One of the more underrated R&B vocalists of the 1980s, Alexander O'Neal enjoyed more success in Europe than in his native United States. Yet his voice graces some of the decade's most memorable soul singles--"Fake," "Saturday Love" (with frequent duet partner Cherrelle), and the sweeping ballad "If You Were Here Tonight." The very definition of "quiet storm," the song peaked at number 17 on the R&B charts in 1985. What may surprise listeners is that the singer has his roots in the Minneapolis funk group The Time.
Originally from Mississippi, O'Neal relocated to Minneapolis in the late 70s, earning a gig with the burgeoning group The Time. He departed the band shortly before they signed with Warner Brothers (eventually replaced by Morris Day) and gained success via their mentor Prince. But former bandmates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis kept in touch, signing on as producers for O'Neal's self-titled 1985 debut album. His robust voice enhances some stellar dance tracks such as the funk workout "Innocent," but "If You Were Here Tonight" sounds timeless, not an obvious product of the 1980s. Written and produced by Monte Moir, the single fared better in the UK, reaching number 13 on their top singles chart in 1986.
While the track features non-rhyming lyrics, "If You Were Here Tonight" is notable for much more. O'Neal's rich, multi-range voice alternately whispers and belts out words of pure romance. "Slow burn light a candle for our love / So we'll always be one to one in love," he croons. He woos in one stanza, then pleads in the next. "Every night alone I just wait here anticipating / For the day I won't feel this pain, baby," he pleads, stressing his loneliness with the lines "Girl, this bed's too big for me / For me to be in all alone." The song climaxes toward the end, when he cries "Please don't keep me waiting / Come to me," his voice rising on the last word. Through his singing alone, he dramatizes the longing and sensuality these words convey.
Yes, the track contains the omnipresent 80s synthesizer. However, the melody and chord riffs float throughout the track, the airiness underscoring pure romance. The instrument produces a haunting effect that is both sexy and melancholy. Between the keyboards and O'Neal's Stax-revisited singing style, "If You Were Here Tonight" is a standout slow-burn song.
O'Neal never became as big as peer Luther Vandross, but he continued releasing enjoyable soul for much of the decade. His 1987 followup Hearsay produced the bumping tracks "Fake" (highly underrated) and "Criticize," and he recorded another hit collaboration with Cherrelle, "Never Knew Love Like This." Since he consistently experienced more success in Britain, he eventually moved there to record albums specifically for that market. O'Neal received acclaim for two fairly recent albums: The Saga of a Married Man (2002) and Alex Loves (2008), demonstrating that his pipes had dimmed little since his 1980s heyday. The cable channel TVOne revived interest in the singer with a 2011 episode of Unsung, which chronicles his ongoing career.
His releases may be more challenging to find in America, but his under-appreciated output make the search well worth it.