Exclusive interview with Alexander O’Neal
by Karen Shaw
Rhythm and Blues icon Alexander O’Neal – along with his nine piece band – is just about to embark on his UK tour to celebrate the 30th year since he released his 1987 masterpiece album Hearsay, widely regarded as one of the greatest R&B albums of all time.
The triple platinum album spent over two years in the UK album charts spawning no fewer than seven charting singles, including Criticize, Fake and Never Knew Love Like This. Hearsay was the album that ignited his special relationship with his UK fans and established him as the only African-American performer selling out six straight nights at Wembley arena.
It’s one thing to be a good singer, but it’s another to be an entertainer
For me however, Alexander O’Neal was a firm favourite at school discos and at the end of the evening his familiar smooching song If You Were Here Tonight would be played. I would be the ginger lass sitting in the dark corner, or alternatively I could be found in a toilet cubicle pretending I was using the facilities. That’s right; I would be one of the few ugly ducklings who never got ‘picked’ to dance with a spotty adolescent and would make my way home on my own.
So, imagine my feeling of sheer joy, 30 years on from my formative years when I was offered the opportunity to meet the man himself in Manchester. The ugly duckling was off to meet her 80s hero, and this time, if all went to plan; the ugly duckling would dance with the man himself. Surely that would eradicate my miserable memories of school discos. Surely dancing with Alex to one of his songs would be better than staring at graffiti on a toilet wall…
The evening previous to the interview, I’d listened to every Alexander O’Neal album on repeat, curled my hair, decided on my outfit and created a northern goody bag including everything from a black pudding to a flat cap. The following morning, I’m up early ready to meet Alex with my trusty photographer Mark Davis by my side. We’re ready. We’re off. This
ugly duckling is going to become a swan. Then the phone rings… and after a brief conversation the heady feeling of ecstasy is replaced by the overwhelming weight of disappointment. Alex is poorly. He’s cancelled. I go and put the kettle on…
As I pour my lukewarm cup of tea, my only consolation is that I can still interview Alex later on in the day but over the phone. I retreat to the toilets and take off my make-up.
When I eventually get to speak to Alex, he sounds like a grumpy old bear that has just awoken from hibernation. And despite my vivid imagination even I’m struggling to believe that Alex has been described as the American Tom Jones and is no stranger to having knickers thrown on the stage while performing.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen. It’s up to them, but it’s all good. What I can guarantee is that everyone performing on the night is looking forward to it.”
“It’s one thing to be a good singer, but it’s another to be an entertainer”, he says. “I guess it comes from experience, but I always set out to entertain my fans, that’s why they come. I learnt that from one of my mentors, Sammy Davis Jr, how to interact with the crowd. I took a page out of his book many years ago and made it my own.”
He has chosen to name his autobiography, due out at the end of February after his album, All True, Man, released 25 years ago.
“I’ve wanted to write a book forever. It’s definitely an Alexander O’Neal tell-all autobiography. I talk all about my life, and my life in the music industry. I can guarantee it is not boring! They are no white lies in it. All the lies are true!”
The great thing about my UK fans is that they grow up with you and grow older with you
Alex has led a rather turbulent life and I was curious to discover how he managed to encapsulate it all within a book.
“The book starts with my poor upbringing and includes the racial issues I encountered growing up in Mississippi in the fifties and sixties to becoming an international recording artist. Those were not good times, and they had a big impact on me but despite the harshness I still have a great deal of love and appreciation for people of all colours and denominations.
After witnessing his neighbour being blown up by a white activist he begged his mother to attend a civil rights march at the tender age of nine and to this day can vividly remember a white child throwing acid at them. “It was pretty wild. Life’s not about where you come from, but, where you’re going,” he adds.
When it comes to his audience, Alex has nothing but gratitude for them. Three quarters of his American audience are black, whereas it’s the opposite in the UK. “The great thing about my UK fans is that they grow up with you and grow older with you. They don’t give up their social lives. They still come to my shows, where in America they tend to trade everything in for a remote control! I have so much appreciation for my UK fans. From the beginning of my career they showed America a glimpse of who I was going to be through their support, so it’s a real treat to be touring the UK.”
It’s a well-known fact that Alex was literally fired before he was hired by musician Prince. Alexander had been recruited as the lead singer for Prince’s band The Time, but when Alex started asking about monies paid, Prince sacked him sending him a lousy fifty dollars and he was out of the band. The Time went on to gain great musical success. How did Alex feel?
“I was in pain. I felt hurt, but I was elated for them because they were my friends. A lot of times people mistake musicians and singers and bunched us together, but we’re not the same thing, we’re different. It’s more likely that a singer will get a recording contract much quicker than a musician.
