was preparing to release a new album, for which his daughter Laura had photographed the cover.

His marriage to Dahmen ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Joanna (nee Lisanti), and their daughter, Allegra; two children, Laura and Allan Jr, from his first marriage; and his mother.

• Alan Merrill (Allan Preston Sachs), singer, songwriter and musician, born 19 February 1951; died 29 March 2020