Gilbert O’Sullivan was born Raymond Edward O’Sullivan on December 1, 1946 in Waterford in Ireland. His father worked in a meat factory while his mother ran a sweet shop. In 1953 he moved with his family to Swindon in England in search of a better life. He attended St. Joseph’s Comprehensive school in Swindon. While there he developed an interest in both music and amateur boxing. Musically, he began with the guitar and progressed to the piano. In the boxing ring he had nearly 50 bouts. Meanwhile, his painting and drawing had won him a place at Swindon Art College. He started there in September 1963. His aim was to be a graphic designer. He played drums in his first group The Doodles and left them to join The Prefects while attending Swindon Art College. It was while at college that he met Rick Davies, who was later a member of Supertramp. While at college he began writing songs and sending out demo tapes, alas they were always returned unopened. The first song he remembers writing was “Ready Miss Steady”.
After finishing college, Gilbert moved to London in 1967 to try and further his musical career. He took a part-time job as a salesman at the C & A department store in Oxford Street. Mike Ward who also worked at C & A, had a contract with CBS and Gilbert went with him one day and played his tapes for some of the CBS executives.
Gilbert signed a five year publishing contract with CBS which called for one single a year, and released two singles “Disappear”/”You” in 1967 and “What Can I Do”/”You” in 1968. Gilbert was disappointed that he was not allowed any input into the arranging or production of the singles. Neither single did well. The Tremeloes, who were also on the CBS record label recorded “You” for their Here Comes The Tremeloes album and “Come on Home” for their Alan, Dave, Rick And Chip album, both released in 1967. [“Come on Home” is one of Gilbert’s unrecorded songs and his version of the song wasn’t heard until the 2007 tour]. Disillusioned with CBS, Gilbert signed with the Major Minor label and released “I Wish I Could Cry”/”Mr. Moody’s Garden” in 1969.
Gilbert came to the attention of BBC Radio 1 disc jockey, John Peel, who gave him a slot on his radio show Top Gear but little of note resulted, and O’Sullivan spent part of 1969 applying to other record labels and management companies. It was at this time that Gilbert formulated his “Bisto Kid” image; grey flannel suit, flat cap, school boy tie, football socks and hobnail boots. In search of a manager he sent some demo tapes to Gordon Mills, an ex-pop singer and himself a songwriter of repute, who had successfully guided the careers of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. Gordon Mills recognized something unique in the young Irishman and signed him for management as well as to a songwriting contract.
Gilbert made an irresistible impression with “Nothing Rhymed”, his first Top Ten hit and an introduction to his witty lyrics and original approach as a singer/songwriter. Signed to MAM Records, the label launched by Gordon Mills, who was also his record producer, great friend and surrogate older brother, O’Sullivan enjoyed four years of major success, incorporating a dozen more hit singles, ten of which reached the UK Top Ten, and four Top Five albums: Himself (1971), Back to Front (1972), I’m A Writer Not A Fighter (1973) and A Stranger in My Own Back Yard (1974). November 1970 saw Gilbert’s first of many appearances on Top of the Pops and in June 1971 he recorded a special BBC TV “In Concert” program. In March 1972 Gilbert was the subject of a BBC documentary “Sounding Out” which showed Gilbert in his work-room, singing and accompanying himself on the piano, and chatting about how he composes his music, etc.
Both “Clair” (written about Mills’s infant daughter for whom Gilbert occasionally babysat) and “Get Down” were number one hit singles in Britain, and additionally, “Back to Front” topped the UK LP chart in 1972, emulating the success of the two million-seller “Alone Again (Naturally)”, a six-week US chart-topper in 1972. Gilbert made his live debut in The National Stadium in Dublin in October of 1972. The BBC recorded and broadcast the “Music of Gilbert O’Sullivan” in December 1972. This was a music program featuring Gilbert accompanied by the Johnnie Spence Orchestra. Around this time, the singer jettisoned his so-called “Bisto Kid” image in favor of an endless series of collegiate-styled sweaters embossed with the letter “G”. In April 1973 Gilbert is named “Songwriter of the Year” at the 18th Annual Ivor Novello Awards. In May he began his 18 city UK Tour at London’s Royal Festival Hall. In September, his first and only tour of the U.S. commenced and he finished the year with sold-out shows in the London Palladium. Gilbert won a second Ivor Novello award in 1974. This time for the “Best Song of the Year” for his composition “Get Down”.