“My friends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who went with The Time were musicians so when opportunity knocked they had to go for it, you can’t dally around. We’ve all got Prince to thank for our careers in one way or the other. I got fired by Prince and a few years later so did they, and they came back and got me. It all comes around. You know something, Karen? Good things will come out of bad things and we should just allow it.”
How very true because in 1985, under the production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, O’Neal released his self-titled debut album, the same year, saw him scoring his first Top 10 single, Saturday Love, a duet with Cherelle.
“Living in Minneapolis we were isolated from hard core Soul and R&B, our area wasn’t well known for music until Prince. He opened the door, and once he’d opened the door we all came through it like a flood. And it goes to show one thing about the Minneapolis musical community. It’s full of music and talented, professional musicians.”
It’s at this point. I feel like I’m going to explode. I can no longer contain my disappointment at him cancelling my face to face interview. He doesn’t sound ill. I’ve got to tell him. “Alex, I’ve been listening to your music all week, I’m wearing my black leather trousers, leopard-skin boots, I’ve made you a Northern goody bag and I’ve barely slept in anticipation of meeting you today…”
“Oh sweetie, aw darling,” he says. His voice has softened now, and the gruff tones have changed into a gentle whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
With his apology accepted I then go on to tell him how I was never chosen to dance to his songs. “I would have asked you,” he laughs.
Alex admits his background was poor but his household was rich with love, and his religious roots continue to help his faith grow.
“I think God kind of likes me,” he chuckles. “I’m not sure he loves me, but he definitely likes me. You know Karen; I’m just trying to get it right. God is rather prevalent in my life and he always has been. I grew up in the church and it was mandatory that we went to church. My relationship with God is very important. I can’t do anything without him and I pray to him every day. My relationship with God is one on one. I’ve done a lot of things in my life and God is still with me and it would be wonderful before I leave this earth if I could get it right, whatever ‘it’ is!”
Alex is dogmatic, hard-working, and impulsive and at times has been labelled as aggressive, but despite his past misdemeanours he carries on. So how on his really dark days did he manage to get out of bed and continue to put one foot in front of the other?
“I’ve had my share of dark days,” says Alex. “I’ve never had depression, but some things in life we deal with. We don’t label them as depression, especially being a black American. Growing up, we didn’t call a guy an alcoholic; we would say ‘He liked a drink’. My point being that I never called it depression. It wasn’t until I got older and understood what that was. There have been times when I haven’t wanted to get out of bed for a couple of days but you can’t stay in bed, you can’t fish from bed, so you’ve got to get up and get on.”
Alex’s good friend Whitney Houston died five years ago, and 2016 also stole many of our musical greats including his old pal Prince, David Bowie, George Michael and Rick Parfitt to name a few. There must be one heck of a party going on up there.
“I’ve no intention of joining them yet,” he jokes. “I would like to stay around a bit longer. I wouldn’t want to die and not have the relationship with God that I feel he deserves. He gives me so much and he deserves so much back from me. Every day I ask that I can be of service in his name.
I think God kind of likes me, I’m not sure he loves me, but he definitely likes me
“The thing is Karen, as you get older, your coming days become much more important to you than anything you have already experienced and if they’re not, you’re an idiot! I’m 63 years old and a man’s life expectancy is 72 years, but what am I going to see in the few years that I haven’t already seen? I know why God stopped men living for over 200 years, man can’t take that sh**! If we had to live until we were 200 years old, I’d kill myself! Ow, hell no.
“My work is a God thing. I’m so blessed to still be successful in my career. Many artists don’t sing any more, they have a one hit record. I try not to take God’s kindness for granted but it’s difficult.”
For his first singing gig, Alex got paid the princely sum of a dime, when Miss Cornelia, a neighbour, bribed him to sing to her. I wondered what he had spent his first earnings on.
“Ice cream,” he replies. It must have been cheap ice cream. “Ow, c’mon girl, it was the sixties, you don’t even know what you could buy with a dime! You could buy two cookies for a penny, and then you could treat your friends! Life was good then.”
With Celebrity Big Brother currently on our screens – and in the latest series it has welcomed back old housemates – I wondered if Alex would consider returning to the house after being asked politely to leave in 2015.
“I never went in for the money. It was to raise my profile,” he says. And raise his profile, he certainly did.
“I never left Big Brother, because I don’t quit anything, they told me to go.”
His spats with fellow American Perez Hilton were becoming more commonplace.
“Perez was a plant to create drama and I was on to him. They couldn’t control me!”
“The thing is Karen, what is the definition of Alexander O’Neal?”
Thank goodness, it’s a rhetorical question. He continues: “The definition of Alexander O’ Neal is that Alexander O’ Neal is the same all day, every day. Take care of your business and your business will take care of you.”
Northern Tour Dates
Friday 10th February
King George’s Hall, Blackburn
Friday 24th February
The Venue, Carlisle
Saturday 1st April
The Dome, Doncaster
Saturday 8th April
York Barbican, York