Gilbert O’Sullivan is showing me a framed portrait of himself with Muhammad Ali, in which the young Irishman is attempting to land punches on The Greatest. It was 1973. The singer-songwriter – an accomplished schoolboy boxer until he “started getting hurt” – had successfully asked the champion heavyweight to do some publicity photos for his latest album, I’m a Writer, Not a Fighter.
“It’s funny,” he says, “but whenever anyone comes round they say, ‘We know who he is [gesturing at Ali], but who’s the other fella?”
The previous year, “the other fella” had become the biggest-selling British-based solo artist in the world: bigger than Elton John, Rod Stewart or David Bowie. His sweet, affecting tunes and wry, poignant, often colloquial wordplay landed him three Ivor Novello awards and six No 1s with songs such as Get Down and Clair. Alone Again (Naturally) topped the US charts for six weeks. Then he disappeared below the radar, his career derailed by court cases and changing fashions.
“From the mid-70s onwards, no music paper would interview me,” he says, blaming the Charlie Chaplin jacket, cap and pudding basin haircut he had adopted early on so he stood out: a sort of proto-Peaky Blinders. “If there ever was a review, it would say: ‘Isn’t this the guy who wears a cap and boots and looks ridiculous?’”
Now a youthful 75-year-old, O’Sullivan lives in Jersey with his Norwegian wife of 42 years, Aase (“pronounced ‘orsa’ as in ‘orse and cart’”), but we meet in his daughter’s London kitchen, where he cuts a casually dressed, gently spoken, genial presence. In recent years, the world has come round to him again. Artists from Morrissey to Pet Shop Boys have covered his songs, and 2018’s eponymous album – his 19th – was his first Top 20 offering of new material since 1974. “I never lost the belief in what I do,” he says, smiling from beneath a mass of slightly greying hair. “For me, success was always writing a good song.”
This, he tells me, remains every bit the obsession it was when he started on an upright piano in his mother’s shed (which now stands, complete with instrument, in his garden). Thirteen new songs appear on his forthcoming album, which features KT Tunstall and Mick Hucknall. The title, Driven, describes him well.
“Writing songs is all I’ve ever done from the age of 14 and I never lost the joy of that process,” says the singer, who keeps office hours when in writing mode. “Ever since I was a youngster my philosophy was always: ‘You might not be as good as you think you are, but thinking you are is good.’”
Born Raymond Edward O’Sullivan in Waterford, Ireland, one of six siblings, to a meat packer and shop owner, music provided an outlet during a “not great childhood”. When he was seven, his family relocated to a Swindon council house in search of a better life. He doesn’t recall being affected by the era’s “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” mentality, but had no close friends, suffered from recurring dyspepsia and cystitis, lost his father to stomach cancer when he was 12 and experienced “a bit of bullying. I remember defending myself against another kid in the playground, while everyone egged him on.”
Many working-class households had a piano in those days and inspiration arrived with the Beatles. “They wrote fantastic songs that we identify with, and hadn’t needed a degree or GCE to do it.” Like the Fab Four, the young Irishman couldn’t read or write music. “So before I got a tape recorder I wrote my songs down using notes and arrows,” he says. “Then in the morning, I wouldn’t have a clue what it meant.”
After a “magical” time studying art at Swindon College (where he played in Rick’s Blues with future Supertramp founder Rick Davies), some hapless episodes followed, such as sending a cassette of songs to the Troggs manager-producer Larry Page, realising it was his only copy and traipsing all the way to London to get it back (Page’s secretary found it in the bin). Then came the big break, after moving to the capital he sent a tape to Tom Jones’s svengali, Gordon Mills. “His secretary said that when Gordon first saw the pictures he went: ‘Who’s this idiot writing to me?!’ But he really liked the songs.” Enough to sign O’Sullivan up and move him into a bungalow on his Weybridge estate in Surrey. Mills had a private zoo and asked the singer to babysit a small tiger on the sofa. “Gordon said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s only a cub. It won’t attack you.’”
O’Sullivan was in the bungalow when he wrote Alone Again (Naturally), surely one of the darkest No 1s in pop, in which the young protagonist ponders the impact of his father’s death. He has lost count of the numerous people – myself included – who have told him that song sings their life, but is adamant none of it is autobiographical.
“You’ve got to give me credit as a writer,” he says. “You don’t have to experience something to be able to write about it in a genuinely sympathetic way. I think I have an understanding of the things I get into.” He had been upstairs in the bathroom when word came that his father had died in hospital, and remembers his sister screaming. “But the truth is I never ‘cried when my father died’ [as the song says]. I was very teary when my mother passed away four years ago, but I never really knew my dad, because he was out at work. I regret that, and he would have been proud of me.” When Neil Diamond covered the song in 2010, he remarked that it was “difficult to understand how somebody that young could write something like that”.
Unlike his contemporaries, O’Sullivan didn’t embrace success or excess, shunning red-carpet invitations (when he was nominated for a Grammy, Mills said “You have to go!”) and preferring home to touring. “I was too shy to get many girlfriends, and I wouldn’t let relationships become serious in case it interfered with my work.”
He could be – and admits he still can be – endearingly naive. He spent hours designing a new image for his first tour, basing it on American cops, with a military-type shirt and badges, which he’s still rather proud of, noting that Bryan Ferry did something similar later. “Gordon said: ‘You can’t go on like that. They’ll think you’re a bloody Nazi!’”
