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Alexander O'Neal

Alexander O'Neal"Innocent", "If You Were Here Tonight", "What's Missing", "Fake", "Criticize", "All True Man" and of course those unforgettable duets with Cherelle: "Saturday Love" and "Never Knew Love Like This", everyone's got their own favorite Alexander O'Neal song. And there's plenty to choose from: The seven albums he released between 1985 and 1993 spawned some twenty (!) singles, many of which went straight to the upper regions of both the American and U.K. charts. Together with producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Alex created modern soul classics and was one of the most soulful representatives of the otherwise rather synthesized "Minneapolis sound". And unlike many of the other singers emanating from the burgeoning Minneapolis scene in the mid-eighties, Alex never adopted that high Prince-like falsetto, but kept his distinct, Gospel flavored singing style, proving over and over again that he could deliver both tender love ballads and funky uptempo numbers, with equal amounts of strength, confidence and pure emotion.

AlexI can't conceal that I'm a huge fan, so I may as well admit that when I was asked if I fancied talking with the luuv man himself, via phone from London where he was doing P.R. for his new CD "Lovers Again", I damn near jumped with joy. I had been warned that he was unhelpful to journalists and carried a strong dislike for interviews, but I found him to be quite easy to talk to, at least nowhere near as difficult as I had heard he would be. (Which only goes to show that you shouldn't trust everything you hear or read). In fact, because of a misunderstanding, I called him one hour earlier than scheduled and woke him up. I'm not so sure I would have been as nice to the person who did such a thing to me, as Alex was!

AlexAlexander O'Neal was born in Natchez, Mississippi on November 15, 1953. I began the interview by asking what he feels has shaped his voice the most.
-I'm definitely influenced by gospel, because that was like mandatory in my house for X amount of years, the singer explained.
-My mother sang in the choir all the time and there are a couple of singers, choir-singing church-going types in my family, but I never sang in the choir, because I was too shy. I probably started singing just around the house, in the neighborhood, while listening to the radio, that kinda thing. I can't say my family was really musical, we were just working class, surviving, you know? But I'm sure Gospel would be my first influence, but also I would say that, living down south, we always had great radio. Certainly great black, R&B radio. We always got the best of R&B music and so I grew up on a lot of different artists from Nat King Cole to Otis Redding and James Brown.

But believe it or not, music wasn't his first love, football was. After finishing school, Alex went to Chicago and supported himself by working in a factory. Around 1974, he moved to Minneapolis, where his cousin lived and there, Alex took a job as a petrol pump attendant. This was also the period when he started taking music seriously.
-Yeah, it was in Minneapolis, sometime back in 1974, when I said "hell I gotta go for it". So I started just going for it and developing my craft, feeling my way... started out with local bands, you know?, Alex said and laughed.

AlexIn his own words, Alex "bounced around a lot during the seventies". Moving from city to city, he sang in little-known groups like The Philadelphia Stories, Black Market Band and The Mystics, but also in Jackson, Mississippi based Wynd Chymes, a band he left in 1977, prior to them getting a deal with RCA. The following year, Alex joined Flyte Tyme which, among others, consisted of Jellybean Johnson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Monte Moir, Jesse Johnson and Cynthia Johnson (who later would become the lead vocalist in Lipps Inc., famed for "Funkytown"). When Flyte Tyme merged with Morris Day's group Enterprise, changed name to The Time and Prince got them signed with Warner Brothers, it was made clear to Alex that his services were no longer needed and he briefly ventured into a totally different musical direction.
-Yeah, I formed my own rock group, called "Alexander". We used to play stuff like Billy Squier and Def Leppard!

Sleeve of Alex' first LPIn 1983 Alex debuted as a solo artist with "Do You Dare" on Erect Records in Chicago and his next single came out on the Rich label. "Attitude" was a song that according to Alex had "the best guitar solo Jesse Johnson ever did". In 1984, studio sessions with Monte Moir began and the songs would eventually land on Alex' debut album, released in 1985. Jam & Lewis, who during Flyte Tyme's transition into The Time, had promised to help Alex if they could, took the tapes to Tabu records who were suitably impressed and Alex got his first, major deal. From that point on, Jam & Lewis were his main producers, until "Love Makes No Sense" in 1993, where Alexander decided to end that musical marriage.

Now, after a much too long wait, Alexander O'Neal is finally back with a brand new CD on One World Entertainment/EMI Premier, entitled "Lovers Again" and naturally I was curious as to what he had been up to during his absence.
-Actually I was with Motown Records. That took two and a half years out of my career and they never even released my record, if you can believe that, Alex replied.
-After Motown, I didn't have a record deal, but you know, a lot of the times when you don't have one thing then you gain something else in life. So, during the time when I "disappeared", I had a chance to spend more quality time with my children and actually put some things together and decide which way I wanted to go with my career.

AlexWhen Alexander -who by the way is a proud father of six- decided to get back into the studio, he didn't have to wait for offers. Among the bidders were his old buddies, Jam & Lewis, who wanted to sign him to their Perspective label.
-Yeah, when I moved from Las Vegas back to Minneapolis, I started negotiating the deal out there with them. But this is the first opportunity that I've had to make choices in my career, so I chose EMI U.K., because I thought that would be the best way to go for my career at this point.
Alex has previously stated that Jam & Lewis controlled basically every aspect of the recording process and I wondered if creative freedom, more input of his own, was part of the reason why he turned their offer down.
-Well, I never had a problem with doing it their way, but there comes a time when there's a fork in the road and you might wanna do things a little differently and that's what I wanted to do with this thing. Jam and Lewis are still the best of friends to me and so everything's all right.

