Retirement? It’s just hearsay, says ALEXANDER O’NEAL, on the eve of his British ‘Resurrected’ tour

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  • Retirement? It’s just hearsay, says ALEXANDER O’NEAL, on the eve of his British ‘Resurrected’ tour

                While a small percentage of the British public (those, no doubt, unfamiliar with R&B music)  will undoubtedly recognise Alexander O’Neal from his appearances on primetime UK TV shows like Weakest Link, Celebrity Wife Swap and Big Brother, the majority will know him for what he does best: singing. Boasting a powerful yet expressive voice  – imagine the silkiness of Nat ‘King’ Cole crossed with  Otis Redding’s soulful rasp – Alex was conquering the charts around the world thirty years ago with big hits that ranged from smooth ballads like  ‘If You Were Here Tonight’ to tough dance floor smashes such as ‘Fake’ and ‘Criticise.’ 

Now in his 65th year, the man originally from Natchez, Mississippi, is still going strong. The hits may have dried up but his enthusiasm and commitment to making music hasn’t left him. Though, given his age,  he’s now eligible for retirement,  Alex isn’t contemplating a sedentary life defined by a pipe, slippers, and a stair-lift just yet. “I’m just trying to keep busy,” he tells me, “because I’m still enjoying doing my thing and still getting a buzz out of it.”

Following in the wake of his recent ‘Hearsay 30’ album released at the end of last year, the softly-spoken singer is due to undertake an eight date tour of the UK, beginning on the 6th of April in Glasgow and culminating with a show on 25th of that month at London’s prestigious Palladium venue. O’Neal, as many American performers have discovered over the years visiting the UK, that British fans offer unwavering support and fealty.  “I think they’re more loyal and they love their R&B music. In America, you’re only as big as your last hit record and they treat you that way. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a legend or if you had a bunch of hit records, they forget, but over here, on this side of the water, it seems they remember you. They grew up with you and get older with you and they still come out and buy your music and come to the shows. I’ve been coming over there 30 years and what I love about my fans over here so much is that they’ve endeared me into their hearts and lives over the years, so there’s a lot of memories, and it’s just great to be seeing them.”

In fact, Alexander O’Neal is so smitten with the UK that he’s decidedly to live here – in Manchester. “My new management and production team is up here in Manchester now and I also use a great band out of Manchester called Mamma Freedom. It’s a lot like Minneapolis/St Paul in Minnesota in the States. The pace is about the same and the weather is kind of the same. I’m living in Manchester these days and it’s really nice.”

                        altThe singer has fond memories of his very first visit to London in 1985, though admits that he had no idea what to expect and was, in fact, shocked because “I didn’t even know that black people were here.” Aiming to explore London, he was picked up by a black cab – whose driver was also black – and asked him to take him to a nightclub. “It was a Wednesday night and he took me to a place called Gulliver’s, which was a late-night club, and so my first impression of England was a good one. The people were very kind and we’ve been getting on like a house on fire ever since.”

Alexander O’Neal, then, like several US presidents before him, has declared his relationship with Great Britain to be a special one. And motivated by that mutual sense of love and admiration, he’s endeavoured to put together a crowd-pleasing stage show for his new tour that is oriented towards his British fans tastes. “When I put a show together, I put a show together with the fans in mind,” he says. “So, when they come to the shows, I want to give them all the songs that have become popular here and also give them something different too. They’ll get all of the hit records and then get a couple of new ones from my new album, just to see how they feel.”

 The forthcoming new album is also called ‘Resurrected,’ and judging from how the singer describes it, it’s going to reflect a reborn Alexander O’Neal – or an Alexander O’Neal we haven’t seen before – at least from a musical and stylistic perspective. “I’m so excited about this new ‘Resurrected’ album because it’s a different kind of album,” he enthuses. “It’s not a vintage, manicured R&B album. This is more raw and hardcore… it’s full of blues, pop, and folk. I’m co-writing all this stuff to give my fans an indication of how I perceive music, because I like all kinds.”

It certainly sounds like its going to be an eclectic affair  – and one which may be challenging to some of his fans, who are expecting seductive Quiet Storm ballads – but it’s also a courageous step to try and redefine himself. “I don’t want to be just slated as an R&B singer,” states Alex explaining the rationale behind the more diverse new album. “I’d like my fans and people to know that I’d like to be remembered as a great singer. I’m always trying to advance and grow within my career and talent.”

