April 5, 2017 – Paul O’Neill (Trans Siberian Orchestra) was born in Flushing, Queens, New York City on February 23, 1956.
The second born child in a household with ten children he was raised in a home filled with art and literature. “Back then, in the 60s, it was OK to be smart and artistic,” he said. “I loved books. I loved music. I loved Broadway — and I had it right down the street, y’know? It really was a special, magical time.” He learned to play guitar and became a rock fan and began playing guitar with a number of rock bands in high school and quickly graduated to folk guitar gigs at downtown clubs.
O’Neill took his first serious musical steps in the mid 1970s when he took his first progressive rock band, Slowburn, into Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York City. It was there that he first met engineer Dave Wittman who had the ability to capture on tape the sounds O’Neill was hearing in his head. Paul ended up shelving the project because he was not happy with final results. (A habit Paul would repeat over the decades much to the frustration of his accountants.) However he has credited Slowburn’s initial failure as one of the luckiest things that could have ever happened to him for it gave him the opportunity to learn the recording and concert business from the inside out.
He landed a position atmanagement company Leber-Krebs Inc., which had launched the careers of Aerosmith, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Ted Nugent, The New York Dolls, Scorpions and Joan Jett among others. Specifically, he worked as the personal assistant of manager David Krebs. In the 1980s, O’Neill became a large rock promoter in Japan, promoting every tour of Madonna and Sting done in that decade, as well the largest rock festivals done in Japan until that time, with such acts as Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Ronnie James Dio.
The path to Trans Siberia Orchestra began with another band, Savatage down in Tarpon Springs Florida, and a series of conceptual albums O’Neill produced, including Hall Of The Mountain King, Gutter Ballet and Streets: A Rock Opera. “I loved the Who’s Tommy and things like that. I was really taken with the idea of using an album to tell a full story,” O’Neill said
He then tapped three members of the band to be part of TSO and intended for it to be a “supergroup,” similar to popular bands like ELO, Pink Floyd and Yes. Especially the band’s guitar player was a young phenomenon by the name of Chris Oliva.
“Criss could play anything you could imagine. He could work a solo around a vocal without stepping on it, and he was one of the few guitarists who knew how to convey the emotion of the human voice with a guitar. He was a combination of the angst of Duane Allman on “Layla”, the excitement of Jimmy Page, the emotion of Eric Clapton, the raw feel of Joe Perry and the dexterity of Eddie Van Halen or Allan Holdsworth.”
Unfortunately Chris Oliva lost his life in a car accident in 1993, which forced O’Neill to reset his compass. In 1996 he decided to take the original concept further, starting TSO with Savatage’s Jon Oliva – Chris Oliva’s older brother – and Al Pitrelli, as well as keyboardist Bob Kinkel. This was to be the nucleus of TSO.
“I wanted Trans-Siberian Orchestra to be everything I loved about rock music — big, bombastic, over the top…,” O’Neill explained. “It was rock but on a grand scale…the mixture of classical and rock, which I obviously got from bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, (and) the rock opera aspect, which I plainly got from The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia. The vision has always been cutting-edge.” “Basically I was building on the work of everybody I worshipped: the rock opera parts from bands like the Who; the marriage of classical and rock from bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen; the over-the-top light show from bands like Pink Floyd… I always wanted to do a full rock opera with a full progressive band and at least 24 lead singers.
O’Neill took the idea to Atlantic Records which, to his surprise, went for it and financed the creation of Romanov which was initially to be TSO’s first release. “We were very fortunate,” he says. “It was one of the only labels left that still did an “old school” kind of artist development.” My original concept was; “We were going to do six rock operas, a trilogy about Christmas and maybe one or two regular albums.”
“When I started Trans-Siberian, I said I wanted to start my own band. I said I wanted to do something different and people said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said I want a prog-rock band, full band, a whole symphony and 24 lead singers. They asked why and I said, ‘This way the band could have no limits. They could go anywhere.’ Most bands have one or two lead singers if they’re lucky.”
However, when Romanov got temporarily put on the back burner, the first installment of the Christmas trilogy, Christmas Eve and Other Stories became TSO’s debut album. Fueled by the single “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24“, which described a lone cello player playing a forgotten holiday song in war-torn Sarajevo, the album went triple platinum. More platinum certifications followed with 1998’s The Christmas Attic, and the final installment of the Christmas trilogy, The Lost Christmas Eve in 2004. In the midst of completing the trilogy, TSO also released their first non-holiday rock opera, Beethoven’s Last Night.
Fans especially love the band’s Christmas tours, (I must admit that I have seen all the entire trilogy LIVE) which are heavy on guitar solos and special effects — similar to a Broadway Christmas pageant with a heavy metal soundtrack. One magazine once wrote that “TSO has enough pyro to BBQ an entire school of blue whales” during a show.
TSO has released eight mostly conceptual albums — including three full-length Christmas-themed works — and an EP. Four of the group’s titles are certified platinum or better, while the single “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” has become a bona fide holiday classic, charting four different times since its 1996 release. And a private homeowner famously used TSO’s “Wizards Of Winter” for an opulent light show that was featured in an ad for the Miller Brewing Co.
But O’Neill, with his signature flowing locks, sunglasses and leather jackets, will always be remembered by fans for his deep generosity. He kept a case of silver dollars with him on tour and would hand out coins to fans from the year they were born. Others recalled him tipping waitresses thousands of dollars for a post-show meal and buying drum sets for young fans.
Paul O’Neill was found unresponsive in his Tampa Florida hotel room, where he had died on April 5, 2017 from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, one of the increasing number of deaths caused by the opioid crisis in prescription drugs.
In the hours after his death, the band said in a statement that O’Neill died from a “chronic illness.” The band wrote on its website in mid-April that O’Neill had several health issues, from chronic spine problems to Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
“For Paul, this was a constant battle, causing him to race against time to write and record as much music as possible, before, like Beethoven, his ears ultimately betrayed him,” the band wrote. At the time of his death, he was writing two rock operas.
The band’s statement said O’Neill overworked himself, spending weeks alone in the studio, jumping around amid bursts of flame on stage and flying around the U.S. with no sleep, all aggravating his chronic spine problems.
“He would gladly do it for the music and for the fans,” the band wrote. “While all witnessed Paul’s seemingly superhuman feats, few witnessed afterward the physical toll these took on him.”