Alexander O’Neal photographed by Vincent Cole, 2017
For someone who’s been doing press all day, Alexander O’Neal sounds remarkably upbeat and chipper when I call him. He’s getting ready for an eight date UK tour. ‘I’m good, my brother, how are you?’
Wow. Very well thanks. O’Neal has the ability – shown throughout our conversation – of making you feel that he’s 100% giving you his attention, that he is interested in talking to you and that he’s genuinely passionate about what he’s doing. He never comes across as arrogant, and into his sixties, he certainly isn’t running out of energy. Fey peely wally indie bands, I hope you are taking note.
He’s promoting the tour, so I start off by asking him about what we can expect. ‘If it’s your first time coming [to an Alexander O’Neal show], you’re gonna get a lot of soul!’ he says, excitedly. Having played a lot in Britain over the deacdes (his first hit here was the ballad ‘If You Were Here Tonight,’ from his first, self-titled album, in 1986). It should be understood that he does not see his shows as purely demonstrating himself. ‘Fans grow up with – my relationship my fans is very dear to me! It’s an opportunity to give something back to my fans,’ he adds.
At this point, I blow my cool, and gabble something excitedly about how I’ve been a fan since I saw him do ‘If You Were Here Tonight’ as a nine year old on Top Of The Pops. He seems genuinely touched by this, thanking me.
He’s never stopped working, of course. After the debut, came his second album Hearsay, which was absolutely huge. Building upon his debut, it added the then emerging New Jack Swing sound, and produced six hits (seven if you include the fact that ‘Fake’ was remixed as ‘Fake ’88’ and became an even bigger hit the following year). It went triple platinum in the UK, and he still holds the record for an African-American performer for selling out six nights straight at Wembley Arena in the eighties. Last year he reworked Hearsay for its thirtieth anniversary with Manchester funk band Mamma Freedom. Of the new versions he says, cheerfully ‘It’s a lot more raw!’
The was produced by Jimmy Jammy and Terry Lewis, who as producers created what came to be known as the Minneapolis Sound (though born in Mississippi, O’Neal relocated to Minneapolis in his early twenties), and amongst a long list of credits, produced Janet Jackson’s breakthrough (and groundbreaking) Control. ‘We had a great time around Minneapolis in the 1980s,’ reflects O’Neal. I ask who came up with the concept for Hearsay – nine songs set around a party and his observations on the people there, complete with dialogue. ‘We gave the concept to each other,’ he says generously. They would work together on two more albums -1988’s criminally underrated Christmas album My Gift To You and 1991’s All True Man. ‘We keep in constant contact,’ he says of the duo, as well as being contact with labelmate Cherelle, with whom he had several hit duets, including ‘Saturday Love’ and ‘Never Knew Love Like This,’ the latter taken from the Hearsay album.
There was a stream of albums across the 1990s and 2000s, and still a few more entries on the UK singles and album charts. His last album, Five Questions: The Journey was released in 2010. He’s now working on his eleventh studio album. A new album Resurrected will be out before the end of the year, which he’s been working on with Mamma Freedom again. ‘Once I finish the tour, I’m looking to see what’s next.’ He’s clearly pretty excited about the forthcoming album -‘I try to keep reinventing my career’ – and he’s understandably proud that he’s still singing his old songs in the same key, at an age when many singers are having to adjust.
Though slightly cagey about where he lives now, an article in the Manchester Evening News towards the end of last year said that he had moved to Manchester and was loving it, finding that Manchester and Minneapolis have the same pace of life. He’s loving wortking with the musicians there. Questioned as to who he would like to work with in the future, there’s clearly a long list, but amongst those names he gives me are Patti Labelle and Rick Astley. The latter is from the north-west of England after all…
As I wrap up my interview with the soul legend, I ask him what, if push comes to shove is his favourite album of all time. He doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On!’ he says. ‘He turned out his most memorable album – after what everyone at Motown thought! [As an album] it transcends colour.’
Telling him that I’ll be seeing him on the tour, he quietly says’ well, come and say hello.’ And reading around a little more, it turns out we even share the same birthday.