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Gilbert O’Sullivan

Soft-rock singer/songwriters were ten-a-penny at the turn of the 70s; though great ones rare, when pop music evolved from the post-BEATLES swinging psychedelic 60s into something more easy on the ear. A memorable nom de plume, a unique image and catchy tunes were paramount to an artist’s success, and Irish-born GILBERT O’ SULLIVAN (a play on 19th century operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan) had ticked all the right boxes. Fellow singer/pianist ELTON JOHN was cashing in on American sentiment, but there was room for a nostalgic balladeer in a cloth cap, bowl cut hairstyle and short trousers. Despite a prile of Top 5 albums and several earworm hits (including fan faves: `We Will’, `No Matter How I Try’, `Alone Again (Naturally)’, `Clair’ and `Get Down’), O’SULLIVAN was treading on thin water as his dated collegiate sweater motif was sadly usurped by the incumbent glam-rock scene.
Born Raymond Edward O’Sullivan, 1 December 1946, Cork Road, Waterford, he was raised from ages 7 and 8 respectively, in London’s Battersea and Swindon in Wiltshire. Ray’s first musical venture after leaving Swindon College of Art was to play drums with Rick’s Blues; a band fronted by Rick Davies (later of SUPERTRAMP fame), who also taught him how to play piano.
1967 was a turning point for the singer/songwriter’s career, and with a fresh moniker suggested to him by manager Stephen Shane (who’d garnered a contract at CBS Records via April Music Publishing Company), “Gilbert” sat down to craft songs at his newly-acquired piano. Short and sweet in nature, ditties `Disappear’ and `What Can I Do’ lasted as long as his tenure at the label; and his BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND affiliations were also posted awol. Much more in line with songs to come, Major Minor Records were behind his third effort, `Mr. Moody’s Garden’, a quirky little number that possessed that old-time dancehall pizzazz.
As luck would have it, manager of crooners TOM JONES and ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK, Gordon Mills, was kick-starting a fledgling label, MAM Records, and when Gilbert’s demos landed through the mail, he was impressed enough to give him a contract. Although both parties argued over O’SULLIVAN’s insistence to portray his “cloth-cap” image, the singer’s resilience was vindicated when `Nothing Rhymed’ roared into the Top 10; it also scaled the charts in the Netherlands; as did his follow-up “piano-rock” platter, `Underneath The Blanket Go’ (which undeservedly stalled at No.40).
The lyrically-astute and tear-jerking, `We Will’ (self-described as his “Catholic working class family song”), chalked up his third hit in a row, though it was mysteriously omitted from his platinum-selling debut set, GILBERT O’SULLIVAN HIMSELF (1971) {*7}; it was later re-installed in the US version. Compensation came by way of other “kitchen-sink” dramas such as `Matrimony’, `Permissive Twit’ and the previous year’s `Nothing Rhymed’, and was soon followed into the Top 5 by another exclusive piece, `No Matter How I Try’.
1972 was just as productive, though once again big-ticket items, `Alone Again (Naturally)’ (a US No.1 smash) and `Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day’, became more sought after when left out of O’SULLIVAN’s sophomore set, BACK TO FRONT {*7}. One song that did feature was the schmaltzy, `Clair’, an innocent ballad concerning “Uncle Ray” (Gilbert, himself), babysitting manager Mills’ 3 year-old daughter, a song that topped the charts like its parent album. America responded favourably to O’SULLIVAN’s cheeky charms, and twinning the song with `Ooh-Wakka…’ it almost repeated the feat; the album itself – showing his newfound hairy-chest lothario look – squeezed into the Top 50. The US-only, `Out Of The Question’, subsequently climbed to No.17 and proved he’d a life beyond his out-of-sync tank-top fashion sense.
If glamour-puss ELTON JOHN was requesting not to be shot as he was only the piano player, then GILBERT O’SULLIVAN was again ducking and diving some harsh critique for his second No.1 song, `Get Down’. Released three months later in June ’73 for the US market; where it achieved Top 10 status, anticipation was rife for Gilbert’s next LP. In the meantime, `Ooh Baby’, was stopped in its tracks at No.18 (US #25), though it was allocated a slot on the singer’s I’M A WRITER, NOT A FIGHTER {*6} album. From Depression-era street urchin, to collegiate laddie-o, to well-groomed MOR artist, Gilbert neither fitted into the glam-rock scene of SLADE and SWEET, nor did he pass as a teenage idol like DAVID CASSIDY or DONNY OSMOND, so the term “housewives’ choice” sort of sealed his fate after his final Top 10 entry, `Why, Oh Why, Oh Why’.
