My love affair with music began in the fourth grade of grammar school when the instrumental teacher first approached me. She would later approach me to sing in a La bohème production at TSC. She wished to make a clarinet player out of me. I said I preferred the trumpet. She said it was the clarinet or nothing. I passed on her offer. The following year they offered me the coveted trumpet and so I began my lessons. During the winter holiday day show of that same year, I sang my first solo: The introduction to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The part came with tin foil ears and a red nose. Like all of the other male children, I sang in the boys’ choir of the school. Mrs. Smith was our vocal instructor and she took quite a shining to me for some odd reason. The following year I was given my first real solo, the first verse of Rise Now, Oh Shepherds, a tune so obscure that I dare you to find it on the internet. The most notable student to grace our grammar school stage was Ernie Kovacs who, while yet a student, portrayed Old King Cole, but that was decades before my arrival.
Above: One of Dad’s bands. He is the one playing the Gibson ES135.
All of my O’Neal uncles played guitar and three of my four brothers do as do most of our offspring. The first picker in my O’Neal tree, Richard, came here in 1749 to serve as head chef on the Lee Plantation at Stratford Hall. We suspect that is where he learned to play banjo, but in any case he took it along when he married and moved west to what is now Tennessee. His banjo is preserved in the Museum of Appalachia. No portraits of Richard exist. We do have a photo of his great grandson (my great great grandfather) James and his brother William in their Kentucky Mounted Infantry attire. James is to the left:
Our home was my prime source of musical influence, for my father was a gifted country singer and guitarist with quite a good reputation in local circles. I have fond memories of Dad and his band rehearsing in our home, and fonder ones yet of Dad singing children’s songs to us. He was a local legend of sorts. Wherever we drove in the family car, people would honk their horns and wave his way.
Above: Dad back on the farm at age 16 or so, standing beside his mother.
Dad, a bronze star recipient and Sgt. Major, came to the New Jersey area to instruct ROTC candidates at Princeton University. Later he became a radio disc jockey and a union musician who played in the local clubs, most notably The Frontier Room, his band being the house band in its early years. In time he set aside his guitar and instead emceed, helped manage the venue and, most importantly, booked the big and little names who filled the weekly bill at the venue. He put down his guitar because the union kept hounding him about his drummer’s negligence in paying his union dues. You don’t have to be in the union to sing, so he quit. Hell, I’m not sure why a drummer has to join a musician’s union for that matter (rim shot, please). Back then country music was not cool, but they filled the large room on a regular basis. Dad had ties with Ernest Tubb in Nashville and it was Tubb who provided most of the headliners who played there. During my teen years I washed dishes on show nights and had the pleasure to hear and meet many of Country & Western music’s biggest stars.
Above: Bill O’Neal and the Country Gentlemen
Above: Bill Sr. and my mother
During junior high school I switched from trumpet to baritone horn and continued to play that instrument until I graduated, but in high school I only played it in marching band, for I was recruited by Lloyd Snyder for French horn, which I soon played in both orchestra and concert band. I also played the Getzen French horn bugle in the Greenlaners Drum and Bugle Corps. Choir time conflicted with instrumental scheduling, so I could not sing in the choir. Instead I joined the Boy’s Glee Club which met in the morning before school began. It was there that I met James Lauffer, the vocal instructor, who later enrolled me in the two-year music theory honors course. We did a lot of sight singing and composition, using two of Hindemith’s texts as resources.
Above: Lloyd Snyder, James Lauffer. Below: Me, from the high school yearbook.
While in junior high I joined my first rock and roll band, Dead Serious, followed later by Smokestack Lightning, but I was by no means gifted on the guitar. I played rhythm as best I could. They kept me around mainly for my singing. My first REAL guitar was a Fender Mustang bass and soon I was playing in an ethnically diverse group the name of which I cannot recall. We even had a manager, one Ronnie Fryer, but again we were not top notch players. Indeed, I also failed to excel on the horns. I did have the highest aptitude score in the high school for music ability, which perturbed some of the dedicated virtuosos to no end. For my part, I was less than dedicated.
Another major music influence on my life was Glenn Campbell. My dad hired him to perform at the club shortly after the release of By the Time I Get to Phoenix. I hung out back stage with him, and at the end of the night I had the pleasure of walking him through the building to the office so he could collect his $2,000. He came from a town near to the one where my own father came from, so they had common ground in that respect. I was sixteen at the time. I made a point of acquiring all of his record albums and learned to sing whatever I could.
Above: Two random, vintage clippings from the media. I recall washing dishes the night Whispering Bill Anderson was there. Marty Robbins was another memorable night; boy was he ever vertically challenged.
I believe I was eighteen when I sold my bass to a country band bassist and started playing around on acoustic guitars. I was learning to play in open tunings, listening to Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag and then his later albums and to other folk singers as well. I didn’t get one of my own until I landed in Oklahoma at Fort Sill. It was a twelve-string with a brutal neck on it. I bought it at a pawn shop. It once belonged to a nun I was told. I had started hanging out in the special services building on the weekends while in Fort Campbell for basic training. It was either that or go into town where there was nothing but trouble to be found. By the time I left Oklahoma in early fall of that year, I had learned to play a competent rhythm guitar.
Once back home someone stepped on the neck of that twelve-string and snapped the head. Eventually I replaced it with another cheap one before finally go down to 8th Street Music in Philly to buy a new Guild F212, inspired to do so by Steve Miller’s model, but my greatest influences at the time were Justin Hayward, Bob Dylan and the Beatles of course. Sometime around then I teamed up first Paul Olko and then with my childhood friend Joe Kramer, a very gifted lead guitar player. It was with Paul that I landed my first paying job in a bar in South Trenton. We played on the pool table using my tube powered Bogan PA and a pair of Shure columns. Paul moved on to Virginia and Joe and I started playing together quite a bit, mostly covers of mellow 70s artists. That was me: Mellow.
Above: Joe Kramer and me in the mid 1970s
It was during the early 80s that I discovered Irish folk and I quickly fell under its spell. I learned a dozen songs and then Frank Pinto found me a gig playing up in Red Bank at The Dubliner, doing a mix of Irish and American folk. Customers would request this Irish song or that one and I would go home and learn them. I later discovered that the Irish folk canon of North Jersey differed from the Philly one in many respects. The patrons in Red Bank were warm and welcoming. I enjoyed my time playing there.
Since the 1980s it’s been a steady diet of Irish gigs for me. During the school year I am teacher advisor to the guitar club which pleases me to no end. For a visual trip through my Irish music days please visit the photo gallery.
Cheers and God Bless,