“How I Got Over”, a gospel hymn published in 1951 by Clara Ward, was inspired by her experience with a group of black female church singers travelling to Atlanta in what was at the time a staunchly segregated Georgia. Threatened with death by racist white men, one lady played that of a woman possessed, sending the men fleeing in fear. In more ways than one this moment parallels the life of Michael O’Hara. From a well-behaved son of a Baptist minister, to a barbaric entertainer, then onto becoming an ordained minister himself, it was a long road filled with his own personal ups and downs. And just like Ms. Ward sang in the song, he was “falling and rising all those years.”
This story takes place from the headwaters of the Mississippi River on down to New Orleans and everywhere in between, where a funk rock band was known to haunt. By this time, what had previously been known as The Spoon River Band had morphed into something greater and more powerful than the sum of its parts. Afront this whirlwind was a man with a turban on his head and a banshee-like howl. The persona known to their fans as The Sheik would emerge from behind the keys, strutting across the stage like Mick Jagger and inciting the crowd into a frenzy. Together he and his band of merry cohorts would reciprocate with the crowd, aiding and abetting their energy. But night would soon turn to day. And before long they had packed up their things and moved on to the next town. To bear witness to such a larger-than-life character on stage, one would never be able to draw the connection between Michael O’Hara the front man for The Sheiks, and Michael O’Hara the child from St. Louis, Missouri.
With two brothers and four sisters, he was raised in a large, closely knit Baptist family. His father, like many others in his family, an ordained minister. Though far from the singing dancing wild man on stage he would one day become, his interest in music was undeniable. When he was six years old, his parents bought a piano as a gift for all of the children. Michael recalls, “When they unwrapped that it was like meeting my best friend. Within two weeks, and I believe through the power of God, I had written my first composition”. He would grow up performing in a church that played host to hundreds of ministers, pastors, evangelists, saints, bishops, and missionaries. Being trained by Clara Ward and spending time with Mahalia Jackson were some of the experiences that enriched his life. But like Shakespeare pointed out, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances”. And so, like a player on this great stage, Michael set out to find his own way in life. He did so as the Soldier in this Shakespearian play, “Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation.”
For years Michael honed his chops playing on the circuit. At one point he and his brother, Leon O’Hara, joined The Spoon River Band founded by bassist Dave Torretta. He would continue playing in that band until fate stepped in on the night of March 5th, 1976. David Bowie was on the Diamond Dogs tour. And on this particular night, he was playing the Keil Auditorium on Market St. in St. Louis, Missouri. Donned with more glitter than Bowie himself, Michael and his girlfriend sat second row center. When the show went to intermission, a drummer by the name of Rob Sanders approached him. Michael recalls, “Rob came up to me and introduced himself. Somehow, he knew Spoon River was in a transitional phase with losses of members. He said he’d like to form a new band with me. From there, we were auditioning musicians over some months ‘till we found guitarist Leslie Martin Jr., who was added immediately. Nick (Ferber) came later, as he was playing bass in a band called Mama’s Pride at the time.” Wanting to distinguish himself from previous projects and also leave the name with its founder, Michael O’Hara and the Spoon River Band moniker were about to part ways.
With a double entendre involving the Stokes and Sane blues duo The Beale Street Sheiks, and an at-the-time popular condom company Sheik, the band had found its new name… The Sheiks. True to form, both name sources were surely seasoned and well established, even back then. The blues duo cut records in the late 20’s, and the condom company had been in business since 1931. It was Rob Sanders who liked the idea of paying homage to an incredibly influential blues band. And it was Rob Sanders who birthed Michael O’Hara’s new look as The Sheik. Rob brought up the image of the 1920’s actor Rudolph Valentino and approached Michael with the concept. To hear Michael tell it, “After months of performing as The Sheiks having my huge afro falling into my face from perspiration, and me complaining vigorously, it was Rob who suggested I wear the scarves of The Sheik thus stopping the sweat from getting into my eyes, while giving me a striking image.” The likeness resonated with Michael’s spirit. And he would later spice things up with tight jeans, leather, and fancy jewelry. In more ways than one, this was the beginning of the end.
