Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Alexander O'Neal & B&S' Pete Lewis
Alexander O'Neal & B&S' Pete Lewis

Eight sell-out nights at Wembley Arena. A multi-Platinum album (`Hearsay`) which remained on the British chart for two years. A ground breaking Top Three music video... Yes, thereâs no question that, back in 1988, in terms of the UK soul market, Mississippi-born, Minneapolis-based Alexander OâNeal was just about as big as you could get.

Fast-forward to the mid-Nineties, however, and the picture was nowhere near as bright. With OâNeal - having now split from his big-name producer/writer mentors Jam & Lewis - proving one of the major casualties of the decadeâs ever-increasing obsession with its more youth-oriented hip hop/R&B movement. A scenario which sadly, by the end of the decade, saw the once-15-million-selling global soul superstar without a record deal and his profile hit an all-time low.

Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, what goes around comes back around. And indeed the past couple of years have seen 54-year-old Alexanderâs public profile (at least in the UK) becoming remarkably revitalised - initially through high-profile television appearances on such prime-time mainstream programmes as BBC 1âs âJust The Two Of Usâ and âThe Weakest Linkâ. Meanwhile, 2008 alone has already seen an extensive nationwide tour accompanied by his first studio album in over five years. Featuring Alexâs brand-new interpretations of popular love songs (including a couple of his best-known hits - âSaturday Loveâ and âIf You Were Here Tonightâ), âAlex Lovesâ¦â -released through EMI - additionally represents OâNealâs first major label release in 11 years! Its choice of songs - ranging from pop evergreens like Take Thatâs âA Million Love Songsâ and Elton Johnâs âYour Songâ; to soul classics like Percy Sledgeâs âWhen A Man Loves A Womanâ and Barry Whiteâs âYouâre The First, The Last, My Everything - cleverly showcases Aleanderâs adaptability to different genres.

Meanwhile, this month sees the OâNeal TV profile rising once more via his starring role - alongside eccentric wine critic Jilly Goolden - in Channel 4âs top-rated spouse-exchange series âCelebrity Wife Swapâ.

In the midst of the filming of which, a personable, black-leather-coated Alex calls at the âB&Sâ offices (complete with Jilly in tow!) for an in-depth on-camera discussion with Pete Lewis about his latest LP; plus his occasionally-turbulent, yet trailblazing career. Which ultimately peaked with three Jam & Lewis-produced classic sets - 1985âs âAlexander OâNealââ; 1987âs âHearsayâ (which spawned the UK Top Five smash âCriticiseâ); and 1991âs âAll True Manâ.

His latest album âAlex Lovesâ¦â

âIt came about through one of the guys who used to work in my band - Nat Augustin, who approached me about doing a covers album for EMI. And, as Iâd never done an album of other peopleâs material before, I felt it was a great opportunity to do some of the great songs that Iâd heard and have a lotta respect for. So we started off with about 35 to 40 songs, and then we scaled it down. What I particularly didnât want was to do karaoke versions of the originals verbatim - I did wanna put an Alexander OâNeal touch on everything that I did. So overall I just thought it was just a great opportunity, because I do wanna keep putting as much stuff into my legacy as I possibly can. You know, I always knew Iâd get a deal with a major again. I just didnât realise it would take 11 years!â

Covering songs from several different genres

âWell, I like to let people know that you canât just stereotype me to R&B music, because I like all kinds. I like folk; I like country; I like bluegrass⦠To me, if itâs a great song, itâs a great SONG. So this album was an opportunity for me to show my fans that, while I am OF COURSE most comfortable and at home doing R&B, I do consider myself a universal singer. For example, my favourite cover on the album is Take Thatâs âA Million Love Songsâ, which to me is a great, timeless song. To where I actually now include it in my live shows and, every time I do it, itâs received well. Like the other night we did a show up in Highgate, and it got me a standing ovation!â

