ICE COOL ALEX – soul legend ALEXANDER O’NEAL talks ahead of his UK show at Quaglino’s

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  • ICE COOL ALEX – soul legend ALEXANDER O’NEAL talks ahead of his UK show at Quaglino’s

                Ever since Alexander O’Neal scored his first UK chart entry back in December 1985 – with ‘Saturday Love,’ his anthemic duet with Cherrelle Norton – he’s enjoyed what can only be described as a special relationship with the British public, whose devotion remains steadfast even though 30 years have now passed since the singer’s biggest UK smash, ‘Criticize,’ crashed into the nation’s Top 5.

Now back in England to perform at Mayfair’s trendy but intimate nightspot, Quaglino’s, on Thursday 27th July, 64-year-old O’Neil professes that he feels a lot of  affection for the country where its people took him to their hearts. “It’s so wonderful to be back here,” he enthuses. “England is my favourite place in the world. I have a lot of great fans here. They’re people who grew up with me but also want to grow old with me, which is different from America. I just enjoy coming here and performing for my fans. They’ve given me so much love over the last 30 years, and if they continue to do that then I’ll be very happy.”

London, too has a special place in his heart. “Without doubt, it’s my favourite city. When I’m here, I’m not homesick because I feel at home. I don’t miss anything and I don’t miss anybody because I have friends here and family too – my daughter moved here from Canada. So it definitely feels like a second home to me.”

      altThe 64-year-old Natchez-born singer – whose voice is a soulful amalgam of sandpaper and silk – went on to rack up a remarkable 25 hit singles and six charting albums here between 1985 and 1998 as well as selling out all of the major concert arenas around the country. In fact, O’Neal confesses that the biggest highlight of his career is when he packed out Wembley Arena for six consecutive nights in 1988, which was an unprecedented feat for an R&B singer. “That was a shot that was heard around the world,” he laughs. “It has to be my biggest highlight. It was so much fun. It’s nothing compared to artists who can sell out 70,000 seaters but I don’t know if they’d get the same passion that I got for six nights in a row in the UK with 11,000 people.”

Though he was born to a family of six children in America’s deep south in Natchez, which lies on the banks of the Mississippi river, as a young man fresh out of school, O’Neal ventured north to Chicago before hooking up with a cousin who lived near the Mississippi’s source in Minneapolis, Minnesota. O’Neal describes Minneapolis as “probably the most interracial city in the United States” and it was there that his ambitions to be an R&B singer were eventually realised, though it wasn’t without setbacks.  In the late ’70s, he joined a band called Flyte Tyme. They came under the control of a young musical maverick genius called Prince, who then decided to sack O’Neal from the group (replacing him with Morris Day), which then morphed into The Time.

When the singer is asked if he now feels gratitude to Prince for firing him from the band, a situation which kick-started his solo career, he laughs raucously. “I don’t know if I’m grateful – I’m not sure that’s the right word – but we all have Prince to thank for careers one way or another, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Prince and his accomplishments. He was the godfather of the Minneapolis music scene, and brought a whole new sound to the music industry, and did some astronomical things. The only thing I’ve got to say about that is that good things come out of bad situations and it’s just about the way the you deal with it.”

                 altO’Neal’s way of dealing with that particular failure was to bounce back, and re-launch himself as a solo singer. He was offered a deal by Clarence Avant’s Tabu label in 1985 and hooked up with two of his old Flyte Tyme buddies, Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and Terry Lewis (pictured above), who were rising writers and producers. “It was wonderful working with them,” says O’Neal. “The songs were all explicitly written for me. When you work with guys like Jimmy and Terry, who are on the local scene, you know them like the back of your hand and they know you like they know themselves. They know what your voice is and its capabilities. So they know everything about you and write the songs just for you.”

The singer recalls those days fondly. “I remember those sessions, they were great times,” he says. “But when you’re working with great producers and writers like Jimmy and Terry and the whole Flyte Tyme camp it was a beautiful experience. When you’re working with a producer, you might only work with them one time, you might only work on one album, or you might even get just one song on that producer but I got four or five albums with these guys. So we have history together that nobody can change. Working with them was an absolute treat.” 