As Mac Rebennack explained in his own biography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, He was never previously known as Dr. John. The real Dr. John was a medicine man, a Senegalese Prince that came to New Orleans from Haiti. With a call back to New Orleans’ Voodoo roots and all the eye candy one could conjure, Mac eventually took on this alternate identity. As fans we appreciate these features in their physical sense. And it goes along with what the artists feel the band embodies at the time. But before they realize it, the larger-than-life character on stage begins to inhabit and take over the artists’ psyche. Though being The Sheik helped propel the band and gave Michael a trademark appearance, the persona began to outpace the man. Michael admits, “I had gone so far beyond my home training and the things that were instilled in me as a child. I debauched myself, I was a cocaine addict. I used to drink upwards of sixteen shots of Jack Daniels Black plus Quaaludes, you know. I was a skunk. I really went so far down.” Smoking upwards of four packs of cigarettes a day, sleeping with everything in sight, and even living in a commune at one point, Michael had lost his way. The Sheik had taken over. On the outside, this real-life character had Michael opening for giants like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Police. It placed him in the spotlights of the Saenger Theater, the Whiskey a Go-Go, the Superdome, the Roxy, and the World’s Fair. But on the inside, it pilfered little bits of his soul along the way.
With contacts brewing in Los Angeles, and the realization that his vices were slowly conspiring to kill him, Michael began to think about a complete change of scenery. He would nurture the possibility while on the road with The Sheiks by securing a contract as a staff writer with MCA/ Universal through his personal manager at the time, Stan Plesser. Torn between two worlds, Michael had arranged show dates for The Sheiks but he and the band weren’t seeing eye to eye. He made it known that he would stay with the band for the next year-and-a-half while they made their final decision. In the end it was just Michael and Christopher Geiger, one of his roadies from the band, driving across the desert to L.A. Michael travelled in tears as he turned off the ac in an attempt to sweat out all that colluded to end him. He had to think but was finding it hard to hear his thoughts over the sadness from which he was overcome. And in the back of his mind lived a pact he had made with God, “either save me or kill me.”
Los Angeles held new hopes for Michael; money in the bank, a more civilized atmosphere in which to work, and the musings of becoming one of the elites he now shared the room with. Invited by MCA to a party with the likes of Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand, he recalls how his brand new skin tight leather outfit was received by his family, “And my late granny said, ‘Oh honey’. How you get in ‘em britches? You gotta powder up? I ‘spect I need to get my needle and thread because you about to bust out them britches.” Finding his own way through new surroundings, Michael was finding success despite home sickness and the absence of his band mates. Some of his achievements included songs picked up by Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle, Jody Watley, CeCe Peniston, and Donna Summer. Spike Lee even picked up one of his songs, Feels So Good, for his iconic movie Do the Right Thing. He would eventually leave Los Angeles settling in Fort Worth, Texas, securing his position closer to the Lord in the role of preacher. His church welcoming people of all Christian denominations. Until one day an old friend came calling.
Jimmy Anselmo had been after him for some time to come and perform at his venue, Jimmy’s Music Club. But Michael toiled with the idea and the impact it might have on his now clean and sober life. After much consideration he would eventually accept the invitation. Michael came out of show business retirement to perform a solo act at what was now the Willow, formerly Jimmy’s Music Club, on July 26, 2014 to a packed house. And he was featured in the Times Picayune as well as appearing on several news stations in the area. Being so well received that night was enthralling. Beneath the surface however, the crowd had grown older. The scene before him was no longer the youth-centric hotbed of his yester-year. Michael realized, “When I came out of retirement (for his show at Jimmy’s Music Club), the turnout was amazing. I thought, I’m back! But there’s also this. My fan base, which is considerable, is as old as I am or a little older. They have homes and cars and businesses and children and grand-children. And so, I quickly learned that. It took one night after my opening, which was jam packed. Then the next time I played, not so much.”
Deep down inside, Michael always knew his talents were a gift from God. He could never separate himself from such a strong conviction. As far as show business goes, Michael now opts for more intimate settings and can still be found singing and playing piano all over New Orleans. As for behind the scenes, his passion for writing and for the Lord has never changed. He is a twice published author, having written twenty novels. He also collaborated with acclaimed writer/ producer Robert White Johnson resulting in a Gospel Rock Opera based on the Book of Revelation as told through the eyes of John the Revelator. The production beckoned Michael to once again grace the big stage as the central character and was a huge success. It has been performed for the New York Theater Guild and at St. Louis’ prestigious Powell Symphony Hall, not to mention spending four years on Branson, MO theater stages. And when the pandemic put performances on pause, he seized the opportunity to drop a new album, Journey of a Thousand Dreams, on Rabadash Records where he also accepted the role of Vice President and Head of A&R.
From his early days to the present, I couldn’t help but draw a long-standing connection. At the age of six Michael’s first composition was Guess Who’s Coming to the End, based on his father’s sermon at the time on the Book of Revelation. And recently he collaborated to produce Isle of Dreams, a Gospel Rock Opera dealing with The Book of Revelation. Had it not been for what some might say was divine intervention at the apogee of his relationship with the Lord, his soul would not have made it back to the place where it belonged, sitting before God.
Author: David Trahan
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