David Lasley obituary

Though never a solo star, David Lasley, who has died aged 74, was regarded as an invaluable backing singer, songwriter and collaborator by some of the most prestigious names in the music industry. Among the headlining names he worked with are Chic, Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Todd Rundgren, Herb Alpert and Boz Scaggs.

Lasley also became an indispensable part of James Taylor’s band, and Taylor would introduce him on stage as “a great singer-songwriter in his own right”. The writer and producer Desmond Child, renowned for his work with Meat Loaf, Cher, Aerosmith and many more, observed that Lasley “sang and wrote on many of the classic records across the last five decades that have become the soundtrack of our lives”.

With his remarkable four-octave vocal range and distinctive falsetto, Lasley worked steadily as a songwriter while developing a spectacular career as a backing singer. He gained prestige as part of a quartet of singers (including Luther Vandross) who featured on Chic classics such as Everybody Dance and Le Freak, as well as Chic-produced hits such as Sister Sledge’s We Are Family.

By the time he began working with Taylor in 1977, he had also appeared on such chart landmarks as Odyssey’s Native New Yorker and Vandross’s Stop to Love, and even sang (uncredited) on the Ramones albums Leave Home and Rocket to Russia. He was in such demand that at one point he featured on 13 of the Top 25 songs on the US Billboard singles chart.

Lasley wrote songs with a variety of partners, including Vandross, Kiki Dee and Scaggs, and in 1980 joined Geffen Records as a recording artist. Initially delighted, he quickly became disillusioned because “they wanted me to copy other artists”, and at great expense he bought himself out of the deal.

In 1981 he released his first album, Demos, a double LP of his own demo recordings put out by Irving Almo, where Lasley was a staff songwriter. He followed up with the much more high-profile Missin’ Twenty Grand (1982), a look back at his early years in Detroit (the title refers to the city’s 20 Grand nightclub.) Released by EMI America and featuring guest appearances by Pete Townshend and Taylor, it earned him rave reviews, some of which likened him to a variety of other notable artists, including Laura Nyro and Mitchell. “The critics said – it’s embarrassing to read them now – that I was the next Bob Dylan,” he recalled. The track If I Had My Wish Tonight gave him a Top 40 hit in the US. Lasley released eight albums altogether, winning particular acclaim for Raindance (1984) and Soldiers on the Moon (1990).

He was born in Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, to Bernice, a music teacher, and her husband, Roy Lasley. He grew up on a farm near Grand Rapids, and gained his earliest musical experiences singing in church with his sisters, Judith and Julie, and his saxophone-playing brother, Dean.

David and Julie created the a cappella group the Utopias in their teens, and performed regular club dates around Detroit as well as recording three singles. The first of these, Welcome, Baby, To My Heart, was a regional hit in 1966. David and Julie also wrote songs together, most notably I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again, which was recorded by Raitt on her Grammy-winning album Nick of Time (1989).

In 1970 David joined the cast of the musical Hair, with which he toured until 1972, when he moved to New York and appeared in the Broadway musical Dude. He then formed the group Rosie with two fellow Hair cast members, Lana Marrano and Lynn Pitney, and they recorded the albums Better Late Than Never (which included the Lasley/Marrano composition Roll Me Through the Rushes, recorded by Chaka Khan in 1978) and Last Dance.

Lasley liked to say that being versatile was the key to making a living, and he was happy to turn his hand to recording advertising jingles and voicing commercials for Miller Beer and Seagram’s Coolers. “I’m really blessed because I’m doing what I love,” he said. “I don’t go to industry parties. I like to keep to myself.” In 2013 he featured in 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about the lives of backing singers, which won an Oscar.

At his death Lasley was suffering from cancer and also had Lewy body dementia. His friend Arnold McCuller, another of Taylor’s regular backing musicians, led fundraising efforts to cover Lasley’s medical bills and home care treatment.

He is survived by Dean.

• David Eldon Lasley, singer and songwriter, born 20 August 1947; died 9 December 2021