With the album being a UK project, the importance of his British audience

âOne of the things thatâs so important to me about my UK fans is their loyalty. While in America youâre only as big as your last record, my British fans have been there for me through ups, downs - regardless of WHAT the situation has been. Also I like the fact that they grow up with you, they grow older with you, and they donât stop coming to your shows. You know, one thing I love about the British people PERIOD is they donât give up their social life. Whereas in America, when you reach a certain age, you trade all that in for a remote control and a couch! And the main reason I think the British fans have kept coming to my shows for over 20 years is down to my CONSISTENCY. When they come to see me they know theyâre gonna get my heart and soul. Iâve never ever compromised my band, or my sound, for money or anything else. And, in addition to the longstanding fans, thereâs also a lotta NEW ones coming along today too. You know, because thereâs a lotta baby-boomers that grew up on Alexander OâNeal, Iâm now seeing people bringing mothers, Iâm seeing older people, middle-aged people, young people... ALL age groups. And to be recognised as âthe R&B singer in their heartsâ for me is an absolute honour.â

His early upbringing in Natchez, Mississippi

âMy morals and values were formed long before I had a record deal. So, when stardom came, I was never astounded or taken aback by it. With my Mississippi upbringing being so down-to-earth, thatâs pretty much the type of person Iâve always tried to present myself as. Iâm a peopleâs person. Iâm not the type of artist thatâs unapproachable and walks around with a bunch of bodyguards. But yeah, I guess we grew up in a poor environment, with my mother head of a household of six kids. But, at the same time, I donât ever remember going to bed hungry. Because one thing about growing up in Mississippi is the way the families all network. Whatever ONE person donât have, they can always get from someone ELSE in the family, because thereâs a lot of sharing going around. And, though never having a father - he died while my mother was pregnant with me - meant I did grow up kinda sad at times, his side of the family pretty much took on his role by teaching me to express love as a man and that kinda stuff. And it was actually through playing American football that I started really finding myself. I actually ended up going to college on an athletic football scholarship.â

How Alex ended up in Minneapolis

âAfter a year I quit football, because I just wasnât prepared for college from an ACADEMIC point of view. Affirmative action hadnât really taken place at that time in America. So I came up in an era where school-wise they tended to just push you through, and I had no idea how to study. I basically had no work ethic. So from there I went all around Mississippi doing different jobs - working in a shipyard down on the Gulf Coast, and just endless other jobs - before I ended up just hanging around on the corner doing nothing, Then one day - it was like nine in the morning and I was the only one on the corner - an older relative was getting ready for work, and he was like âBoy, I want you to get off that corner! Youâre going up to Chicago where youâre gonna MAKE somethinâ of yourself! You come from too good a family to be standing around like that!â... So that AFFECTED me. And, when my uncle came home for Christmas, I made that move from Mississippi to Chicago. But then, when I got to Chicago, I found myself in the urban ghetto! So I was like âThis canât be my destiny! I didnât come all the way from Mississippi to be working in a factory and get killed in Westside Chicago!â! So consequently one morning I called my cousin up in Minneapolis, and by nine oâclock that night I was on the bus! And it was then - after moving to Minneapolis - that my musical career really took off.â

The early years of Alexâs singing career

âMinneapolis is probably the most interracial city in The United States. So that was a different thing for me to adapt to. Weâre talking 1974/75, and back then it was a tough time for black musicians in Minneapolis. Simply because the black community itself there was so small. But then, when Prince finally cracked it open, it kinda gave us all a little more incentive to say âOK, it can be done! You can come out of this area and be successful. You donât have to be from New York or LAâ. And thatâs when it all started getting serious. I basically made up my mind that for me it was gonna be music or nothing. I was like âIâm gonna put 10 years into this music industry. And, if it donât work out in 10 years, Iâm going to truck-driving school in Wisconsin!`! So I put my own band together - The Black Market Band. And at first we were so poor I used to sing through the bass amp! But, though it was a rough time, it was a FUN time. Then next I released a local record called âPlayroomâ. Which kinda pulled me to another level. I became a local star. And that in turn definitely prepared me for the international stardom, when it finally came.â

His short-lived time in Princeâs then-budding late-Seventies Minneapolis supergroup Flyte Tyme (members also included Jam & Lewis and Morris Day)