He remembers being in the office when a cheque to him for a million pounds arrived, but was told “they’re taking 90% of it”. He eventually bought a house in Weybridge, 10 minutes walk from the Mills, but when he visited Elton John’s mansion, he was “gobsmacked” at the luxury, returning home to “an empty lounge with nothing on the walls”. When he went to Las Vegas with the Mills, Gordon’s wife, Jo, had to lend him money for souvenirs.
By the mid-70s, things weren’t going as well. Instead of letting his client tour the US with the Moody Blues, his manager put O’Sullivan straight into arenas – hugely ambitious for a first US tour, even after a No 1 – and the tour was pulled halfway through due to poor ticket sales.
“But it was a wonderful disaster. We had an orchestra, and played songs on the plane.” When O’Sullivan wanted to use other producers – as had Rod Stewart and Elton John – Mills told him: “‘If I’m not going to produce your records, nobody will.’ So I had to make that terrible decision to break up with Gordon.”
They parted amicably until he reminded Mills about a pre-fame agreement to share 50% of the rights to songs which were, after all, the singer’s compositions. “Gordon told me to come to the office to sort that out,” he says. “But when I got there they told me to fuck off.” So he sued, opening “a can of worms”, including the [then commonplace] conflict of interest where the same person was manager, producer and record company.
“It was very sad,” the singer sighs. “I had a fantastic lawyer – a Rumpole of the Bailey – that tore Gordon to shreds. I don’t think he knew why he was there. He just assumed his lawyers would take care of it, but the judge gave me everything [£7m in unpaid royalties] plus the shirt.” The 1982 judgment became a landmark case, later cited by Elton John and George Michael and protecting generations of musicians, but it was a pyrrhic victory, costing O’Sullivan a “father figure” and his closeness with Mills’s family. The case stopped him recording and afterwards he felt blackballed by elements of the industry. “I’d done something that nobody had done before and won,” he says
After meeting Aase, an air hostess, the singer ploughed his energies into family life, telling the Jersey authorities that they should let him live there because “I’m not the kind of pop star who throws TVs through windows.”
In 1990, he released an Italian house single as Go’Ss, which got to No 70. “My last hit,” he says. “Once people found out it was me, it plummeted down the charts.”
In 1991, he sued again after the rapper Biz Markie sampled Alone Again (Naturally) in a comedy rap, which its creator felt insulted the song’s sincerity. “They asked to use it and I said no, but they went ahead anyway. The judge said if they didn’t withdraw the track he’d have every Warners Brothers product removed from the shelves. The shit hit the fan. I wish I hadn’t had to do it, but I’d been wronged.” It was another landmark ruling, establishing the laws on copyright infringement regarding sampling.
Otherwise, he spent the 90s trying to rebuild his career, before a 2004 compilation of his hits went Top 20, and songwriters such as Paul Weller and Glenn Tilbrook started acknowledging his influence. In 2008 he was invited to play Glastonbury, but his two performances overran. “I wrote a long apologetic letter to Michael Eavis,” he sighs, “but they’ve never had me back. My agent didn’t talk to me for three months.”
Nine years ago, he got in touch with Mills’s widow, Jo, for the first time in decades. “She’d been through the mill, been married again and had everything taken away from her. My brother and I drove her home. She was living in a little room in a cheap apartment. It was heartbreaking. This is a woman who’d had a mansion, but she wasn’t in the slightest bit bitter. I’m glad we reconnected because she’s since passed away.”
In 2017, he performed at the Proms in Hyde Park. In the audience, apparently close to tears, was Clair Mills, the Mills’s daughter and the subject of his first British No 1, Clair. It is a song about babysitting her when she was three. “I exaggerated, but Clair would get up in the night – ‘No you can’t have a drink/Oh all right then but wait just a min’ – and she did call me Uncle Ray,” he says, smiling. “Gordon played the harmonica and Clair laughs on the record. The family loved it. Of course, I’d never be able to write that song today, because it’s about a man and a child. But that’s the age we live in. It was an affectionate tribute and that affection is still there.”
In many ways, the 75-year-old is very different from the awkward loner of his youth. His daughter Tara has banned him from writing to unkind reviewers, which he used to. He jokes that his wife would divorce him – “Actually, my daughters would divorce me!” – if he ever returned to the 1974 song A Woman’s Place, which he’d intended as “a working-class boy’s observations on his matriarch mum” but led her to exclaim: “Don’t you dare call it A Woman’s Place is in the Home!”
Today, he reads left-of-centre newspapers, listens to Father John Misty and sings (on the new album) about racial profiling and climate change. However, just like his young self, he doesn’t drive, doesn’t visit pubs, records ideas on to cassette and his adult equivalent of the shed is a music room in a state of “organised chaos”.
“I have obsessive compulsive disorder, so everything has to be in its place, from rugs to toothbrushes,” he says. “It drives my daughter’s husband mad because I come here and get the broom out, but order and routines are very important to me. Of course there’s no better discipline than writing songs.”
He’s written approaching 300 now, and once he’s finished touring Driven, he’ll get down to write some more.
“I’ve always thought that if you get off the treadmill, you lose it,” he says. “I never got off the treadmill.”