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O'Neal's Instant Success Is 'Hearsay'

February 21, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

The lucrative R&B-ballad arena--where big, ruggedly handsome black singers croon slow, sexy songs to swooning young women--was the exclusive turf of Luther Vandross until Freddie Jackson barged in a few years ago.

But while Vandross and Jackson were divvying up the turf, another singer muscled in. Ever heard of Alexander O'Neal? If you haven't, you will.

He started slowly in 1985--his first Tabu/CBS Records album, "Alexander O'Neal," selling more than 300,000 copies. That sensuous album, which flashed his star potential, whetted the appetites of his lusty female fans. His latest album, "Hearsay," is over the 750,000 mark. Both were produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the red-hot songwriting-producing team that made its name masterminding Janet Jackson's multimillion-selling album, "Control."

Since "Hearsay" came out last year, there's been a big buzz in the black community about O'Neal--who many think is an overnight success.

"Overnight?," laughed O'Neal, 34. "I've been doing this 15 years. That was a long night."

O'Neal doesn't really need a publicist. The best chronicler of O'Neal's talents is O'Neal. He has a reputation for being an arrogant, egotistical big-mouth. Actually, he's not that bad. Sure he blows his own horn--as he was doing frequently during a late breakfast in his West Hollywood hotel room the other day--but, this time anyway, he did it in a charming way.

O'Neal doesn't see himself as arrogant--just very, very confident.

Confidence, he insisted, is a necessity in this business and is almost as crucial as talent: "Without it, you'll be crushed and mangled. If you don't think you're good and let people know it, they'll walk on you the first chance they get. But nobody walks on me."

People who downgrade O'Neal as obnoxious aren't likely to tell him to his face. The reason is fear of being punched out. Those soft-toned, pretty-boy pictures on his album covers and publicity photos cleverly downplay the real O'Neal--a brawny, physically intimidating former college linebacker.

O'Neal is Mr. Macho. Just ask him.

"At the risk of sounding conceited," he bragged, "I helped bring masculinity back into the music industry. I'm the people's choice--a man's man. People want to see a real man up there. They don't want fakes. They've been fooled long enough."

But this macho man does have his soft side. Though you might think he's a carousing ladies' man, O'Neal is married, with three children and another on the way.

"At first there was concern about what being a family man would do to my image," he said. "I'm supposedly this sexy ballad singer, so it would help if I was single. But I'm a family man and I'm proud of it. I don't care who knows it."

"Hearsay" is a clever concept album, featuring stark, meaty, angry songs about combating lies and rumors. The danceable "Fake," the album's biggest hit, is atypical of the smoldering ballads on the album. Eager to avoid being stereotyped as a balladeer, O'Neal played up "Fake."

"I'm a funkster first and foremost," he said. "I can do songs like 'Fake' very well."

However, his rapturous female fans aren't fooled by "Fake." If they want funk, they'll listen to Prince and Cameo. But when they want someone to croon them into a swoon, they turn to O'Neal.

Proudly, he noted that his high, passion-drenched voice isn't the result of training. He didn't even sing in church ("Too shy back then," he admitted). That voice, he boasted, just comes naturally: "It's a gift, a God-given gift. And I thank the Lord for it."

Even though he was aware of this "gift" while growing up in a Mississippi town, O'Neal never planned to be a singer. Football was going to be his career. But, after two years of playing linebacker at Mississippi's Alcorn State in the early '70s, he quit.

"School just wasn't for me," he said. "I wasn't ready for it. I had too many personal problems. I was scarred from growing up dirt poor in Mississippi. My life had been rough. My father was deceased when my mother was pregnant with me. I was the next to the oldest of six kids. I needed the kindof support my family couldn't provide. I just had to get away from Mississippi."

It turned out Chicago, his next stop, wasn't the answer either. But he later found "heaven"--Minneapolis, his home for the last 15 years. After a series of uneventful odd jobs, he turned to his singing "gift" as his salvation.

In the late '70s, he was working the Minneapolis black-club circuit when he hooked up with a band called Flyte Time, which featured Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Eventually this band was offered a job backing up Prince--who was blossoming into Minneapolis' pop-music honcho. But Prince didn't want O'Neal.

According to O'Neal's sketchy version, the problem was that he was loudly lobbying for the band to keep drummer Jellybean Johnson, who was supposedly in danger of being fired. "But I lobbied myself out of a job," O'Neal said. "I was out and he was in."

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