he Beatles touched many lives in the early Sixties, including that of Raymond Edward O'Sullivan, an Irish-born art student living in England. After being inspired by their music, he junked his major and talked his mother into buying him a piano. He began to practice at home, but played so loud (he still breaks notes) that his mother made him move the piano out into the garden shed. Before long, he was writing and arranging his own songs, and he found work in a number of local bands.
After college, Ray headed for the bright lights of London, but ended up in the mail room of a large department store. He wouldn't give up, though, and at night made tapes, which he sent out to anyone who would listen. On a rainy Sunday in 1969, one found its way to Gordon Mills, the manager of Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink. Gordon liked what he heard and set Ray up in a small bungalow, just down the road from his own house. In order to make his new protege feel right at home, he also trucked in all of Ray's personal possessions, which included, among other things, four pianos and a giant collection of ancient bus tokens.
At that time, Ray was a rather eccentric dresser. He was nearly twenty-three years old, yet he looked like a ten-year-old schoolboy. He wore shorts cut off at the knee, shirts with upturned collars, and a funny little cap that was far too small for him. Gordon changed all that, putting Ray into a letterman's sweater, complete with a capital "G" (this idea came from an old Jerry Lewis movie), and getting him to grow sideburns. Gordon also wanted Ray to change his name. Reluctantly, he decided to adapt the names of the popular nineteenth-century operettists Gilbert and Sullivan.
In 1970, Gilbert O'Sullivan released his first single, "Nothing Rhymed," which became a #1 record in England. A couple more hits followed, and then came the song that established his name on both sides of the Atlantic -- "Alone Again (Naturally)."
"Alone Again (Naturally)" was first released in the States in the summer of 1972 and first caught fire in Philadelphia. Before long, it had sold more than three million copies and earned three Grammy Award nominations (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year). In his native Ireland, Gilbert was voted Top International Singer of 1972, and in England, he was named Songwriter of the Year by the Songwriters' Guild of Great Britain. UPI also offered Gilbert an award, but it's doubtful that Gilbert accepted. They called him "the worst potential influence on the direction of pop music since Tiny Tim." They gave his record their "Schlock Rock Trophy" of the year.
Gilbert went on to score one other platinum single in 1972, "Clair," his ode to the young daughter of his manager, Gordon Mills. The next year there were three more good sellers: "Out of the Question," "Get Down," and "Ooh Baby." After that, though, success seemed to elude him. "It was like being on a conveyer belt," said O'Sullivan, "and suddenly stopping halfway there." He tried several other numbers, but nothing else would click. By the end of the decade, he had stopped recording completely.
"Show business," said O'Sullivan, "is the phoniest, most ridiculous business in the world." Nevertheless, in the early Eighties, Gilbert began a slow comeback, by signing with Epic Records. "Writing music is all I live for, and everything else comes a poor second."
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