Integral to the production and sound of the new album are the Mancunian band, Mamma Freedom. “They’re one the hottest bands that’s on the roster for the management company I’m with,” explains Alex. “They put us together and it just so happened that we gelled, and we’ve been doing it ever since.  I’m pleased and happy with these guys and they’ll be on tour with me as well.”

                      altMamma Freedom also appeared on the singer’s last album, ‘Hearsay 30,’ which came out just before Christmas last year. It was a brave move by the singer and some of his detractors have used the word foolhardy to describe his attempt to recreate his biggest and most revered album (1987’s Jam & Lewis-helmed concept album,  ‘Hearsay’) in its entirety. That’s because it’s considered a soul masterpiece and is deemed perfect as it is. O’Neal, himself, admits he had doubts about the project. “I was apprehensive and reluctant to do it at first because I was a little intimidated with the original ‘Hearsay,'” he confesses.  “I’d never heard of anybody re-recording an album that they had recorded 30 years ago and then to do it 30 years later.” Eventually he went ahead with the project and for those used to the super-smooth contours of Jam & Lewis’ svelte production sound, the much rawer ‘Hearsay 30’ with its rock guitar lines and live band feel will come as something of a shock. Says Alex: “These albums are not to be compared with each other because my new projects are all individual projects and they stand on their own merits. With ‘Hearsay 30’ you get a whole different vibe because it was recorded with a band with live bass, guitar, and horns. I also wanted this album to feel more grown-up and present myself as a mature adult. I’m very, very pleased with the outcome of the album and I hope all of my fans will enjoy it as well.”

                        altRecalling the original ‘Hearsay’ album released on Clarence Avant’s Tabu label in 1987, Alex says that despite it being presented as a slick, well-thought-out concept album, it didn’t really fall into shape until the last moment. “We didn’t know anything was going to work,” he discloses. “We were just recording at the time and then all of a sudden it came into focus and became the album that it was going to be. It happened just naturally and turned out to be a concept album with all the talking and party noises. It worked out well for us.”

The original album featured Alex’s label mate, Cherrelle Norton, on the uplifting duet, ‘Never Knew Love Like This,’ and on the new version her place is taken by Kristin Hosein, an experienced British chanteuse who’s toured with and Cheryl Cole. “She’s one of my former background singers. She’s from Leeds and is really good. She did great and I think that Cherrelle would definitely approve.”

Music is in Alexander O’Neal’s genes. He says he came from a musical family that was full of fine vocalists. “There are a lot of great singers in my family – singers that will run circles around me,” he laughs. “My sister would run circles around me but she has a heart condition and really didn’t want to do it but I have a lot of great singers in my family, a lot of cousins, but life takes over and sometimes you just have to go where your life leads you.”

Ambition led Alex to leave his home in Natchez, Mississippi. He started singing there – influenced by everyone from Nat ‘King’ Cole and Ray Charles to Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye – but decided to move north 835 miles to Chicago in his late teens. But he wasn’t happy there. “I lived in a ghetto and worked in a factory. If you do that, you don’t really see a way out. You think everybody lives like that and you don’t even think about the world.” But fortunately, after two tough years in the “Windy City,” O’Neal, then aged 20, sought to make an escape from the oppressive gloom of ghetto life and a numbing 9-to-5 job and contacted a cousin, who lived 400 miles further north in Minneapolis. “I called him one morning and asked if I could come up there and get out of the west side of Chicago, and he said yeah, come on, man. So at 9 o’clock at night I was on a Greyhound bus on my way to Minneapolis.”

Minneapolis proved a revelation. “I got there in the spring and it was so beautiful,” Alex recalls. “I felt free because when you come out of an urban environment like Chicago you go to a city that is totally cosmopolitan and interracial like Minnesota, that was a totally new experience for me. It was a total culture shock but one that was welcome and so pleasant. If you’re not used to dealing with different people from different cultures and different races, then it might be a little problem for you adjusting, but Minneapolis gave me more of a chance.”

Alex sang with some local bands in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. “They were lean years but they were fun. We had to do three trips to get all equipment to the club that we was playing because we only had a little station wagon. I remember doing that in the freezing cold.” Despite the hardship,  the singer looks back at those formative years with a nostalgic fondness. “I had so much fun back in the day at the beginning of my career because  you had no pressure and didn’t have to sell records and stuff like that. If you were looking to get a record deal, but you had to be good in the clubs to even be considered because in the music industry, they want the best first.” Those years taught Alex valuable knowledge and experience, which he is keen to pass on to aspiring, up-and-coming musicians. “I tell young people all the time, get out there, get in a band, and be seen, ‘cos everybody thinks that you can just put some tracks together and throw them on social media and all of a sudden you’ve got something, but usually, that’s not very likely.”

