He's one of the best singers to come out of Minneapolis and has sold 15 million records around the world, but after more than a decade of living across the pond, Alexander O'Neal is back in Minnesota -- and he spoke with FOX 9 News about why.
O'Neal has been compared to legendary soul singers like Otis Redding, and he helped define what became known as "the Minneapolis sound." At the peak of his popularity, he was a staple of both R&B and Top 40 radio. His career took him overseas, but he is now back in the city he calls home -- and he's gearing up to help raise money for a good cause.
"One of the great things I've learned to appreciate is how great and grown-up our city has become," O'Neal remarked. "It's such a major city now. I'm really impressed."
Back in the late 1970s, O'Neal was the lead singer for a local band called Flyte Time, along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. When Prince offered the band a record deal, he replaced O'Neal with Morris Day and the rest of the members went on to fame and fortune as The Time.
"It was something that just wasn't meant for me and it didn't happen for me," O'Neal explains. "But out of negative things come great things."
O'Neal's own road to greatness began with a record deal that Jam and Lewis helped him secure. By that time in the mid-80s, they had already successfully produced with other artists like Janet Jackson.
"I often said, 'You aren't a real star until you're a superstar among your own people,'" O'Neal said. "I think we've achieved that."
O'Neal's first album, "Hearsay," offered up a string of R&B hits like "Fake," which went all the way to No. 1. Others like "Criticize" and "Saturday Love" with Cherelle also climbed the charges, but by the early 1990s, his starlight started to fade with the sales of his subsequent albums.
Though those following records never reached the heights of "Hearsay," O'Neal's popularity exploded in England, where he's practically a national treasure. In fact, he still holds the record as the only African-American to sell out the country's beloved Wembly Arena six nights in a row.
"In America, you are only as good as your last hit record. It doesn't matter what genre you come from," O'Neal explained. "In Europe, you become nostalgia, you become treasured, you become something cherished. They always have a place for you."
After living in London for 14 years, O'Neil and his family decided to move back to Minnesota -- but aside from a couple of shows at the Dakota Jazz Club, he's kept a pretty low profile.
"More rehearsal stuff -- or Bobby Z stuff and Rev stuff," O'Neal mused.
He's been content to be under the radar too -- until his friend, Prince's former drummer Bobby Z -- asked him to take part in his 2nd annual fundraiser for the American Heart Association at First Avenue.
"We are probably one of the most unlikely duos to hang out and do business in this town," O'Neal said. "That's for many reasons you guys may know -- a couple of camps going on. I just love working with the guy. It's just great."
Now, more than three decades after eh first topped the charts, O'Neal is stepping back into the spotlight to show even after all this time, the soul singer still has plenty of heart.
"I'm just thankful I'm still in the music business and still doing what I do almost 30 years later," he said. "It's a good thing."
O'Neal will kick off the fundraiser for Bobby Z's My Purple Heart Foundation this weekend along with former SNL star Maya Rudolph, Nicholas David of "The Voice," and The Roots' Questlove.
O'Neal also told FOX 9 News he is currently working a new batch of songs he hopes to release later this year.