Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Kiwi Songbird Soars On Australasian Airwaves - The Early Years

To borrow from boxing parlance, in pound for pound terms, during the 70s and 80s the New Zealand popular music scene punched well above its own weight - actually the Kiwis have historically managed that feat across numerous fields of endeavour. Some of the biggest names on the Australasian music scene during that era, hailed from the ‘Shaky Isles’; Split Enz, Dragon, La De Das, Max Merritt, Jenny Morris, Kim Hart, Swingers, Margaret Urlich, Noiseworks Hello Sailor, Mi-Sex, Dave Dobbyn, to but skim the surface of the talent pool. Truth be told, some of the bands listed featured an amalgam of Aussie and Kiwi talent, but both countries were proud to claim them as their own.

One such phenomenally talented musician to hail from New Zealand, was singer and songwriter Sharon O’Neill. As a teenager, growing up during the late 60s in the New Zealand South Island township of Nelson, O’Neill had a passion for writing poetry. She also had a passion for music, and taught herself the guitar, mainly be ear, soon combining the two passions into developing the one craft of songwriting. In 1970 Sharon O’Neill and childhood friend Nancy Richman performed the song ‘Life Upon Life’ (penned by O’Neill) as an entry in the Mobil Song Quest, under the name Sharon and Nancy. They reached the final of the talent quest, and ‘Life Upon Life’ was included on the album release ‘Mobil Song Quest 1970’, released on the Kiwi label. Soon after another friend, Robin Winch, joined Sharon O’Neill and Nancy Richman to form the pop trio Suitewater. Suitewater released one single in 1971, titled ‘Suzanne’, on the independent Ode label. The following year, a now solo Sharon O’Neill recorded her debut single on the same label, a cover of Elton John’s ‘Love Song’, but when the single bombed, O’Neill’s recording career was put on hold.

In 1972 Sharon O’Neill shifted to Christchurch and for a brief period played with pop-rock quartet Chapta, whilst continuing to hone her songwriting skills. That same year one of O’Neill’s compositions, ‘Nothing Makes It Easy’, took her name to the final of the television talent show ‘New Faces’. Though she continued to accrue a solid cache of her own songs, O’Neill didn’t get much of chance to perform over the course of the mid 70s. As a performer, the singer-pianist mostly worked with covers bands, such as Jessika, and went on to join Wellington based soft-rock outfit Shiner. During 1976 O’Neill spent eight months in touring South East Asia with Shiner (which possibly inspired her 1981 hit ‘Asian Paradise’). Shiner guitarist (and future husband) Brent Thomas urged O’Neill to focus on her songwriting again, and push toward scoring a solo recording deal. In 1977 former EMI A&R rep Alan Galbraith, who also managed singer Mark Williams at the time, signed Sharon O’Neill to a management deal. Before long O’Neill was touring as a support act for Williams, and opened for several international artists on their New Zealand tours. Once again O’Neill scored another break via a television talent show, this time on ‘The Entertainers’ in 1978, where she sang ‘Luck’s On The Table’ (a song O’Neill wrote back in year late teens). She may have only come in third, but the performance brought her to the attention of CBS, who signed O’Neill to a new record deal, and released ‘Luck’s On The Table’ as a single in September ‘78. The song reached a respectable #27 on the New Zealand charts, and featured on Sharon O’Neill’s debut album ‘This Heart, This Song’, released in February ‘79.

In June 1979 the single ‘Don’t Say No To Tomorrow’ (which featured on a nationwide Telethon) became O’Neill’s first top ten hit at home (#6), and ‘Baby Don’t Fight It’, which was later included on the repackaged ‘Words’ album. The critical accolades soon followed, and Sharon O’Neill was named A.P.R.A. ‘Rising Star’ of the year, and received the prestigious A.P.R.A. Silver Scroll Award for the song ‘Face In A Rainbow’, lifted from her ‘This Heart, This Song’ album. During the same period O’Neill scored the first of three consecutive New Zealand ‘Top Female Vocalist’ awards.

In early 1980 the lead out single from O’Neill’s scheduled sophomore album was released. For those not already in the know, ‘Words’ signalled the arrival of a serious songwriting talent and peaked at #22 on the N.Z. charts, and also became the breakthrough single for Sharon O’Neill on the Australian charts (#56). O’Neill had also recorded a duet with Kiwi rock singing sensation Jon Stevens (later of Noiseworks - see future post) titled ‘Don’t Let Love Go’ (NZ#5). In April ‘80 ‘Asian Paradise’ (NZ#24/OZ#76) became the second single from O’Neill’s self titled album (NZ#3) to crack the charts. ‘How Do You Talk To Boys’ (NZ#26/OZ#25), which unusually, wasn’t penned by O’Neill herself, rounded out a stellar year. Though not featured on the original ‘Sharon O’Neill’ album, CBS included the song on a repackaged version titled ‘Words’ (OZ#66). Like so many New Zealand acts over the previous twenty years, Sharon O’Neill was aware that Australia was the next rung of the pop ladder to climb, and the following few years would reveal if her considerable talents could lead her in the triumphant footsteps of Split Enz and company.

Sharon O’Neill’s name, not to mention her extraordinary talents as a singer and songwriter, had already come to notice on the Australian music scene during 1980, and she had already made two in studio appearances on the ABC’s ‘Countdown’, performing ‘How Do You Talk To Boys’ for her debut on the show, and ‘Asian Paradise’ (Molly raved about O’Neill - and rightly so - she ended up winning three Countdown Music Awards in all).

In 1981 O’Neill released her third album titled ‘Maybe’ (OZ#44), and toured extensively in support of the set with a new backing group (‘The Sharon O’Neill Band’), which featured her husband Brent Thomas. She supported Boz Scaggs on his Australian tour, giving her access to new audiences, and a burgeoning national profile. The first single from the ‘Maybe’ album was ‘Waiting For You’ (OZ#50), followed by the title track (NZ#12/OZ#38) and ‘For All The Tea In China’ (OZ#98). O’Neill , and her producer Peter McIan, deliberately opted for a sound mix on the album that was leaner (less overdubs), and would approximate the sound O’Neill and her band could recreate for live shows. By the end of 1981 Sharon O’Neill had settled in Australia on a fulltime basis (basing herself in the notorious Sydney suburb of Kings Cross), and quickly set to work on writing and recording a five track EP soundtrack (plus incidental score music) for the Roger Donaldson film ‘Smash Palace’ (eventually released in 1982).

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