Soul singer Alexander O'Neal on why he loves living in Manchester
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 December 2018
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After more than 40 years in the music industry, Alexander O’Neal is still performing and is loving life in Manchester
He’s a legend of American soul music. His career has spanned more than 40 years and he’s had chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. And he likes nothing more than cycling around Manchester and getting to know his adopted home city.
Alexander O’Neal has sold millions of records across the world and is the only performer to sell out six consecutive nights at Wembley Arena, but he said: ‘I’m just an ordinary guy. I cycle the city, that’s how I get around.
‘I ride my bike and see the city and get my exercise. I do get recognised sometimes – not as much as in London – but I just look like a regular cyclist. If people do spot me they can’t believe I’m in Manchester, but I just live my life and do my every day stuff.’
His life has been far from ordinary, though.
He was born in Mississippi, shortly after his father’s death, and saw at uncomfortably close quarters the fight for Civil Rights. As a boy he dreamed of stardom on the sports field rather than the stage
‘My ambition was to be an American footballer,’ he said. ‘I went to college on a scholarship but I quit. Then I went to another college and I quit there too but then I decided I wasn’t going to be a quitter any more. My life happened to be in music. I didn’t know it would be, but that’s the way it happened.’
And boy, did it happen.
In his 20s he lived in Minneapolis and worked with a number of bands, writers and artists who now rank among the industry’s royalty, including Prince.
Alex recorded his debut album, called straight-forwardly enough Alexander O’Neal, in 1985. His second album Hearsay contained his biggest hit in this country, Criticize, which peaked at number four in the charts in 1987.
He has so far released nine studio albums, six compilation albums and two live albums. And more than 30 years after his breakthrough, and having turned 65 last month, he’s still touring – he plays Liverpool this month – and he has a new album out soon.
‘Resurrected’ – his first original studio album for 15 years – was recorded with funk/soul band Mamma Freedom in Manchester; the city Alex now calls home. He lives in Spinningfields and said: ‘I love the north and the city of Manchester. It’s a lot like Minneapolis, it’s a smaller city than London, but it’s attractive, it’s cosmopolitan and it’s got a lot going on.
‘I have been to a lot a lot of cities and have loved living in a lot of places but there’s only one city I have fallen in love with and that’s Manchester.
‘I didn’t know anything about it when I moved here. I’ve been here to perform and I’ve done that, enjoyed myself and left but I love living in Manchester.’
It’s not all been plain sailing though – his autobiography ‘All True, Man’, which came out last year, laid bare the struggles he has had with racism, drugs and fame – and he had to leave the Celebrity Big Brother house in 2015 after a row with a fellow housemate.
‘You can get carried away with yourself but I’ve got good foundations,’ he said. ‘You have ups in life and you have downs in life and you don’t see a person’s true character when they’re up, you see it in the choices they make and the things they do when they’re at a low point.’
It’s safe to say Alex is far from being at a low point right now. ‘I’m 65,’ he said. ‘Every day above ground is a great day. I was talking to my wife the other day – we’ve been married 37 years – and I said “where did all the time go?” It just seems to have flown by.
‘When I look back on my career a highlight was my six sell-out nights at Wembley Arena. I keep my dreams pretty simple and achievable. Yesterday doesn’t matter, I’m just trying to be the best Alexander O’Neal I can be, on stage and off stage.
‘You realise as you get more mature that there are some things you used to do that you can’t do like you used to but I enjoy entertaining people and I am at this point in my life. I’m still singing in the same key I was singing in 30 years ago. I may not be hitting every note, but I’m in the same key.’