“When I got to meet Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, I was on ‘10’ because he was my salvation,” said Dexter O’Neal of the R&B legend who passed away in 2013.
The leader of central Illinois based Dexter O’Neal and the Funkyard spent his first five years (and summers through his teen years) living with his grandparents in the far east-central Louisiana town of Ferriday. He recalls it fondly, except for the heavy dose of gospel music that permeated the house. It's not that he disliked gospel, but ...
“Bobby Bland and B.B. King were the only two secular artists I was allowed to listen to in my grandmother’s house,” he laughed. “So every summer when we were out of school for three months … that’s a long time to be somewhere and be exposed to secular music. So he (Bland) thought that was hilarious and said, ‘That’s the country for you.’”
If you learn Dexter O’Neal’s first cousin is hip-hop/R&B star Usher and the late renowned jazz/R&B keyboardist Delmar Brown was a second cousin, his early obsession with music would be no surprise.
“My grandmother and mother first noticed and nurtured it,” said O’Neal. “I got my first guitar at 3, and that was probably the first time I played in front of an audience.”
What might surprise you is he didn’t inherit that talent directly.
“I love my mom and she might be a little embarrassed by this, but she can’t clap on beat nor carry a tune in a bucket,” laughed O’Neal, who believes his parents' lack of music ability actually motived them to make sure his obvious talent didn’t wither on the vine.
O’Neal was born during his parents' freshman year of college, which explains the first four years of his life with his grandparents in Ferriday.
“Then when my parents decided to move up here (Bloomington) because of opportunities, my dad got signed by the (NFL’s) Kansas City Chiefs. But we had a big deposit of families in Bloomington and my mom had no desire to live in Kansas City.”
And grandfather had no desire to give up young Dexter, who he considered a son.
“He said ‘I raised this boy, he’s mine.’ So he would come and get me (from Bloomington) every summer. “As soon as school was out, he’d drive up and bring me back. So I spent summers in Louisiana for the first 16, 17 years of my life,” said O’Neal.
In Bloomington, Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church was his salvation.
“They’ve always had great gospel choirs,” said O’Neal of the iconic church on Bloomington’s west side. “I always thought it was fortuitous that I was coming from one place that was programming me for music to another place that was great at it, and that they encouraged singers.”
As he alluded, it was also a place for extended family.
“I always tell people, jokingly, that I had so much family at Mt. Pisgah at the time that it was easier to point out the people that WEREN’T related to me than the ones that were,” said O’Neal.
Bloomington via Kansas City is also where he acquired a love of jazz. Did you remember his father played professional football?
“My dad was a jazz fan, and because he was in Kansas City, he got to meet Count Basie, Duke Ellington and a lot of those guys. But my dad was not a player, though he was an avid listener. So I grew up listening to jazz because it was one of my dad’s passions and loves,” said O’Neal.
At Bloomington High School, choral music director Tim Pinkham further inspired him and encouraged him to study jazz.
“When I went to nationals my junior year,” recalled O’Neal, “I had a chance to sing choral or jazz music. I choose jazz.”
“The freedoms, right?” said O’Neal. “The choral music was structured, and in jazz I was allowed to be improvisational. And I LOVED that part of it. You could always add on to it and it was the beautiful colors that they painted. The improvisational nature of jazz was almost like gospel. You were trying to evoke emotion … you were trying to get it out of other people by the way you sang it, played it, or felt it. And jazz is the same way.”
That's how he approaches Dexter O’Neal & the Funkyard. He notes that jazz used to be dance music, and popular, pointing to Count Basie as the Justin Timberlake of his day and Duke Ellington then as popular as any artist now.
“For me, it became more about the musician's persona, and their attitude toward that music with how difficult it was,” said O’Neal. “Jazz and classical music are the two most difficult kinds of music to play. So at that point, jazz artists just wanted to be revered like classical artists. But that distanced themselves from their audience.”
O’Neal appreciated the sentiment, but wanted The Funkyard to be dance music that was fun and funky.
“I don’t think my general public really knows what chord progression I’m playing. I just know if they recognize the song, they’re more likely to dance to it.”
Boundaries evaporate when O’Neal is on stage.
“To me, it’s taking all your influences, tying them together, and then delivering. And at any given time, give your audience something new. Can I take something like Steve Miller’s ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ and flip it to where it doesn’t sound like it, but it sounds like something I would like to play,” said O’Neal. "To change those classic tunes that are beautiful and then add those beautiful jazz colors to it. I think I’ve found a niche where people receive that.”
Dexter O'Neal and the Funkyard plays Jazz UpFront in downtown Bloomington on Friday, March 30. Music begins at 8 p.m. Future dates include Blues For a Cause at The Monarch Music Hall in Peoria on April 13.
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