15 Oct 2017

Sharon O'Neill joins NZ Music Hall Of Fame

From Sunday Morning, 10:35 am on 15 October 2017
Sharon O'Neill

Sharon O'Neill Photo: Supplied

Sharon O’Neill says the news that she's being inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame left her ‘quite gobsmacked’.

She’ll also receive this year's Legacy Award at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards in November.

The Nelson-born musician is no stranger to awards and recognition. Throughout her career, she’s won Top Female Vocalist at the NZ Music Awards three times (1978, 1979, 1980) and is the only artist in awards history to have won a Tui award in three consecutive years.

Sharon O'Neill and her partner of 33 years, Alan Mansfield of Dragon fame.

Sharon O'Neill and her partner of 33 years, Alan Mansfield of Dragon fame. Photo: Supplied

O'Neill has lived in Australia for 35 years, but says her ties to New Zealand music are still strong.

“I do more in New Zealand than I ever did before.”

That was due to her involvement with When the Cat’s Away, which includes Annie Crummer, Debbie Harwood, Margaret Urlich and occasionally Shona Laing.

She loves coming back to perform, she says.

“It’s just a force of women. And when we open our voices and sing together it’s the most special strength. It’s really wonderful. It’s a fantastic feeling.”

She also still feels like a New Zealander. “Home is where the heart is. When I go home, my accent comes back completely.”

The big break

Sharon’s big break came in New Zealand when she appeared on the TV talent show The Entertainers, playing her song ‘Luck’s On The Table’.

CBS Records’ NZ manager John McCready saw the show and promptly signed her.

She still loves playing the song.

“I’m partial to a waltz … harking back to my days of loving the Eagles … you cannot go wrong – it gets people’s feet shuffling.”

One of The Eagles eventually ended up on her album Foreign Affairs.

Sharon O'Neill and Elton John in Wellington, 1980 where she and Jon Stevens joined him for a song.

Sharon O'Neill and Elton John in Wellington, 1980 where she and Jon Stevens joined him for a song. Photo: Supplied

"We just needed an extra harmony on one song and my producer [was] John Boylan at the time – he basically was responsible for putting the Eagles together in the first place.

“He left the studio and came back with Don Henley, and I was mortified. I could’ve rolled up in a ball on the floor. Just to hear his voice singing harmonies on one of my songs was an incredible buzz.”

Another one of Sharon’s biggest career thrills was being called on stage by Elton John at his 1980 concert in Wellington, along with fellow musician Jon Stevens. “I just could not believe it.”

“I just could not believe I was standing there with this man who I was such a fan of. So lovely. He was very, very nice and accommodating.”

A style icon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, O'Neill was imitated by young women up and down the country.

Her slightly punky look involved latex, leopard skin, shorter, spiky hair and her trademark shark-tooth earring.

“I think I was verging on a mullet back then," she says.

She made a lot of her own clothes, often out of chamois leather "that you’d normally wash the car with".

“I just got creative in that department because I sort of had to.”

Talking about her chart-smashing hit Maxine – about a King’s Cross prostitute, O'Neill says, “She’s a bit of an icon in my eyes.

Sharon O'Neill and the actress who played Maxine in the Australian video for the song

Sharon O'Neill and the actress who played Maxine in the Australian video for the song Photo: Supplied

“We were in my Kiwi band in King’s Cross, and I’d never seen that side of life before, so I was really concerned about her and just wondered how her life was going to evolve.

“I had no idea that when they did the video clip that they’d have her actually dying, with her toe tagged. That was a bit freaky for me.”

The song was about one particular prostitute, she says.

“When we would come back from a gig in say, Newcastle … she was always there ... like two, three in the morning, and always in the same place.

"I think that’s what got to me. It was just like, ‘Is there no rest?’ No rest for the wicked.”

Aside from being the partner of Dragon keyboardist and producer Alan Mansfield for 33 years, O'Neill's career has been marked by a close relationship with Dragon, having written a number of songs for them in their heyday.

She  told Prime Rocks: Women in Rock in 2015 that the best song she ever penned was for Dragon -  'Young Years'.

She remembers when Marc Hunter was diagnosed with cancer.