                              altDespite Jam & Lewis’s involvement on his self-titled debut album in 1985, it was another ex-Time member, Monty Moir, who came up with O’Neal’s signature tune, ‘If You Were Here Tonight.’ “Monty gave me my biggest hit ever,” says O’Neal. “So it wasn’t just about Jimmy and Terry… there was a team of guys there, including Jellybean (Johnson) and Monty. I remember the session for ‘If You Were Here Tonight’ like it was yesterday. When Monty first played it to me, I thought,  this one’s a hit, and even though it was a ballad, I knew it was a different kind of a tune. It’s become my signature song because it’s the one where the crowd hear the first couple of notes and go crazy. It’s an honour for me to have recorded a record like that that has staying power and is considered a great record and one of the classics.”

                             altTalking of classics, O’Neal also recorded some fabulous duets with Cherrelle. “What we did together we described as magic,” he says. “When Jimmy and Terry put us together it was one of the best things ever.” He says that a few years ago, the taste-making US urban magazine, Vibe, voted ‘Saturday Love’ the best R&B duet of all time. Though it was a pleasing accolade, it also surprised the singer. “‘Saturday Love’ is a great song, a great duet, but the best of all times? What about Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell, Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack, and James Ingram & Patti Austin? And Peaches and Herb? I wish I had a song like ‘Reunited,’ you know? But it was in the mind of a new generation and they voted us number one.”

                                altReflecting on the singers that had the profoundest impact on his own style, O’Neal cites the influence of another Southern soul singer from the 1960s. “Otis Redding was the man to me,” he reveals. “He was my number one idol. He could do the uptempo stuff and ballads. I would also  have to say James Brown, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye.” Despite absorbing the varied influences of his musical heroes, O’Neal says he sought above all else to find his own voice and style. “I tried very hard not to be slated as a balladeer. I didn’t want to be like Luther Vandross. I wanted to do up-tempo stuff that was raw and had a hard edge to it. For years I tried to sing like Peabo Bryson, who sounded a bit like Donny Hathaway. I grew up on Donny, his voice just drove me crazy, I loved him. I really perfected his thing but I found out that I had to find me. I couldn’t emulate other artists and be successful. I had to find  who Alexander was so I took a combination of things. We all steal from each other in this business, like Prince did with James Brown. We’ll take something but there’s nothing wrong with it.”

The singer reveals that he has been working on a new, as yet untitled, album, which should be released in the autumn. “It’s totally different. It’s raw, it’s bluesy, folky, pop, and rock,” he discloses. “I’m going out of my comfort zone. I’m trying to cater for that and find a new audience for this album, so I’m hoping that it’s well received. I’m working with a band and producers from Manchester called Mamma Freedom. They’re doing the whole damn thing. They did a revamp of ‘Fake’ last year before I knew who they were.  They’re fans of mine and grew up with my music but I’m so honoured to be working with them. It’s good because these guys are like England’s best kept secret.”

The album comes as a response to escape from what the singer sees as a frustrating musical straitjacket that limits his potential as a performer. “Mostly I find that black artists, are stereotyped and categorised as one type of artist, so it’s hard to break out,” he explains. “Also you don’t know how to break out and how to embark on other kinds of music, other than that R&B thing. But now I’m pushing for a whole different level of success and hoping to bridge the generation gap and attract younger audiences.”  

Focusing ahead to tonight’s gig at Quaglino’s, the singer says he will be using a mostly British band. “I have two bands, one for here, and one for America but my musical director for both is Billy Osborne, who’s Jeffrey Osborne’s nephew. He’s been doing this with me for the past 20 years.”

In terms of what he’ll be serving up for his London audience, he says: “They’ll get vintage Alexander O’Neal. They’ll get the best of me. I put a show together with my fans in mind. I hate artists who start playing songs from the new album and ram it down your throat and you don’t even know what the hell they’re playing. I like to do the records that they’re familiar with – all of the hits so when they go home they can feel happy that they’ve heard their favourite songs. I’m just very thankful and blessed to be here doing what I do 30 something years later and still singing in the same keys that my songs were written in. Now that’s a blessing…and very unusual.”

                   altHe also reveals that they’ll be a spot in his Quaglino’s show where he’ll pay tribute to some of pop’s fallen heroes. “We’re going to give the audience something different because I have a lot of love for a lot of the artists that have recently passed. So we’re doing a tribute in the show to Prince, George Michael, Michael Jackson and David Bowie. It went down very well on tour and so I  hope it will be well received tomorrow night as well. George Michael (pictured above) was a good friend of mine. We used to hang out at this club many years ago called Brown’s. That was the kind of spot where you’d go in at 1 o’clock at night and you leave at 10 o’clock the next morning. Back in the day, we spent a million nights up in that joint. But it’s just an honour for me to do a tribute to some of those great artists.”




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