The mystifying one in/one out aspect of his exclusive/non-exclusive hit pattern was rather old hat by now when `Happiness Is Me And You’ and `A Woman’s Place’ fought to reach Top 20 and Top 50 status. The same could be said for the man’s fourth set, A STRANGER IN MY OWN BACK YARD (1974) {*5}, which only dented the Top 10. The festive season had unfettered some classic pro-glam dirges from SLADE, WIZZARD, ELTON JOHN, and MUD, but Gilbert’s near Top 10 ditty, `Christmas Song’, was not one of them.
When next single, `You Are You’, flopped unceremoniously in early ‘75, the writing was on the wall for O’SULLIVAN; despite his last-ditch Top 20 breaker via `I Don’t Love You But I Think I Like You’, that June. Over the next few years, a sad sequence of non-starters through `I’ll Believe It When I See It’, `You Never Listen To Reason’, `Doing What I Know’, `My Love And I’ and `You Got Me Going’ (and the low-firing fifth set SOUTHPAW (1977) {*6}), were somewhat overshadowed by an impending and long drawn-out lawsuit citing a discrepancy of royalties by manager Mills. Switching labels to C.B.S. (Epic in the US), O’SULLIVAN had a brief re-encounter with the Top 20 a la `What’s In A Kiss’, an easy-going ditty that couldn’t quite get his sixth set, OFF CENTRE {*5}, off the ground. That January he wedded Norwegian girlfriend, Aase, and with their two daughters, Helen-Marie and Tara, they set up home, and eventually relocated lock, stock and barrel to Jersey.
May ’82 finally saw some light at the end of the tunnel when the judge and jury decided in Gilbert’s favour, and granted him £7million in damages. C.B.S. Records duly dispatched his seventh album, LIFE & RHYMES (1982) {*6}, though an exhausted O’SULLIVAN seemed to be a spent force in an ever-changing market. The German label Ultrasonic were sympathetic to Gilbert’s desire to get back into gear, though FROBISHER DRIVE (1987) {*5} was hardly the injection needed to re-boot his career. One song in particular, `So What’, gave rise to the Chrysalis-empowered Dover Records (then label to TOM JONES), and with his UK comeback album, IN THE KEY OF G (1989) {*4}, he’d a modicum of Top 75 singles success.
The bane of many an artist looking down the barrel of a gun for royalties from the predominantly hip hop sampling of their best work, in 1991, O’SULLIVAN sued rapper BIZ MARKIE – Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v Warner Bros. Records Inc. – for his misuse of `Alone Again (Naturally)’, and won 100% royalties; thus rightly making it a precedence and very costly for any other acts to follow with any further unwarranted undertakings.
Japan was Gilbert’s next port of call for albums, SOUNDS OF THE LOOP (1991) {*5} and THE LITTLE ALBUM (1992) {*6}; the first of these featuring his duet with Peggy Lee, `Can’t Think Straight’, and the sprightly `Are You Happy?’. Though still firmly affixed in the 70s; but with an orchestral augmentation, the man still had a solid fan base, a fact that probably helped him ink a deal at Park Records, who re-issued both sets in 1993 and 1994 respectively.
Prior to releasing his first fresh recording for the label, EVERY SONG HAS ITS PLAY (1995) {*5}, the Hit Record Co dropped a solid retrospective look at his career via THE BEST OF GILBERT O’SULLIVAN: LIVE IN JAPAN (1995) {*7} – cut back in February 1993 – whilst 1997’s punningly-spun SINGER SOWING MACHINE {*4} saw the man almost go electro!
But for 2003’s PIANO FOREPLAY {*4} album on E.M.I,, Bygum Records were behind his post-millennium set, IRLISH (2001) {*5} and A SCRUFF AT HEART (2007) {*5}, though his only chart returns came by way of the Top 20 compilation: “The Berry Very Of” (2004). In fact the singer-songwriter’s back catalogue was such in demand, that both “The Very Best Of Gilbert O’Sullivan: A Singer & His Songs” (2012) and “The Essential Collection” (2016) surprisingly, in this day and age, hit similar high spots.
2011’s GILBERTVILLE {*6} – for both Bygum and Hypertension – paved the way for the veteran artist’s soiree from his run-of-the-mill comfort zone on 2015’s Union Square one-off, LATIN A LA GILBERT (2015) {*6}. B.M.G. Records were hoping for great things from his 24th studio album, and with the eponymous GILBERT O’SULLIVAN (2018) {*7} album, Top 20 sales figures allowed all parties concerned a quiet celebration. Steering the “Get Down” man back into contention was top producer Ethan Johns, who extracted some comforting cheeky-chap cheer from best bits, `At The End Of The Day’, `The Same The Whole World Over’, `Where Did You Go To?’ and `What Is It About You’; music that whisked one back to the 70s in an instant.
© MC Strong/MCS Oct2019

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