After the four year legal dispute with CBS, O’Neill tried to rebuild her career with two albums for Polydor. But when I met her in an Auckland hotel lounge on a promo trip to Auckland, she was adamant that I hide the magazine with her name on it. The singer who sought fame in the late 70s seemed to value her anonymity a decade later.
O’Neill’s desire for privacy means she is cagey about what her dispute with CBS was specifically about. Her conflict years with CBS Australia also coincided with O’Neill ending her marriage to guitarist Brent Thomas and her relationship with her manager and brother-in-law Grant Thomas.
In Shake! magazine (Dec 1987) O’Neill advised, “Take a record contract to a couple of lawyers. Get the fine print checked out. I was quite surprised it happened to me. You have to be careful with the business side of it.”
What we do know is that O’Neill had a perfect working relationship from 1978 to 1981 with CBS New Zealand and John McCready, the MD who signed her. When he moved to CBS Australia he was there for the planning stage of recording the Foreign Affairs album in Los Angeles.
the chance to record in Los Angeles was a dream fulfilled.
The singer’s recordings had grown in confidence, substance and budget in her time with CBS NZ but the chance to record in Los Angeles was a dream fulfilled.
The singer told Real Groove (October 2001): “Recording Foreign Affairs was a highlight for me because it was done on the West Coast of the USA with a very important person in my life at the time, John Boylan [who produced Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s], who was so enthusiastic over my songs and pulled it all together and pulled in so many friends."
“Tom Scott on sax on ‘Maxine’. One day we were missing a harmony on one track and John Boylan the producer said, ‘Hang on cutie’ as he used to call me and left the room and he came back with Don Henley. He just happened to be in the building and came in a sang the harmony and left and that was that. Totally gratis. That was unbelievable as I was such a fan of the Eagles. Karla Bonoff, Timothy B. Schmidt, Bill Payne. I could go on, wonderful people.”
O’Neill was a long way from LA when she got her first break in the NZ music scene. She lived at home in Nelson performing folk music until she was almost 20. In 1972 she moved to Christchurch to join 1960s legends Chapta for a few months and then briefly joined The Rumour in Auckland. “I think I was the token ‘let’s get a female in the band person’,” she told Real Groove.
In 1972 O’Neill released a single on Terence O’Neill-Joyce’s indie label Ode Records – two covers – 'Love Song' (Elton John) b/w 'Birds' (Neil Young). Once the singer settled in Wellington, Sharon O’Neill did session work at EMI’s Lower Hutt studio and was asked to sing cover versions of foreign hits on the Ready to Roll chart show that taped at TVNZ’s Avalon Studios.
When John McCready opened CBS Records' first NZ office in 1978, he was keen to develop a New Zealand roster of recording artists. In his online blog (Dec 28, 2009) he recalls discovering Sharon O’Neill while watching television.
“Although Sharon O’Neill had been around the local music scene for a few years I was not aware of her. Watching a talent contest show, I came across Sharon singing ‘Luck’s On Your Table’. I thought she was just fantastic and was surprised that her wonderful song and performance only got her only 3rd place. I was sure I had come across an artist who would be worth signing as our CBS New Zealand’s first local artist.”
“I found that Terry O’Neill-Joyce, a well-known Wellington record producer had actually completed a whole album with Sharon in conjunction with Radio NZ. Better still ‘Luck’s On Your Table’ was included. I negotiated an agreement with all concerned parties to release the album on CBS and with Sharon to sign with us for future recordings: Sharon also signed with us as a songwriter.”
In 2001, O’Neill reflected, “It was very important. I know for a fact that John [McCready] was only interested in signing me because I had original material. That to me was fantastic. It was a bit scary when somebody of John’s status said ‘I really believe these songs are going to work and we are going to market these and they are going to happen for you’.”
For her second album Sharon O’Neill (1980) the ambitious McCready used Wellington’s classy Marmalade Studio and US producer Jay Lewis. The record executive wanted O’Neill to be selling albums on both sides of the Tasman. The album was retitled Words in Australia. McCready recalls, “Jay with his brilliant production managed to enhance Sharon’s wonderful songs.”
The late 1970s was a disco/rock/punk/reggae whirlpool, but local music writers loved O’Neill’s work included Peter Thomson in Rip It Up and Gordon Campbell in the NZ Listener. Campbell wrote, “There are at least four tracks on Sharon O’Neill that are the equal of anything Linda Ronstadt is capable of. Two songs ‘Asian Paradise’ and ‘Southern Blues’ are marvelously evocative mood pieces.” In a story headed “Soft rock, hard sell” Campbell even praised her ambitious record company. “CBS deserve a lot of credit for having both the interest and the courage to put up the $30,000 that it took to make this album.”
Maybe – O’Neill’s third NZ album – was released in 1981 and the title track reached No.12 on the NZ Singles Chart.
O’Neill’s third NZ album Maybe was released in 1981 and the title track reached No.12 on the NZ Singles Chart. By this stage John McCready had moved to CBS Australia, initially as the Marketing Manager, but he was soon MD. He secured Sharon and her band the opening spot on the Boz Scaggs tour with Dave Dobbyn guesting on guitar and vocal harmonies.
O’Neill then made the move to live in Australia where the 1980s were a mixed bag – she initially enjoyed massive success with Foreign Affairs and then several years out of work (ie. unable to record), due to the legal stoush with CBS.
She told Shake! (Dec 1987), “So I just wrote songs and did a lot of travelling, The States, London.” O’Neill also wrote with new partner Alan Mansfield of Dragon whom she met on Dragon’s 1984 Body And The Beat Tour of New Zealand.
By 1987 O’Neill had a new deal with Polydor UK and a single ‘Danced In The Fire’. She told Real Groove in 2001, “I was very fortunate I got that deal. A friend, Roger Davies, who was managing Tina Turner secured the Polydor deal out of the UK for me. Unfortunately being done out of the UK probably was a mistake. I put a lot of hard work into [the two albums for Polydor] but the last album Edge Of Winter  is as scarce as hens’ teeth, I’ve only got one copy. They only made a certain amount.”
Occasionally, O’Neill has made return visits home to record: in 2001, as a member of a reunited When the Cat’s Away; in 2006, alongside Johnny Devlin, Shane, and Larry Morris in The Best of The Best tour; even, in 2017, a home town gig in Nelson.
O'Neill was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in November 2017.