As quickly as O’Sullivan ascended to fame, however, his star began to fall, although singles like “Ooh Baby” and “Happiness is Me and You” continued to chart, they sold increasingly fewer copies, and after 1973 his overseas popularity essentially ceased altogether. At home, he notched his final Top 20 hit with 1975’s “I Don’t Love You But I Think I Like You”. October 1976 saw Gilbert on Irish TV in “Me And My Music” being interviewed by Vincent Hanley and answering questions from fans in the audience. Gilbert performs “To Each His Own”, “Clair”, “Nothing Rhymed”, “Something I Believe”, “Matrimony” and “What’s in A Kiss?” After a Greatest Hits album in 1976, the year closed with Gilbert performing ten songs in “Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Greatest Hits” on ITV. Gilbert’s fifth album Southpaw was released in 1977, by which time the hit singles had dried up, disagreements over future direction led to a bitter split between O’Sullivan and Mills, which effectively sidelined the former as a recording artist for five years. The grueling court case between O’Sullivan and his erstwhile manager, producer, music publisher and record company boss finally gave him control of his own recordings and the copyright in his songs, although it exacted an inevitable toll on his energy and his creativity during it’s precedent-setting course.
Gilbert set out on a UK tour in 1978 backed by a four piece band called Wilder. The tour started in Belfast and ended in Slough. Along the way they also recorded a BBC television special called “Sight & Sound” which was recorded in January and broadcast in February 1978 and featured nine songs.
In January 1980 Gilbert married his Norwegian girlfriend Aase and later that year their first daughter Helen-Marie was born.
Gilbert returned to CBS in 1980 and released Off Centre (1980) and Life & Rhymes (1982) but maintained a low profile during much of the 1980s, recharging his batteries and moving to the Channel Island Jersey. Gilbert presented an ITV special in January 1981 with special guest Barbara Dickson. Off Centre provided his thirteenth UK Top 20 single, “What’s in A Kiss?”, after which legal proceedings monopolized his time. In preparation for the legal battle ahead, Gilbert sold his home in Weybridge, Surrey and moved to Bunclody in Ireland. He did this because artists are exempt from income tax in Ireland. Tara, his second daughter was born in 1984. Gilbert released no new material between 1982 and 1987.
The first release for five years was Frobisher Drive in 1987 and was only available in Germany. Frobisher Drive was the name of the road on which Gilbert lived in Swindon but the photograph on the album sleeve was taken on Gold Hill in Shaftsbury in the UK. The same album with a slightly different track listing was released in the UK in 1989 under the title “In The Key of G”, and included “So What”, his first chart single in almost a decade.
Gilbert also made a return to live performances in the early nineties, playing regularly in both Europe and Japan. October 1990 saw the release in Japan of the Original Collection on the Kitty record label. This consisted of Gilbert’s first five albums on CD along with a 3-inch CD single of “Alone Again (Naturally)” / “Save It” and a booklet.
In 1991, Gilbert was again in court, this time he sued American rapper Biz Markie and won the decision after Markie’s unauthorized sample of “Alone Again (Naturally)” on his 1991 album I Need a Haircut. Later that year “Sounds of the Loop” was released in Japan. Among the tracks was a duet with Japanese singer Takao Kisugi on “Can’t Think Straight”. A 1992 single, “Tomorrow Today” had topped the Japanese charts for nine weeks, and this success led to a tour of Japan in early 1993 with his newly formed backing group, during which he recorded and filmed his first ever live album Tomorrow Today. Gilbert’s newfound success in Japan led to the Japanese only release of The Little Album (1992) and Rare Tracks (1992). The 1993 UK release of Sounds of The Loop was critically acclaimed (Daily Telegraph’s Record of The Week) and this time included a duet with the legendary Peggy Lee on “Can’t Think Straight”. The Norwegian release of the album has a “Can’t Think Straight” duet with Kirstin Siggard, while in Spain the duet was with Silvia Torisa. This album was recorded almost entirely at his home in Jersey in the Channel Islands.
“By Larry” (with a similar track listing to the Japanese released The Little Album) was released in 1994. Larry is a famous English cartoonist, much admired by Gilbert. Larry provided original cartoons for the album sleeve and booklet. “Every Song Has It’s Play” was released the following year and was the soundtrack of the semi-autobiographical stage show that Gilbert had acted and sang in, in 1991.
Singer Sowing Machine was released in 1997. The title is a humorous reaction by Gilbert to being constantly referred to as a singer/ songwriter. Irlish was released in 2000 and yielded three singles, “Have It”, “Say Goodbye” and “Two’s Company (Three is Allowed)”. The album title “Irlish”, combination of the words Irish and English, appropriate for someone born in Ireland and raised in England. Gilbert’s family was part of this migration. In 2001 The Official Gilbert O’Sullivan Website was launched as well as his own record label ByGum Records.
