Male soul singers came in basically two stripes in the ’80s. Either you were a high-pitched bundle of energy like Michael Jackson, or you were a neo-Mathis style crooner, like Luther Vandross or Freddie Jackson. Some guys, like Prince and El DeBarge, split the difference. However, one archetype that faded from view pretty quickly in the decade was the old-school soul shouter. Think Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett or, for a more recent example, Teddy Pendergrass. Remember the part in Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” where he quoted TP’s “Only You” and said that Teddy would “scare the (women) into liking him”?
Well, if you are going to call any singer from the Eighties a worthy successor to TP (whose sex symbol status was compromised by a 1982 car crash that left him paralyzed,) then it would probably be Alexander O’Neal. Born in Mississippi, Alexander moved to Minneapolis and very quickly enmeshed himself into the local music scene, eventually becoming the lead singer of an outfit called Flyte Tyme. That band eventually morphed into The Time, and they parlayed their association with Prince into a series of successful singles and albums. However, O’Neal was bounced from the band before recording their first album. Various reasons for Alex getting the boot have been floated, ranging from O’Neal requesting too much money to Alexander being “too black” for Prince’s liking. Either way, while his old band (with drummer Morris Day now installed as lead singer) toured the country, Alexander stayed in Minneapolis. However, when Time members Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis were fired from the band (and wound up becoming hit producers,) they came calling, and Alexander found himself signed to Tabu Records, who released his self-titled debut album in 1985.
A funk jam called “Innocent” was the first single, but the album’s best known track is probably the tender ballad “If You Were Here Tonight.” The song hit the Top 20 on Billboard’s R&B chart and the resulting video showed off Alexander’s acting skills. Or maybe not.
I could go on and on about Alexander’s ridiculously emotive facial expressions in this clip, but it’s best that you watch for yourself. Extra points if you can make it through his pained writhing on the bed with a straight face. He’s trying to sell it hard, though. You’ve gotta give him credit for that.
This might have marked both the peak and the nadir of Alexander’s video career, but musically, he was far from done. 1987’s Hearsay went platinum, and songs like “Fake” and “Criticize” (both of which found Alexander sweating like Whitney Houston during one of her crack-era live performances) became dance floor classics. However, a growing drug problem would soon prove to be his undoing. It was three years before he made another album, 1990’s All True Man, and by his fourth album, Love Makes No Sense, Jam & Lewis were pretty much out of the picture, and the magic was gone.
Alexander continues to record and release music, and his next project is rumored to be a duets album with long-time singing partner Cherrelle. He recently showed up on an episode of TVOne’s “Unsung” (the #1 television series at Jheri Curl Fridays HQ), and tours the world, where he retains a healthy following, especially in the U.K., where it has been scientifically proven that over 60% of the ’80s worst videos originated. Let’s hope Alex didn’t have aspirations for an acting career…