Soul Singer, 80s pop star, Minneapolis scene alumni and All True Man. When we catch up with Mr O’Neal, he’s in reflective mood…
We hear you recently received a lifetime achievement award, how did that feel?
“It was great man; Jools Holland gave it to me. To be honest I had never gotten any kind of award, so I thought it was great, fantastic really. The UK has always celebrated soul music, so it was an honour.”
Why did you re-record your classic album Hearsay 30 years on?
“Well it was an opportunity provided by my manager, and I just thought it was a great idea. I was initially apprehensive, in the sense that I wondered – would people compare it to the original? I wanted to bring a new twist to it, give it a live feeling. It really helped to be working with such a great band – Mamma Freedom – Alexander Johnston and his brother JV, they are fantastic musicians, and the whole band played their parts on it.”
You’ve also allowed remixing of your tracks in the past, haven’t you?
“Remixing is fun too, because it’s a privilege and an honour that someone wants to do something with your work, it doesn’t matter to me that they want to put their own style on it, as it’s just so great that your stuff could still sell after all this time. To still be around is great to me, especially when you think that a lot of my peers aren’t here anymore.”
As a young man in your early 20s you came out of the Minneapolis scene with artists such as Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Prince – what will the legacy be in years to come?
“Legacy? Well, I know what it’s been so far. There’s hype on everything when you’re successful, and then it just becomes fact. I just let all of that stuff speak for itself, but I also like to feel like we did something special back then.”
What was it like as a young African American artist in Minneapolis back then?
“From a Black perspective, and having come up in Mississippi, it was refreshing to be honest. I actually moved there from Chicago, so I went from segregation (along racial lines) in the South to moving to urban America via Chicago and Minneapolis. When I lived in the South I thought to myself ‘this can’t be all there is to it’.
I had a cousin in Minneapolis, who I spoke to on the phone one morning, well by 9pm that night I was on a bus heading up there! Minneapolis at that time was inter-racial and very cosmopolitan, but it still had its faults of course. North and South had similar racism, just with a different take on it.
Up North you assumed they didn’t think like that, there was much more politeness to how people behaved, a kind of ‘hi how are ya?’ type of vibe. Theirs was the polite version of racism, it wasn’t as obvious but there would be obstacles in other ways, where they would stop you from an admin point of view.
I had to get over those things. In my view Minneapolis is one of only two inter-racial cities in the US, you have Seattle and Miami – and with the latter it’s because of the gay community there. So that’s only 2 places. To me, coming from a purely black situation growing up where I did, I always had my buddies, but we couldn’t display friendship.
White friends could come to my house, but I never went to theirs. I see the progress in the South on race lines now, but they’re still segregated down there. Why can’t it just be ‘my friends’ – not viewed as a black and white thing? My wife is white, and friends there will say to me, ‘I dated a white girl’, but I’m not impressed. I say, ‘that’s not the reason I fell in love with her’. Is it really a big deal? I still feel that with race relations on every level, there’s still a strain. Everybody is hog-tied by tradition, so we’re still in the horse and buggy stage in race relations in terms of the US, because we only came out of slavery in relatively recent history. Talk to me in 2000 years and maybe things will be more progressive!”
You seem to have had a strong relationship with the UK – playing live here a lot over the years, why is that?
“The UK has always been one of my strongest markets, and I always enjoy playing for my fans here. You’ve been so loyal to me throughout my ups and downs. As a result, I’ve tried to be consistent with my performances, and I always try to give 150% every time, because audiences here make me feel so comfortable.
There are a lot of great fans here and around the world, but you’re only as big as your last hit record.”
What is your proudest moment or career highlight?
“I think the six sell out nights at London Wembley Arena and the way it was received” – O’Neal holds the record for an African-American performer selling out six straight nights at Wembley Arena – it was definitely the highlight of my performing career. And more recently just trying to re-invent myself. Working with new producers out of Manchester, and playing songs live with a different feel, that’s been great.”
Going back to those 80s heydays briefly – how did you meet, and come to duet with Cherrelle on all those famous hits?
“I met Cherrelle as we shared the same record company in Tabu. I actually still hadn’t met her when we did the first album together. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis thought it would be a great collaboration though, and it was a great thing. Cherrelle and I have been brought together for life. We share fans all over the world and it did wonderful things for both our careers.”
So, were you the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell of the 1980s?
“Well, in 2007 Vibe magazine voted Saturday Love the number 1 duet of all time – and this is New York critics writing about hip-hop judging this stuff. Saturday Love was their number one duet of all time – I don’t totally agree with that as there’s so many good songs, but it was a great honour.
I like just to have been recognised, because we had to earn that. I didn’t know that we had that type of legendary appeal, but it really opened us up to a new generation of music listeners.”
We at Cocoa Diaries are big fans of tracks like “If You Were Here Tonight” and “Shame On Me” – do you have any favourite tracks from your own material?
“My favourite song is Crying Overtime (from classic 1987 album Hearsay), because of the passion in my voice, as even though it’s traditional RnB chords I sing it with my own flavour.”
What other ambitions do you still have left in your career?
“You have to keep going. If you’re not recording you’re not in the game. Live shows are fine, but the challenge of getting a hit record is always there.
My next project will be releasing a live album – ‘Live at the London Palladium’ – but I have all types of music going on behind the scenes. The album that follows ‘Live’ will be so different I think – with a mix of blues, RnB and folk – I want to take it way out of my comfort zone and surprise a few people.”
What would your advice be to people coming into the music industry now?
“So many things have changed in the industry. It seems like 50 million artists are putting their stuff out, and everyone is getting notoriety in their own way.
In my day, you needed a record company to do that, but now there’s a way of bypassing that system. My advice would be – get your priorities in perspective.
If this is what you truly want to do, get dedicated and take the ups and downs. Eat, breathe and sleep it every day. Keep your eye on the prize and make sure you have the right foundations in place.”
Is social media a good promotional tool in your view?
“I’m getting an understanding of the new language and techniques, but I also understand how the power has shifted from record labels, corporations and radio stations to other powers in the social media age. There’s a new set of rules. I’m ok with that, you’ve just got to find your place. I’m just thankful to still be in the game and have some lasting impact in the industry.”
Do you still speak to the guys you played with before you all became famous for it?
“Yes, I still speak to most of them, like Terry Lewis, all the time. Everyone has gone on their different path, and some of my friends from back in the day are multi-millionaires. In fact, the guys who wanted to be that, made sure they were. But the way I lived my life is that every night is Saturday night, so when you live that way, you probably don’t do the millionaire thing! I have no regrets, I equate my career to simple stuff. I go to work, I look after my kids and I pay the bills to keep the lights on. That’s the way I’ve always been.”
Is that how you were raised?
“My life as a child is very different to life now. My mother had six kids, and we didn’t have a lot but we had so much love in our family.
Black family life then was a network, we had the power of great networks, so it was not so much where you came from, it was where you were going.”
Our time is up, but one final question – where does Alexander’s love of music come from?
“I was just listening to so much soul music as a kid, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, you heard all of it in the South. I never thought I’d want to be a singer.
It wasn’t until I quit college - Alexander tried out for a couple of American football scholarships, but neither worked out – that I realised sports wasn’t for me. It happened to be music in my case, it was my calling and it just came to me. I got serious about it in 1975, and was determined to get a recording contract within ten years, or I was going to do something else, like be a truck driver. So, I gave it 10 years, and in the last of those I secured my first contract. To anyone reading this, my advice is don’t give up.”
What better note to end on?
Alexander O’Neal will play 3 dates at the Boisdale Club next week 16-18 October in Canary Wharf, to book your tickets visit here