AlexThe majority of Alex' new CD, including the first single "Let's Get Together", gems like "Body Talk" and the title track "Lover's Again" (which probably is the most Jam/Lewis sounding song) were produced by two newcomers in the business, P. (Pele) Kazir and B-Cube. For a man who's said that his forté is ballads, Alex sure sounds comfortable on the R&B/Swing opener "Do You Right".
-I love to get funky. I do. I mean, it's big fun. I think a lot of my fans might say my forté are ballads, but I've always looked at myself as a funkster, that's the difference between Alexander O'Neal and Luther Vandross. When you come to see me, you're gonna get energy and when you come to see Luther, you're gonna be sedated. Now, Kazir and B-Cube, they're a couple of cats from Minneapolis. You know, we still wanna keep the Minneapolis music scene going. They're young, good, upcoming producers.

Nick MundyMy favorite song on the CD is the Isley Brothers-esque "Grind" and the beautiful ballad "Sneakin'", both produced by Nick Mundy, a name that had a familiar ring to it. I went through my albums, and sure enough, there I found an LP by Nick from 1987 called "Your Kinda Guy".
-Nick, yeah, I met him when I was out in California, doing the Motown thing, that phase, going through some rough times, you know? Anyway, we hooked up and became friends and about a year later, we got the chance to work together.

Another highlight is "Our Love", co-written produced by Alex with Billy Osborne and Toby Baker. (Incidentally, Billy is the son of Billy Osborne Sr. from the legendary funk group L.T.D and Billy Jr. has his own label in the U.K. called Homegrown Records, where he's worked with Gwen McCrae and Full Force). "Our Love" is not the first song Alex has penned. He co-wrote "Criticize" with Jellybean Johnson on the platinum-seller "Hearsay" in 1987 and claims that the socially and politically conscious lyrics on his "All True Man" album were based on his original ideas, but that he wasn't credited for it. During my research Sleeve of 'Lover's Again"I found that Alex in 1986 told Blues and Soul magazine about a track he'd written called "Playroom", apparently destined for his then, forthcoming album. However, the song was nowhere to be found when the album eventually landed on the shelves.
-Awww, "Playroom", yeah.. Alex replied with a secretive laughter.
-Hopefully it will be on the next national album. "Our Love" is the first song, solo, that I've written and placed on an album during my whole career and it's a very beautiful ballad. It's a song that's been in my heart and my head for a couple of years and I'm glad I had the opportunity to put it out on a record. I'd like to do more song writing in the future, but right now, I'm just taking my time and kinda getting into it slowly, but surely. Billy Osborne's my friend, we've been friends for eleven years. He's from Rhode Island, but he's lived here for as long as I've known him. He's a drummer and I met him when he worked as Steve Arrington's drummer. We were out on the road, touring, and we became good friends. Then I found out that he lived in London and then we started kicking it. He's also my band director, he put together the band for me, the first time I ever played here in London and I look forward to doing more projects with him in the future.

CherelleFor some reason, Alex has always been bigger in Britain than in his native America. Of the albums' thirteen tracks, five were produced and recorded in the U.K., four of those by Ronnie Wilson and Dennis Charles, well known for their work with Eternal and MN8. Their best effort on Alex' CD is arguably the cover of the James Ingram/Patti Austin duet "Baby Come To Me", which was issued as a single in August '97, where Alex once again teams up with his "sister", Cherelle.
-Ronnie and Dennis are excellent producers. It was a great experience. It was my first time ever, working with producers out of the United States. It was different, but very rewarding. To do "Baby Come To Me" with Cherelle was just such a great thing to me. I think we have an un-finished saga, what we do together can pretty much be described as magic and so it was just such a great opportunity to work with her again. Hopefully we'll get the chance to do a whole album together. I felt "Baby Come To Me" was just a good choice, plus it happens to be a great song, so when I had the chance to re-make it, I felt good and confident that we did it a just job. I look forward to the U.K. and European tour in March (-97). I hope that I can get her to open the show, so we can do a Cherelle/Alexander O'Neal thing.


Alexander O'Neal Album Discography:

1985 Alexander O'Neal Tabu FZ 39331 (LP) CDTBU 26485 (CD)
1987 Hearsay Tabu FZ 40320 -
1987 The Remix Album/Hearsay All Mixed Up Tabu FZ XPR1319 -
1988 My Gift To You/The Christmas Album Tabu/A&M OZ 45016 530361-2
1991 All True Man Tabu/Epic Z 45349 ZK-45349
1992 This Thing Called Love/Greatest Hits Tabu/Epic - -
1993 Love Makes No Sense Tabu/A&M - 549 502-1
1996 The Best Of Tabu/Motown - 530 582-2
1996 Lovers Again One World/EMI (European release) - 7243 8 546832 2
1998 Lovers Again Ichiban (U.S.release) - -

© Maria Granditsky November 1996.
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