Gilbert O’Sullivan returns to U.S. concert stages next week for the first time in 43 years, with shows in New York and Philadelphia. And he hopes it’s the beginning of righting a wrong decision that was made back during the mid-70s.
“It’s classic,” the hitmaker behind the Grammy Award-nominated “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Get Down” and “Clair” tells Billboard about his absence from this side of the pond — which ends July 9 at Manhattan’s City Winery and the next night at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. “After having three million-sellers I was ready for my first tour of America, so the decision that my manager at the time had to make — and I had nothing to do with it — was should I go and do my own shows and play big venues in Europe or come to America and support the Moody Blues?” O’Sullivan’s management opted to instead put him out as a headliner in all territories, which — despite a successful performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall — proved to be “a wonderful disaster” in the U.S., where the tour was eventually aborted.
“We had a fantastic orchestra and a private plane and it was wonderful, but as we continued there weren’t that many people,” O’Sullivan recalls. “Just because you sell millions of records it doesn’t guarantee bums on seats. I wasn’t involved enough, but obviously looking back at this it was the wrong decision to send me out there without having the experience of doing support. So that’s the story.”
After some career ups and downs, O’Sullivan returned to active live performing during the mid-00s and has been releasing music steadily, including 2018’s well-received self-titled effort, produced by Ethan Johns. He played some shows to introduce that release in an “intimate and up close and personal” duo format with guitarist Bill Shanley — which is how O’Sullivan is electing to play his U.S. shows.
“I have a great band, and it’s a large band, and we’ve been doing shows for about 15 years now,” O’Sullivan says. “So once I did this (duo) we would meet people who have seen the band and love the band, and I would ask, obviously, ‘What do you think of this?’ In many instances they said they liked it more because they felt like I was singing to them, that intimacy you get when it’s just two people. I think if every song I had was, ‘I love you, you love me,’ there would be a problem. But I think I have interesting lyrics, and in the quiet of just the two of us they perhaps get through more than they might with the band. So we’ve kept on with it, and it’s worked out really well thus far. And since I’m re-introducing myself to American audiences with these shows, this seemed like the right way to do it.”
O’Sullivan has more European dates set up during the remainder of the year, as well as a plan to return to the U.S. next spring (he’s not saying where yet). O’Sullivan hopes the U.S. will become a regular part of his annual touring itinerary, but he acknowledges that absence has left him with something to prove. “The (venues) didn’t want to give us more than one because they don’t know me,” O’Sullivan says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s a guy who hasn’t been there in so many years. They don’t know what it’s going to be like. So they were very wary; We had to work really hard to even get this. So if we go down well and the reaction is good, we could be doing quite a few more dates covering the country. I’d certainly like that.”