Sharon O'Neill: style icon

Sharon O'Neill: style icon Photo: Simon Grigg

“Dragon were about to go on tour … and he just said, ‘Tour’s off.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ He says, ‘No, I’ve got throat cancer.’

"And I thought he was joking because he was a bit of a joker, and I thought it would be just like him to something like that and freak everybody out, and be stupid about it. But no, it was a very real thing.”

Six months later Hunter died.

Despite her lengthy career O'Neill deosn't read music, choosing to play by ear instead.

“That’s kind of important to me. I do suss music out in that way and it’s very heartfelt," she says. "It’s really not on paper to me. It’s just in the heart.”

The Australian connection

In 1981 Sharon toured Australia as support for Boz Scaggs with a young Dave Dobbyn as part of her band.

“We were just a little Kiwi band based in a hotel in King’s Cross, which is where [the idea for] Maxine came from, and to be opening for Boz Scaggs was amazing because it took us to all the big cities … so it was great for us to air our little energy in front of such an amazing artist.”

For several years in the 1980s Sharon’s career took a hit. She was unable to record because of a legal dispute with her Australian label, CBS.

She 's not sure now if she'd do the same again.

“I think about the gap it created in my career, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, because I had papers served to me at my apartment door, so there was not much I could do about it.

“But the overall picture when you look back, you think, ‘Oh god I could’ve avoided that’, but then again – how could I have?”

Sharon released Danced In the Fire in 1987 when the dispute was finally resolved. Its title track is autobiographical and includes the lyrics:

"The lawyers, love and litigation

“Had cut her down to size

“And what seemed like a normal and healthy thing

“Turned into a really ugly dream”

“It’s cathartic," she says.

"I had to just get it off my chest basically. All of that stuff happened in that one moment in time."

The song is still special to her, she says.

“Every time I sing that song I’m there. It’s one of those rare songs. Sometimes you breeze through a song and you’re not completely focused on when and where you wrote it, but with that one I’m there every time."

Early years

The first instrument O'Neill ever got was a zither (a kind of autoharp), which was a much-loved Christmas present.

Sharon O'Neill and her parents in Nelson

Sharon O'Neill and her parents in Nelson Photo: Supplied

She moved on to the guitar, which she taught herself, then the piano after a neighbour donated one to the family. Although she couldn’t read music, the piano was a turning point for her.

She already wrote poetry, and eventually put the two together.

Having cut her teeth in the early folk scene in Nelson in the late 1960s, she moved to Christchurch in 1972 to join 1960s legends Chapta for a few months.

In that same year she released a single on Terence O’Neill-Joyce’s indie label Ode Records – two covers – 'Love Song' (Elton John) and 'Birds' (Neil Young).

After moving to Wellington she did session work at EMI’s Lower Hutt studio and was asked to sing cover versions of foreign hits on the Ready To Roll chart show recorded at TVNZ’s Avalon Studios.

In 1977, encouraged by Shiner guitarist and future husband Brent Thomas, O'Neill began concentrating on songwriting. She won her first award for Best Female Vocalist that same year.

The next year, she appeared on a TV talent show playing an original song and was subsequently signed by the newly formed CBS NZ. She went on to support both Dr Hook and Leo Sayer later that year and won Best Female Vocalist for the second year running.

Her debut album This Heart, This Song was released in February 1979. In June, Sharon released ‘Don't Say No to Tomorrow’ which was featured on a Telethon, and later that year she won Best Female Vocalist at the NZ Music Awards for the third time in a row. By end of the year, she was a star.

Sharon released one more album in New Zealand before she made the move to Australia in 1981. Sharon O'Neill peaked at number three in the New Zealand charts and gained moderate success in Australia.

O'Neill now lives with Mansfield in Cronulla, in a house filled with guitars and keyboards.

She still loves performing: “I'm … what I call a ‘weddings, parties, anything’ girl. I just love playing live,” she said. 

She still has some royalties coming in and spends a lot of time writing songs and "hoping for another hit" - for someone else to sing. She and Mansfield have both written for Robert Palmer. 

Sharon’s contribution to New Zealand music will be acknowledged on 16 November at the 2017 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.