Gilbert continued to tour and he played a series of concerts in Ireland in 2001 and in the UK in 2002 to promote the Irlish album. A new studio album Piano Foreplay followed in 2003. In 2004 Rhino Handmade Records released a three CD anthology in the USA of Gilbert’s music entitled Caricature: The Box. It contains 73 tracks which span the years 1967-2001. This is the first in-depth survey of Gilbert’s lengthy career. It contains numerous singles and B-sides, tracks from 16 of his albums, and five previously unreleased tracks. A B-side collection entitled The Other Sides of Gilbert O’Sullivan was released in Japan in 2004 and contained many tracks available on CD for the first time.
A series of concerts followed in Japan in June 2004 followed by a 20-date European Tour of the UK, Ireland, Norway and Denmark in November and December. In February 2005 a DVD/CD set of the 2004 Japanese show was released in Japan. Gilbert returned to Japan in June 2005 for a series of thirteen shows. Gilbert spent the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006 recording his next studio album A Scruff At Heart, which was released in Japan in October 2006. In 2007 Gilbert joined the digital age, with some of his albums available for download on iTunes and the showing on YouTube the video of his first downloadable single; “Just So You Know”. A UK release of A Scruff At Heart followed in June 2007 with one change to the track list. A second downloadable single “You Can’t Con-crete” was made available in September. October and November saw a very successful fourteen-date tour of Ireland and the UK. The line-up included a string quartet, a band and backing singers, totaling eleven in all. Gilbert toured in Europe in May 2008 playing in Zurich, Paris, Antwerp and Amsterdam. In June he played at the Glastonbury Festival and October sees him play six nights in Dublin at the Olympia Theatre as well as dates in Derry, Belfast, Glasgow and Gateshead. A new downloadable single “Never Say Die” was released in July. Gilbert returned to recording studio in November in London to record four new songs with a large orchestra.
Gilbert traveled to Nashville in March 2009 to record more new tracks for his next album. He returned to live performances with two shows on his first visit to Israel in May and followed that with a show in Cork in June. UK dates followed in October with shows in York, Manchester and at The Royal Albert Hall in London. Gilbert’s revealed that the title of his new album was to be Gilbertville and he hoped to see it released in May 2010. Gilbert and his band played a nine date tour in Ireland in March 2010, including three dates at the brand new state-of-the-art Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin. “Out on His Own”, a fly on the wall documentary about Gilbert’s career was broadcast on RTE 1 [Ireland] in April 2010. Gilbert joined the Hypertension record label in August 2010. The “Christmas Song” was remixed and re-mastered and released in December.
The new album Gilbertville was released in January 2011, along with the first single from the album “All They Wanted to Say”. Gilbert and his eleven-piece band did a short our of the UK to promote Gilbertville.
Boasting fourteen brand new, band-backed songs and even an O’Sullivan-penned poem read by friend and comedian Harry Hill, Gilbertville will, no doubt, please those who have followed Gilbert’s long career and those who remember dancing to his early hits alike. Stand-out tracks include “Missing You Already”, a splendid little love song complete with orchestral backing; “Here’s Why”, a Fats Domino-inspired rock ‘n roll number that features stunning vocals from up-and-coming singer Hayley Sanderson and “Where Would We Be (Without Tea)”, a beautifully whimsical song that addresses our ongoing love affair with a nice cuppa. There’s also “All They Wanted to Say”, a song that successfully marries the sadness of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the bitter-sweet song-writing of “Alone Again (Naturally)”.
Those who know Gilbert’s back-catalogue will not be surprised to find songs with such a strong message as “All They Wanted to Say” and “Talking of Murder” - as a lyricist, Gilbert has never shied away from using those delicious melody lines to convey some of his more political feelings. Another welcome addition to this album is “Private Eye” - a song that, like so many others in Gilbert’s back-catalogue, exposes the song-writer’s adroit handling of songs with echoes of musical theatre. You’d be forgiven for thinking Andrew Lloyd Webber himself had been involved in the composition, and for wondering why Gilbert hasn’t wandered down the path beaten by his famous namesakes.
Thanks to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s unwavering commitment to his song-writing and his disregard for any attempt to regain the popularity of his early career by resorting to novelty or self-parody, here we have another pleasing example of the Gilbert we’re glad to have around, even if you didn’t know that he never went away.