He was one of the great male vocalists of the 80s and 90s, and he has a permanent spot in many of our playlists. But now the great Alexander O’Neal is ready to end his touring days over the course of the next year, beginning with a multi-city UK tour. He made the announcement via social media.
Alexander O’Neal had the distinction of being perhaps the best pure singer to come from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ 80s production stable, and working with them released a number of memorable tracks that clearly bear the heavily synthesized sound of their era but still hold up relatively well today. But while he has continued to perform around the world for three decades now, his commercial success as a singer was almost exclusively tied to his work with Jam and Lewis, and his departure from their production and songwriting machine in the early 90s marked an abrupt pause in a noteworthy and popular recording career.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1953, O’Neal moved North at age 20 and took odd jobs in Chicago and Philadelphia during the day, while singing in a number of bands at night. He ultimately would up in Minneapolis and became the lead singer of the group Flyte Tyme, which also included future stars Jam, Lewis and Jesse Johnson (of course, Jam and Lewis later named their famed production company Flyte Tyme). The emergence of singer Morris Day combined with personal issues led to O’Neal’s dismissal from the group when it was renamed the Time and was mentored to success by Prince.
After briefly forming his own rock group Alexander and releasing an independent solo album in the early 80s, O’Neal, with the help of old friends Jam and Lewis, signed with Tabu Records and recorded a legitimate national solo debut that focused largely on his powerful vocals fronting a basketful of rhythmic ballads and midtempos written by the production duo. The marvelous single “If You Were Here Tonight” became a soul smash and, with the solid follow-up “A Broken Heart Can Mend,” led the album to the Soul Top 20. Between albums, O’Neal scored even bigger with his duet with Cherelle (another Jam/Lewis singer), “Saturday Love.”
O’Neal hit his personal peak on his second Tabu album, Hearsay, a monster disc that included his biggest solo hit, the jumpy dance number “Fake,” as well as the hits “Criticize” and the duet with Cherelle “Never Knew Love Like This.” O’Neal followed in 1988 with a relatively unsuccessful Christmas album, but shot back to the top of the Soul charts in 1991 with All True Man, which yielded big hits with the title cut and “What’s This Thing Called Love.”
O’Neal parted ways with Jam and Lewis for 1993’s Love Makes No Sense, and the fallout was swift, as the album failed to hit the top 10 or yield a significant single. He then left Tabu for Motown, but languished for three years with nothing from his recording sessions being released by the label.
While O’Neal’s popularity in the US waned, he continued to have a solid following in the UK, where he spent much of the next several years touring. That also led him to sign with EMI’s UK division for 1997’s Lovers Again (later released in the US on the independent Ichiban label). He then dropped from sight for several years before independently releasing Saga of a Married Man in 2002. He subsequently issued a live album in Europe titled Live at the Hammersmith Apollo.
In 2010, after an eight year absence from the studio, O’Neal issued Five Questions the New Journey on the CC Entertainment label. Working with longtime musical director Billy Osborne, O’Neal recorded a good combination of new material and some remakes very much in the Minneapolis R&B style of his biggest hits. And he has continued to record with some frequency since then, most recently issuing “Roses,” a song with Christopher Williams and Gregg Jackson that was nominated for a SoulTracks Readers’ Choice Award in 2020.
We look forward to seeing Alexander O’Neal do his thing for his fans on this final tour but hope it won’t be the end of his recording career.