âFlyte Tyme was a wonderful band, and I felt we were on our way to getting a national deal. You know, Iâd been picked to be the lead singer in a group owned by Prince; weâd started recording at Princeâs house⦠But then I got kicked out the band before I got kicked IN! Some people said it was because I was too black in skin pigmentation. But I still think it was because I was opinionated. Iâd started showing I could think and started asking questions about the financial arrangements. But, you know, to be kicked out was heart-breaking. And the main thing I couldnât respect about it was that Prince hadnât been man enough to tell me. Because, all of a sudden, Flyte Tyme started rehearsing behind my back so they could become `The Time` without me! And all this time we were still doing gigs together! You know, theyâd suddenly start mixing these new songs into the set and Iâd be like âWhereâs THIS coming from?â! And the only one out of all of them with the balls to tell me what was happening was Terry Lewis! But, though when I got the news I was really hurt, a lotta times good things come out of a bad situation. And that was just fuel for the fire for me! Because I felt that, if I was good enough to even be CONSIDERED for a group by Prince, then I must be good enough for the music industry! And, when Jimmy (Jam) and Terry (Lewis) came home from LA one summer night - after THEYâD got kicked outta The Time by Prince - they came into this club I was performing at in downtown Minneapolis and were like âAlex, when we get our plans off the ground weâre gonna get you a record dealâ. And thatâs exactly what they DID!â

Alex`s multi-million-selling Platinum years (1985-1992) as a solo artist produced by Jam & Lewis

âIt was one of the best experiences in my LIFE! Man, what a ride! And one of the advantages we had was that we - as the Flyte Tyme family - always took care of each other. When we did interviews, we always talked about each other; we always kept each other in the mix. Which I think contributed to Jam & Lewis becoming STAR producers. You know, a lotta times producers are in the background and not out there in the public eye. But, by just constantly talking about each other, we contributed to each otherâs stardom.â

How the new-found dominance of hip hop/R&B in the Nineties affected his popularity

âThe Nineties period definitely did affect me. You know, itâs a shame when record companies wonât let you sell records to your own fans. I donât know why, but for some reason they just started looking for the one-hit wonders that were in and out of the industry in a flash. I mean, I was with Sony for six years straight. And you think, as an artist when youâre up on that level, that everythingâs an automatic and itâs gonna be like that FOREVER. But itâs really NOT! The lights will change, and theyâll show you that THINGS will change. And what do you DO when things change? You know, fortunately, when I started my career, I deliberately worked on WORLDWIDE appeal. England was my springboard; from there I did Europe⦠And I ended up playing all over the world. And itâs that working onstage across the globe that has kept me busy to this day. But yeah, the Nineties was a rough period. You know, they kept pushing soul artists like me down, away from the mainstream, further into the background, further into the background... So eventually I stopped concerning myself about what Iâd already had. Because if, as an artist, you get that ONCE in your career, then you should consider yourself blessed and lucky. But right now, with things seeming to go full-circle, Iâm definitely looking for the NEXT time around!â

Alexâs current and future plans

âIâve been spending so much time here in the UK lately. And, during that time, Iâve come across so many great songs, so many great writers, so many great musicians... So right now Iâm excited about putting the next Alexander OâNeal album together by using both UK AND American producers. And musically I feel it has to be uptempo. So we can challenge the charts, we can challenge the remixers, and we can get on the dancefloor! You know, Iâve always tried to stay away from the stereotypical balladeer thing. Iâve just done the covers record, so this next album is gonna have to be HARD! I really think my fans in the street - that generation that grew up with me - need something to identify me with for right here and right now. Iâve got to challenge myself to come up with the right album and the right concept. Particularly with the kinda profile Iâve had this last year. I think Iâve probably been on British television more than other black man during the last 12 months! The type of coverage and respect Iâve had from the UK media has been PHENOMENAL! You know, things are constantly rolling. Right now Iâm doing âCelebrity Wife Swapâ with my lovely-wife-for-the week Jilly (Goolden); Iâm feeling good; my voice is sounding great... So Godâs been good to me, and I just plan to keep on moving forward!â

âCelebrity Wife Swapâ airs on Channel 4 at 8pm, Sunday August 10

The album âAlex Lovesâ¦â is out now through EMI

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