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 well today. However, while he has continued to perform around the world for nearly four 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 between O'Neal and the group's new mentor, Prince, led to O'Neal's dismissal from the group just as it was ascending to stardom under the new moniker, The Time.
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 Clarence Avant's fledgling Tabu Records label, 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."
As the money started rolling in for O'Neal, so did the problems, including a drug dependency. Forced to go to rehab by Jam and Lewis before they would record a follow up album, O'Neal got back on the right track in time to record a classic. His second Tabu album, Hearsay, was a monster that included his biggest solo hit, the jumpy dance number "Fake," as well as the top ten charters "Criticize" and the duet with Cherelle "Never Knew Love Like This." O'Neal followed in 1988 with a relatively unsuccessful Christmas album, even as his drug problems again increased. Friction between O'Neal and Jam/Lewis intensified, but they were able to record one more album together, the excellent 1991 disc 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. Stories about his drug use certainly hurt his career, but when Avant became the head of Motown, he signed O'Neal for a comeback album. Unfortunately, the Motown recording sessions languished, and were never released by the label.
While O'Neal's popularity in the US waned, he continued to have a solid following in the UK, and he moved to Europe for nearly a decade and a half, touring regularly. He signed with EMI's UK division for 1997's Lovers Again (later released in the US on the independent Ichiban label), and five years later independently released Saga of a Married Man. His popularity as a touring artist in Europe was captured in the Live at the Hammersmith Apollodisc.
In 2010, after an eight year absence from the studio, O'Neal returned to Minneapolis and 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.
Alexander O'Neal 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.
by Chris Rizik