Alexander O’Neal: The Lost Gentleman

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Even for those jaded by the racial/sexual politics of the entertainment industrial complex, 2011’s BET awards show was tough to take.  Being forced to watch it at a family reunion, Big Sean, Chris Brown, DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, Kevin Hart, and Steve Harvey made it all but “The sexual/domestic violence awards”. Each and every male award winner had either had a rape charge, a domestic violence charge, or had advocated the beating of black women; and the procession had got so numbing that, by the time someone who hadnt had a ( public) domestic violence charge got on the stage, one breathed a sigh of relief( then proceeded to be horrified by air).

Also noticeable was how corporately meta the entire affair was.  For if Viacom gave treats to every R&B singer, rapper and comic with domestic violence record and sexual shaming defense, what they didn’t do was have any artist near the show that would challenge anything related to Viacom. The affair was an example of the bargain that too many black male hip hop artists/R&B singer have made with the power structure, in which they get their stage to brutalize all the women they want in exchange for being docile, subservient man boys in an era of the tea party, the bank crisis, Troy Davis, two wars, and a war on women.

 

Lost in the discussions about the BET awards was any thoughtful recognition of a haunted old star. Disheveled, almost disoriented, and without the presence of most of his teeth, Alexander O’Neal provided comedic fodder for both sides of the Gen-Y black blogosphere that night. Forgetting the lyrics to one of his classic songs, O’neal performance was the sugar that made Milllenial comedians blood go, and the attention he got matched any attention he got from his greatest records.

Those not enamored with the Twttersphere felt something else altogether, something closer to a pit in their art. For a close work at his greatest records show him, in this critic’s opinion, to be one of the greatest soul men of all time. They also show that, for all the self pity the men of the bet awards demanded of their audience, O’Neal was the only man in the room deserving of empathy.

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 After a fruitful indie career in Minnesota as the first front man for The Time (which ended with a contentious battle with Prince), O’Neal first entered the consciousness as a debonair leading man of 80’s R&B radio. What separated him from the other soul men of the era was that his art came from the contradictions in his packaging. Along with Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass,  O’Neal was a quiet storm trickster, forcing classic soul fundamentals in the R&B conventions of his era, but a good look shows him to be his own rabbit. Like Vandross, O’Neal’s themes were class and sophistication, but his rougher edges showed that they were something that he was yearning for instead of something he could obtain with ease. Like  Pendergrass,  O’Neal had a powerful yin and yang, a roar and a cry in his voice that he could mix and match very well,  but where Pendergrass buried that cry in his B sides, O’Neal put his in his finest singles.

 

It was his first R&B cry,If You Were Here Tonight,  that made him a star and imprinted him in the consciousness of many a soul music snob.  Under a Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam track that was smooth, but not corny, and sensitively attuned to his voice, O’Neal gives a powerhouse, show stopping ode to…cuddling.  No braggadocio, buppie postures, or wining or dining, not a syllable detailing a sexual encounter, O’Neal’s voice evokes such an overwhelming need for intimacy. If You Were Here Tonight   didn’t hit as much as other #1’s hit, but it made his fans fall for him hard.  Other men could charm you ( Freddie  Jackson) or overwhelm you with their swagger ( Bobby Brown), but if you grew up with quiet storm radio, O’Neal could take the heart.

 

The heart, or the matters of it, is the center of 1987’s HearsayO’Neal’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest R&B albums of all time. Those who focus on the album’s first single, the whiny and tendentious (if funky as hell) Fake, lose sight of the fact that it’s part of O’Neal’s concept album; the story of a dolt at a series of party who realizes that life isn’t a party. Throughout the album, O’Neal is his own unreliable narrator, moving from clueless bro, to heartbroken brother, to adult who understands the nature of the environment he’s in. The result is that Hearsay has more dramatic weight than any good natured party album has ever had or since.

 

It’s also had more majestic vocal performances than any good natured R&B party album since Sam Cooke’s final LP’s. At his best, O’Neal vocal run’s hit you in waves,  little idiosyncratic expositions of gospelized phrasing that would change in bar after bar,  that would spin together a emotional core that could floor the listener quite easily.  Few soul songs floor more than Sunshine, a sweet summertime slow jam augmented by some of the finest singing I ever heard. Take it out of its 1987 synthesizers, and the song could have easily been on a Cooke or Otis Redding record.  It is O’Neal’s high water mark, generally considered one of the greatest singles in the history of soul for a very good reason.

 

Hearsay  made it’s biggest impact with Never Knew Love Like This ,  O’neal’s classic Duet with Cherelle, a hard ass 80’s R&B star with a tremendous heart. On the strength of only a few singles, they established themselves as one of the greatest tandem’s of the history of the genre. If Marvin and Tammi sang like other worldly mythical figures who found solace only in each other, and Donny and Roberta sang like esoteric college friends, then Alex and Cherelle sang like two kids from the block who had no bullshit detectors and happened to like the hell out of each other. Simply put, Never Knew Love Like This is a very elegant, and very well written anthem to being fuck buddies. Yet even in their layers upon layers of cool, there was a gentleness, a scrabbly decency, and earned warmth (“You’re something special/ and you know you’re something special too”) that endeared you to the both of them.

 

So it was poignant to see Cherelle there on that same BET stage, 25 years removed from their days of wine and roses, singing with O’Neal at a time when he had fallen so low. As a kid DJ, I remember playing the hell out of the title single of 1990’s All True Man, but even then I knew something was missing in him. Like many fans, I would later find out what was missing would be what crack took away.  I don’t have to be an addict to tell you that the pipe takes two things vital to singing, your lung power and your ability to phrase.  Because of his addiction to it, his recent records, Saga Of A Married Man, and Alex Loves, are hard to slog through.  And then there was the sorrow of the man on that award stage, losing his battle with addiction, slurring his way through Saturday Love, his first hit single with his old duet partner, took precedent to any aesthetic concern.

 

And what of his performance?  O’Neal looked half out of his mind, but still had more integrity then most of the evil little man boys who took that stage solely because he doesn’t have a domestic violence record. Alex can smoke himself into an Aurora Oblivion, and he will still have been an artist, someone who risked, created, and gave so much of himself in a way most of Chris Brown’s generation can never understand.

And what of Brown?  What has Brown done except brutally beat a young woman and emotionally abuse hundreds of thousands more on tracks?  What has Big Sean done except get a rise out of his record sales when he got an attempted rape charge? What Steve Harvey done except be accused of domestic violence from every woman he’s been with and lose his temper at almost every woman who has  tried to give him a probing question about his thoughts on gender? 

 

Probably the worst question is the one O’Neal brought on himself: What now, brother?  Blog after blog ran the picture of the toothless O’Neal giving Cherelle a hug at the end of their show, but a closer, intensified google picture showed his eyes to be soaking wet.  In a night where black male self pity was manufactured, processed and sold like a Pepsi commercial, it was Alex, once a great artist, now a soul trapped in a terrible purgatory, that took the heart once again. Only this time his cry was something entirely different, something heartbreaking, something very few people in the media( and almost none of the sociopathic boys in the room) understood.

 

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