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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Trans-Siberian Orchestra Founder Paul O'Neill Dies at 61

Posted By on Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 10:33 AM

click to enlarge SAMANTHA FRYBERGER
  • Samantha Fryberger
When we spoke to Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill in 2015 for a long feature story on the prog rock group, we were supposed to spend about 15 minutes with him. He chatted with us for close to an hour before giving us so much TSO swag we could’ve manned our own merch table.

Generous to a fault, O’Neill passed away yesterday. He was 61.

The following was posted on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Facebook page yesterday:

"The entire Trans-Siberian Orchestra family, past and present, is heartbroken to share the devastating news that Paul O’Neill has passed away from chronic illness. He was our friend and our leader — a truly creative spirit and an altruistic soul. This is a profound and indescribable loss for us all."

When he was young, O’Neill had trouble reading anything more sophisticated than Cat in the Hat. In the first grade, he was in danger of falling behind. But then his mother spent a summer teaching him phonetics, and the floodgates opened as O’Neill, whose parents forbid him to watch TV, started devouring the books around the family’s home.

When we spoke to him, he easily recited facts from European history and quoted Cicero.

As he was learning to play guitar, he went to see the Who perform at Madison Square Garden in the late ’60s, something he described as a pivotal moment.

“The Who were the only band that I walked out on because they were so good I couldn’t stand watching them,” he told us. “[The Who] were so good, I was about to throw up,” he continues. “I walked around New York City really depressed for about two hours. To me, the Who were the ones who invented the rock opera. When I first heard ‘Pinball Wizard’ on the radio, I thought, ‘Whoa!’ When I heard it on the album Tommy, it was a whole different thing.”

His literary sensibilities would inform the prog band Savatage, which originally recorded “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24” in 1995. The song would reappear on TSO’s debut, 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories, and launch the band into the behemoth that it became.

At the urging of Cleveland disc jockey Bill Louis and with the backing of the promoters at what was then the locally based Belkin Productions, the group took its 1996 Christmas rock opera Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the first part of a trilogy of prog rock-influenced Christmas albums, on the road in 1999. Lewis had been playing the album’s single, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” on WNCX and had gotten great feedback from fans.

“He said, ‘You can do a show in New York, but not in Cleveland?’ So he nagged me to death,” O’Neill said of Louis. “Turns out, he was right. The first show sold out in four hours.” The group then added another Cleveland show and that sold out. A third was added. It also sold out. Belkin also booked gigs in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. With the exception of the Chicago date, each show exceeded expectations.

The following year, the band hired Elliot Saltzman to be its tour director as it expanded to about 30 shows with two different installations traipsing across the country. It has been a touring juggernaut ever since and has always included Cleveland on its mammoth tours.

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