                  altA key moment in Alex’s life was when he got acquainted with keyboard player, Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris, and bassist, Terry Lewis (pictured above) who also wrote songs together and were in a band called Flyte Time. “We were local rivals in the local music scene and then I got a chance to play with them in their band. They had a female singer, a lady called Cynthia Johnson, who left when she got a deal with (producer)  Steve Greenberg and sang ‘Funky Town’ with Lipps Inc. When she got that deal, the slot was open for a lead singer in Flyte Time. They didn’t really want me to be lead singer but they let me front the show. All of a sudden I started getting so much notoriety until they incorporated me into the band. It was a couple of years before they became The Time and Prince came on board.”

                 altThat was in 1980. By then the late Prince Rogers Nelson, a Minneapolis wunderkind and maverick, who had scored some self-produced R&B hits for Warner Bros, was just beginning to make his presence felt in the music industry. He started a side project, assembling a new band, The Time (pictured above), which included former Flyte Time members Jam, Lewis, and Monty Moir. Alexander O’Neal also got recruited. “I started out a project with Prince being a lead singer for a band, not necessarily The Time, but nothing happened and then I got fired.” Alex believes that Prince dispensed with his services because “I was too opinionated.” But that wasn’t all. “I heard rumours that he said I was too black,” reveals Alex. “I don’t know whether that was in skin pigmentation or my mannerisms. I’m sure it might have been both of them for him. Prince had come to a realisation of his own identity and was black when it was convenient for him to be black. Mine stayed all the time, 24/7 – what you see is what you get. I didn’t have that luxury, it was what it was. But he did, and he used it like he did the controversy over his sexuality. He did everything he could to create controversy, which was a part of this mystique.”

But being cruelly jettisoned by Prince spurred Alex on and strengthened his resolve to succeed in the music industry. “I told myself if I was good enough to be fired by Prince, and have Rolling Stone magazine write articles about me when nobody even knows who Alexander O’Neill is, then I must be good enough for the music industry. So I said I’m going to keep pushing and that was just fuel for the fire. A lot of good things come out of bad situations. You’ve just got to weather it and look for the silver lining.”

Alex reveals that music journalists wanted him to divulge information about Prince back then because the latter was refusing to talk to the press. “The media were trying to trick me because Prince wasn’t doing interviews at the time and because of that, they were angry and mad at him. They wanted to get him and anybody who had any kind of tiff with him, they were going to seek you out so you could say bad things. But I wouldn’t do it …and that’s one of the reasons why I’m here today.”

                    altBut it was a stroke of good fortune that enabled Alex to end up at Clarence Avant’s Tabu label in 1985 to make his first solo recordings. By then, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, also fired by Prince (from The Time in 1983) for doing outside production work,  were enjoying a fertile stint being hit-making songwriters and producers, having scored chart smashes for Tabu with the S.O.S. Band and Cherrelle. Tabu had advanced them money to make an album with ex-Change singer, James Robinson, though the sessions were proving difficult. “They found that he couldn’t cut it in the studio,” recalls Alex, “and so instead of them giving the money back to the record company, they’d already spent everything, they thought, ‘who can we get to do this? I know, we’ll get Alex to do it. This is Alex’s shot.’ So that became my shot. I did my whole first album before I even got one penny. I didn’t get any money until I finished it. It was a great project and I was singing from the heart and soul. So, that’s how I got the record deal. I put it down to destiny.”

Though Alex was a last-minute stand-in for the unfortunate James Robinson – who finally released his Tabu debut in 1987, by which time Alexander O’Neal was a bonafide R&B superstar – he proved that he was more than capable of stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist. The resulting self-titled debut album spawned ‘Innocent,’ ‘What’s Missing,’ and  the ballad that became Alex’s signature song, ‘If You Were Here Tonight.’ “Though it wasn’t a big song in the States, it was the foundation of that first album,” Alex reveals.  “Monty Moir wrote and produced it.  He was a keyboard player for The Time. I didn’t go home and rehearse it or anything like that. I just listened to the song in the studio and did it in one session. In fact, I never heard any of those songs before the day I went in the studio.”

That particular album and its singles provided the launch-pad for a stellar career, though it is one that has experienced several well-documented ups and downs since those halcyon days in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Coping with fame and adulation can be notoriously difficult, but now, as he approaches his  65th birthday,  Alexander O’Neal seems to be more settled and happier than he’s been for many years. With a UK tour about to start and a new album, his eleventh, on the way, he’s looking forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past. “I just want to keep doing what I do,” he says matter-of-factly.

But with age comes maturity and in Alex’s case, wisdom and humility as well. Now he sees that there’s more to life than being stuck in the fast lane of the music business. “I have things away from music that are much more enticing to me, especially at this time of my life, and which are much more important than the music industry,” he states. Just what that is, he quickly makes abundantly clear: “Keeping  my relationship with my God, and spirituality, is more important. My life is very simple. I’m just trying to be the best person I can be each and every day and hopefully, through my God, I’m being allowed to be of service.”