of Nat "King" Cole
“My jaw dropped when I heard him play piano — and then my heart dropped when I heard him sing.”
-- guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
"There are so many outstanding things about Johnny’s playing. Two or three of the most outstanding: number one, the touch. Johnny has a million dollar touch. Very few people touch the piano like that to get that kind of sound and feeling... The other thing is his feeling of swing, which is so natural. Then there’s Johnny’s personality, so engaging. And Johnny can play a ballad like few people, if any. I’ve always held his talent in the highest regard, and I think he’s a very special artist."
-- pianist Mulgrew Miller
Johnny O'Neal - piano, vocals
Dennis Carroll - bass
George Fludas - drums
Henry Johnson - guitar
After forty-plus years as a professional pianist, vocalist and entertainer, Johnny O’Neal has earned the title of “master” with fellow musicians and audiences around the world.
Highlights of his awe-inspiring career include stints with Ray Brown, Milt Jackson and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as well as a Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 on solo piano opening for Oscar Peterson and induction into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1998. There is little wonder he was tapped to play virtuoso pianist Art Tatum in the Academy Award-winning Ray Charles biopic Ray.
While playing with Blakey, he accompanied some of the great jazz divas, including Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Johnny has also been tapped for appearances by Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Pass, Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Clark Terry, among others. Performances on the festival circuits in Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, Israel and South Africa have gained him an international following.
The Detroit native considers himself a piano player first, but was encouraged to sing in his sets more by Joe Williams. Johnny recalls Williams advising him, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Astonishingly, he is largely self-taught.
His playing evokes the influences imbued in him by his idols Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, and he has reshaped these elements into his own very swinging and melodic approach. In live performances, he is apt to catch his audience off-guard with his blues shouting or soulfully rendered yet unpretentious vocalizations.
Johnny explains, “I’m a tune guy. I know 1,500 songs. My father was a pianist and singer who emphasized that learning lyrics creates dynamics and a better interpretation of melody. I rehearse so that the bassist, drummer and I can get familiar with each other’s styles — not to set the songs we’ll play.” Hence, no two sets are ever alike. As the aptly named title of Johnny’s Fall 2017 release on Smoke Sessions Records suggests, he is truly in the moment.