Gilbert O'Sullivan — singer/songwriter at Swedish American Hall

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday November 14, 2023
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Gilbert O'Sullivan
Gilbert O'Sullivan

More than 50 years after Gilbert O'Sullivan's Grammy-nominated breakout single "Alone Again (Naturally)" made him a household name, the singer/songwriter continues to record and perform concerts. Talk about staying power!

Not only was "Alone Again (Naturally)" nominated for Grammy Awards, it was also an international hit single, and the second best-selling single of 1972 (in between Roberta Flack's cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and Don McLean's "American Pie"). Talk about stiff competition!

While there were domestically released singles following "Alone Again," including "Clair" and "Get Down," O'Sullivan never reached the same heights. Thankfully that didn't stop or slow him down, with more than 20 albums to his name. O'Sullivan performs November 24 at the Swedish American Hall.

Gregg Shapiro: Gilbert, in 2022, you released the triple disc, 67-track compilation "The Best of Gilbert O'Sullivan" (BMG) which was curated by you. In the past, it was usually the record labels that compiled this kind of collection. Did you have any input at all in any of the previous compilations released in your name?
Gilbert O'Sullivan: Before owning the masters, I always had a fair amount of input on compilations released. Now, I have pretty much complete control due to owning them.

What was involved in your process of selecting the material for this new "Best of" set?
First of all, it amazes me that I have so much material to choose from! But the nice thing with this latest compilation is that I'm able to pick tracks that aren't necessarily well-known but liked by me.

Would you mind giving a few examples?
"Parrish," "Missing You Already," and "Victor E," to name but a few.

"The Best of" collection arrived 50 years after your stateside breakthrough single "Alone Again (Naturally)" was Billboard Magazine's second biggest-selling single of 1972, sandwiched between "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack and "American Pie" by Don McLean. Do you recall how that made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel today?
For me, success in the UK and Europe was never something I imagined could happen. That said, with "Alone Again" becoming such a huge success in America, I was truly excited and very happy then and now, with what we achieved, bearing in mind how difficult it can be to break into the American market.

The song "Alone Again (Naturally)" refers to suicide, a subject that was sensitive at the time, and one that remains controversial to this day. Do you think you would have had the same success with the song if it was released now?
For me success is always, first and foremost, writing and recording what I believe is a good song. And while not as commercial as some of my songs, I think the sentiment covering life not least death is a universal one. There is no reason why it wouldn't be a success today, especially when you see the amount of young people who seem to love the song.

More than 30 years ago you were involved in a landmark case involving clearing the use of samples when you sued the late rapper Biz Markie for his appropriation of your "Alone Again (Naturally)" in his song "Alone Again." Looking back on that lawsuit, which you won, how do you feel about the experience?
There is no way I could have lost. It was an unapproved illegal use of the track. But I'm the one that had to hire expensive lawyers, go to New York, be the first on the stand in a court room, while Biz Markie and team didn't turn up.

Over the years, "Alone Again (Naturally)" has been covered by many performers, including queer artists such as Johnny Mathis and the Pet Shop Boys with Elton John. How aware are you of an LGBTQ following for your musical career?
I'm not into how, what, or why in analyzing who likes my songs. They are there for anyone who might simply enjoy hearing them.

"So What" and "Say Goodbye," both included on "The Best of," are infectious dance-pop. Do you know if they were ever remixed for club play, and if so, if they had any success in gay clubs?
Nice (that) you picked "Say Goodbye." Surprise choice! Anyway, "So What" was produced by the great producer Gus Dudgeon. A recent dance-mix compilation called "Late Night Takes presents After Dark" has done a really cool mix of it. Check it out!

You included the Peggy Lee duet "Can't Think Straight" in the compilation. The song, which I think is delightful and pure camp, is bound to appeal to queer listeners, not just because of the presence of the diva Lee, but also because of the double entendre of the title. What was it like recording this song with Peggy?
I've been a huge fan of Peggy. "The Folks Who Live On The Hill" is in my top ten favorite recordings. It was my first ever duet, and who better to ask than the great Peggy Lee? We flew to New York, sat with her, and recorded it in The Hit Factory, and because it was so special, we filmed it for a video. I told her that her two Latin albums were favorites of mine and in honor of her, on my recent "Latin à la G!" album, we reproduced a cover of hers.

I'm glad you included "Take Love" and "Let Bygones Be Bygones," a pair of songs from your 2022 studio album "Driven," which are duets with KT Tunstall and Mick Hucknall, respectively.
This is the first album I have done with two duets. I knew Mick Hucknall was a fan of my songs, and with us both having the same producer the opportunity to record came about with "'Take Love," as well as a great performance by KT Tunstall. Each are stand out tracks on the album. KT put her vocals on in California where she is based, and we only met when she came to London and filmed a video for the track.

Many of your songs have a theatrical quality. Do you think you might have a Broadway or West End musical in you?
Musicals dating from the early 20th century to the present are, and have been, a huge influence on my writing. Not so much lyrically, but musically with the likes of Berlin, Rodgers, Kern and Sondheim. It's where you learn your craft. Ironically enough, a musical featuring my songs, entitled "Matrimony," is on its way to being produced.

You are performing in San Francisco at the Swedish American Hall in the heart of the Castro. Is there anything you'd like to say to your queer San Francisco fans in advance of the show?
To anyone, not necessarily fans of my music, those coming to the concert will see and hear, and hopefully like, in over two hours, an up close and personal performance with myself and my guitarist Bill Shanley. Bill is a great guitar player who in the past has toured the States accompanying Ray Davies of The Kinks.

Are there more US tour dates in the works for 2024?
With the enjoyable reaction we have had performing in America over the last three years, bearing in mind prior to that our last concert was in 1974, we certainly look forward to being welcomed back, not least excited by the prospect.

Gilbert O'Sullivan with Adam Rosencrance, Nov. 24, 8pm at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. $47-$75.

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