ALEXANDER O`NEAL: Life swap!
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, there’s no question that, back in 1988, in terms of the UK soul market, Mississippi-born, Minneapolis-based Alexander O’Neal 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 O’Neal - having now split from his big-name producer/writer mentors Jam & Lewis - proving one of the major casualties of the decade’s 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 Alexander’s public profile (at least in the UK) becoming remarkably revitalised - initially through high-profile television appearances on such prime-time mainstream programmes as BBC 1’s ‘Just The Two Of Us’ and ‘The Weakest Link”. Meanwhile, 2008 alone has already seen an extensive nationwide tour accompanied by his first studio album in over five years. Featuring Alex’s brand-new interpretations of popular love songs (including a couple of his best-known hits - ‘Saturday Love’ and ‘If You Were Here Tonight’), ‘Alex Loves…’ -released through EMI - additionally represents O’Neal’s first major label release in 11 years! Its choice of songs - ranging from pop evergreens like Take That’s ‘A Million Love Songs’ and Elton John’s ‘Your Song’; to soul classics like Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ and Barry White’s ‘You’re The First, The Last, My Everything - cleverly showcases Aleander’s adaptability to different genres.
Meanwhile, this month sees the O’Neal TV profile rising once more via his starring role - alongside eccentric wine critic Jilly Goolden - in Channel 4’s top-rated spouse-exchange series ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’.
In the midst of the filming of which, a personable, black-leather-coated Alex calls at the ‘B&S’ 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 - 1985’s ‘Alexander O’Neal’’; 1987’s ‘Hearsay” (which spawned the UK Top Five smash ‘Criticise”); and 1991’s ‘All True Man’.
His latest album ‘Alex Loves…’
“It 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 I’d never done an album of other people’s material before, I felt it was a great opportunity to do some of the great songs that I’d 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 didn’t want was to do karaoke versions of the originals verbatim - I did wanna put an Alexander O’Neal 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 I’d get a deal with a major again. I just didn’t realise it would take 11 years!”
Covering songs from several different genres
“Well, I like to let people know that you can’t just stereotype me to R&B music, because I like all kinds. I like folk; I like country; I like bluegrass… To me, if it’s a great song, it’s 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 That’s ‘A Million Love Songs’, 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, it’s received well. Like the other night we did a show up in Highgate, and it got me a standing ovation!”
With the album being a UK project, the importance of his British audience
“One of the things that’s so important to me about my UK fans is their loyalty. While in America you’re 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 don’t stop coming to your shows. You know, one thing I love about the British people PERIOD is they don’t 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 they’re gonna get my heart and soul. I’ve never ever compromised my band, or my sound, for money or anything else. And, in addition to the longstanding fans, there’s also a lotta NEW ones coming along today too. You know, because there’s a lotta baby-boomers that grew up on Alexander O’Neal, I’m now seeing people bringing mothers, I’m seeing older people, middle-aged people, young people... ALL age groups. And to be recognised as ‘the R&B singer in their hearts’ for me is an absolute honour.”
His early upbringing in Natchez, Mississippi
“My 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, that’s pretty much the type of person I’ve always tried to present myself as. I’m a people’s person. I’m not the type of artist that’s 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 don’t ever remember going to bed hungry. Because one thing about growing up in Mississippi is the way the families all network. Whatever ONE person don’t have, they can always get from someone ELSE in the family, because there’s 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.”
How Alex ended up in Minneapolis
“After a year I quit football, because I just wasn’t prepared for college from an ACADEMIC point of view. Affirmative action hadn’t 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 ‘Boy, I want you to get off that corner! You’re going up to Chicago where you’re gonna MAKE somethin’ of yourself! You come from too good a family to be standing around like that!’... 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 ‘This can’t be my destiny! I didn’t come all the way from Mississippi to be working in a factory and get killed in Westside Chicago!’! So consequently one morning I called my cousin up in Minneapolis, and by nine o’clock that night I was on the bus! And it was then - after moving to Minneapolis - that my musical career really took off.”
The early years of Alex’s singing career
“Minneapolis is probably the most interracial city in The United States. So that was a different thing for me to adapt to. We’re 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 ‘OK, it can be done! You can come out of this area and be successful. You don’t have to be from New York or LA’. And that’s 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 ‘I’m gonna put 10 years into this music industry. And, if it don’t work out in 10 years, I’m 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 ‘Playroom’. 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.”
His short-lived time in Prince’s then-budding late-Seventies Minneapolis supergroup Flyte Tyme (members also included Jam & Lewis and Morris Day)
“Flyte Tyme was a wonderful band, and I felt we were on our way to getting a national deal. You know, I’d been picked to be the lead singer in a group owned by Prince; we’d started recording at Prince’s 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. I’d 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 couldn’t respect about it was that Prince hadn’t 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, they’d suddenly start mixing these new songs into the set and I’d be like ‘Where’s THIS coming from?’! 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 THEY’D got kicked outta The Time by Prince - they came into this club I was performing at in downtown Minneapolis and were like ‘Alex, when we get our plans off the ground we’re gonna get you a record deal’. And that’s exactly what they DID!”
Alex`s multi-million-selling Platinum years (1985-1992) as a solo artist produced by Jam & Lewis
“It 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 other’s stardom.”
How the new-found dominance of hip hop/R&B in the Nineties affected his popularity
“The Nineties period definitely did affect me. You know, it’s a shame when record companies won’t let you sell records to your own fans. I don’t 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 you’re up on that level, that everything’s an automatic and it’s gonna be like that FOREVER. But it’s really NOT! The lights will change, and they’ll 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 it’s 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 I’d 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, I’m definitely looking for the NEXT time around!”
Alex’s current and future plans
“I’ve been spending so much time here in the UK lately. And, during that time, I’ve come across so many great songs, so many great writers, so many great musicians... So right now I’m excited about putting the next Alexander O’Neal 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, I’ve always tried to stay away from the stereotypical balladeer thing. I’ve 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. I’ve got to challenge myself to come up with the right album and the right concept. Particularly with the kinda profile I’ve had this last year. I think I’ve probably been on British television more than other black man during the last 12 months! The type of coverage and respect I’ve had from the UK media has been PHENOMENAL! You know, things are constantly rolling. Right now I’m doing ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’ with my lovely-wife-for-the week Jilly (Goolden); I’m feeling good; my voice is sounding great... So God’s been good to me, and I just plan to keep on moving forward!”
‘Celebrity Wife Swap’ airs on Channel 4 at 8pm, Sunday August 10
The album ‘Alex Loves…’ is out now through EMI
Words: PETE LEWIS
Words PETE LEWIS