Not alone again

Seventies pop star Gilbert O'Sullivan is bringing old and new material to Israel - along with a band, backup singers and string quartet.

Gilbert OSullivan 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilbert OSullivan 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even when he was selling millions of records back in the early 1970s, Gilbert O'Sullivan usually sounded sad. Between his huge international hits like "Alone Again (Naturally)" and "Claire" and his old-fashioned sounding name, O'Sullivan captured a timeless melancholy feeling that set him apart from the other successful singer-songwriters of the day. So it was a surprise to hear from O'Sullivan, now 63, that he was actually a pretty happy fellow. "I was having a great time. All I ever tried to do was to write good songs," said O'Sullivan during a phone conversation from England where he was rehearsing his band for shows here this week on May 22 at the Shoni Fortress in Binyamina and May 23 at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. "One of the things that enables you to keep going in this business is to not analyze things too much. I find it interesting that some people thought I was trying to create an old-fashioned sound. All that we - as contemporary songwriters who play piano or guitar - try to do is to write what we hope is a good tune and lyrics. It stops there. How it fits in, the style that it's called, and how the song and the singer are perceived, that's up to the listeners afterwards." The public perceived O'Sullivan as an eccentric guy - and not only because of his songs. At the height of the counter-culture long-hair movement, his initial public persona consisted of a pudding-basin haircut, cloth cap and short schoolboy pants. Soon enough, that look made way for a collegiate cheerleader image, complete with a sweater bearing a large "G." Despite his appearance, or maybe because of it, O'Sullivan emerged as a distinctive voice in the early 1970s, combining Beatlesque songcraft and a pre-rock romantic sensibility. In 1972, he sold more records than anyone else in the world, and in 1973, he even beat out Elton John as Britain's "songwriter of the year." Then it all dried up. O'Sullivan's drop-off in popularity in the mid-to-late 1970s preceded a long, bitter court battle with his former manager, Gordon Mills, which in effect silenced his music for almost a decade. "It was horrible. I had never been interested in the financial side of things. And the initial reason we broke up wasn't over finances, but over my desire to work with other producers," explained O'Sullivan, who was born in Ireland as Raymond O'Sullivan. "I had wanted to work with people like Tom Dowd, who had worked with Eric Clapton, and Gordon didn't like that. The breakup led to a court case and that opened a huge can of worms. It was nasty business and I wouldn't relish anyone going through it." O'Sullivan and Mills, whose record label was home to crooning superstars Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink, originally joined forces after O'Sullivan - performing as simply "Gilbert" - sent him some demos in the late 1960s in an attempt to jump-start his career. "I was intent on creating a character - based on figures like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The songwriting credits read only O'Sullivan, so someone could put two and two together and get a laugh," recalled O'Sullivan. "When Gordon took over managing my career in 1969, he said, 'You should just call yourself Gilbert O'Sullivan,' and that's how it's stayed ever since." WHEN O'SULLIVAN began topping the charts upon the release of his 1970 debut Nothing Rhymed, he and Mills developed a strategy which differed from the common practice of the day of striking while the iron was hot. "The key in those days if you were a songwriter with a big hit record was to perform as much as possible. Everyone wanted you. But I didn't really spend all my time touring back then. I only went to Australia for the first time five years ago. "It was a deliberate move," he said. "I liked to stay at home, and Gordon, thankfully, didn't mind that I wasn't overenthusiastic about traveling to the US and other places. That's why I waited two years after my first success before touring the US. I was never under the stress of being overworked, I just did short tours usually. The real work was staying home and coming up with new songs." During the prolonged court battle with Mills, which began in 1982 and resulted in O'Sullivan winning back the masters and copyrights of his original recordings, the singer was legally barred from recording new material. But he good naturedly sees the positive elements in the layoff. "There were minuses and pluses. I practiced and wrote a whole lot. I'm certainly a better piano player now as a result. And I had a young family and I got to work at home," he said. According to O'Sullivan, the upshot of the lawsuit was regaining control of his career. "When the judge gave me back my masters, it made me feel like I had my own record company. When it comes to licensing a song of mine for a TV ad or a film they have to ask me. That control is very useful," he said. "My case has been used as a precedent in a number of others since - with Elton John and Sting trying to get back their original masters. George Michael referred to my case when he was involved in a suit to regain control of his music." O'Sullivan was also one of the first artists to bring a rapper to court for sampling his music when he successfully sued Biz Markie in 1991 for sampling "Alone Again (Naturally)." One of O'Sullivan's first licensing coups was selling "Alone Again (Naturally)" to a Japanese anime TV show, resulting in him developing a huge cult status there, along with the resultant best-selling albums and sold-out tours until today. In the rest of the world, he's remained off the radar, despite regularly releasing albums throughout the past two decades. But a new generation has rediscovered his quirky talents and is heaping him with the respect that has been missing since his heyday. O'Sullivan performed at the prestigious British indie Glastonbury Festival last year on the iconic Pyramid Stage along with Neil Diamond and Leonard Cohen. "Well, I wasn't really out of my element," laughed O'Sullivan. It was me at 5 p.m., Neil Diamond at 7 and Leonard Cohen to close. We can put on a good show anywhere. I'm a veteran." WHILE O'SULLIVAN keeps an eye on today's pop charts, he said that he still looks back to the masters for inspiration. "I listen to everything. I remember reading an interview with George Harrison once where he said he never listens to anything. I think that's kind of dangerous, if you want to stay in the business," he said. "I see myself as a contemporary songwriter, even if I don't have the success I once had. And I'll listen to what other people are doing - I'll listen to Coldplay. You may not learn much from their songwriting, but you might hear some good sounds, and it's a way to learn. Of course, the real masters in my eyes are still the Cole Porters and the Jerome Kerns - those days when pop music was about simplicity." Despite the simplicity that O'Sullivan is after, he'll be touring Israel with a full contingent of band, backup singers and string quartet. The two-and-a-half hour show is evenly split between his almost 40-year-old classics and more current original material. "All the people who want to hear the old songs will be satisfied," he promised, adding that he recently returned from recording new material in Nashville. As content as he is to revisit his vintage material, O'Sullivan still conjures up a youthful enthusiasm when discussing writing new songs. "As a songwriter and singer, you try to write a melody that you believe is good. They don't come easy, but they don't date - they're timeless," he said. "You never know where it's going to take you and you're always learning from it. I love it. I wouldn't be talking to you and I wouldn't be giving concerts if I weren't consistently writing and recording new songs. It's fascinating for me, and I've never lost my enthusiasm for it. I heard Billy Joel say it's all about the live performances. He stopped writing songs a while ago. I like performing - it's magical to have people appreciate what you do. But for me, there would be no performances if I didn't write the songs. I think if I were only singing old songs or interpreting other people's songs, I'd as soon become a gardener."