R&B's Real Deal: Alexander O'Neal

R&B's Real Deal: Alexander O'Neal

American rhythm and blues singer, Alexander O’Neal was a famous name in the 80s, rubbing shoulders with Luther Vandross and Lionel Richie. Still performing now and releasing new music later this year, I went to Colston Hall to see his ‘Resurrection’ tour, and had a fairly inspiring chat after about the history and changing styles of soul music today.

Well into his 4th decade of performing live, there was potential for the concert to seem stale or dated. Yes, the audience is quite slightly older than your average Bristol gig full of students... and it’s seated (which always worries me). But O’ Neal’s charm and groovy entrance immediately reassures this is not going to be the case. He is such a smooth talker. He is charming, has great charisma and really wants the audience to understand the feeling behind his songs.

The O’Neal band and backing singers were slick. They did a fantastic rendition of Prince’s ‘I Feel For You’, with a jammy instrumental and guitar solo, and one joined for a really touching duet of ‘Never Knew Love Like This’. Alexander would have little ‘story time’ moments in-between songs, and here you can see why it’s so easy to fall in love with his eccentric, funny personality.

Unfortunately, Colston Hall was a bit of a venue let down. Whether it was the floor lights which never seemed quite off or the constant mic feedback, it did make it hard to really feel involved and get into the vibe. It felt a bit like Alexander was being treated as a support act – with technicians not fully committed to making sure everything was just right. Still, some loyal fans were up on their feet from the moment he came on stage. And, regardless of these distractions, by the end of the set, everyone (including me!) is having a bit of a boogie to hits ‘Criticise’ and ‘Fake’.

After the encore, I went to speak to the man himself - who struck me as surprisingly humble for someone who’d just stepped off stage to a hall full of people dancing to his music.

You’ve been performing for a while now. What is your favourite song and gig you’ve done?
I would have to say my favourite song is Crying Overtime because it pretty much describes the passion of Alexander O’ Neal. And my favourite gig ever was obviously my 6th sell out night at Wembley Arena! I love England and the U.K. Everybody in America knows I have a passion for the U.K.

In London and Bristol especially, there’s been such resurgence in jazz and soul music with younger people. What do you think about how people have started mixing in other genres like hip hop and rap?
Well I think the great thing is... the resurgence of the sounds of the 80s with this generation here. And tonight, in Bristol, we had a lot of that generation here. And it just proves that if you’re an R&B music enthusiast you can come out and have fun. I’ve enjoyed over the years a lot of people growing up on ‘Alexander’ and parents jamming my music down their throats! But tonight it was very pleasing to see so many types of people.

How do you think the music industry has changed since you started?
Well the music industry hasn’t changed. That’s still the same, it’s just that the generations have changed. Everybody gets their turn. If you’re blessed in life to have a turn in the limelight... you know when I was growing up... my music, the music that we were listening to, our parents didn’t necessarily approve of it... but it was our music. You guys are the same, and now it’s your turn. The only thing I can do is give you love and wish you the best and to enjoy, and that’s what I’m doing.

I guess you could say it’s a bit of a rebellion?
It wasn’t so much rebelling against each other, it was rebelling against time. Everything was changing. A lot of times in music, when the music changes - like when the sounds of the 50s and 60s changed and it evolved into R&B - things change and people have to get adjusted to that change. And that’s where you get the turbulence, because that’s what you’re feeling. Cause people are getting their expression into that new era.

It’s raw and honest. And I feel like there’s a certain similarity with the times now, people really feel the need to offload how they feel.
I think that’s a great thing. But I think also you know, some things have gone way over the top. And I’m glad I don’t have to, but you guys need to figure out a way to solve that, because it is creating a lot of unnecessary turbulence. Now I’m gonna go home and watch Movies 4Men!

So whether you discovered him yourself, had your parents ‘jamming his music down your throat’ when you were growing up, or have never even heard of Alexander O’ Neal, it is well worth listening to his music, as one of the pioneers of modern R&B and soul. A true musician, you can see the passion in the smile he greets and leaves an audience with, and, of course, hear it in his songs.

Ella Faye Howcroft