Sharon O’Neill was born in Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand in 1952, she taught herself to play guitar and write songs, and after joining the trio Suitewater, the group made the finals of the 1970 Mobil Song Quest with one of her compositions entitled Life Upon Life. She made the finals of the NZ version of New Faces in 1972 and then joined covers band Chapta who performed throughout NZ in 1972-77. Upon joining rock-pop outfit Shine she met her future husband guitarist Brent Thomas and toured with Mark Williams and Jon Stevens, her debut NZ chart success was another self-composition Luck’s On Your Table which climbed to #27 in NZ. She followed up with another of her songs Don’t Say No to Tomorrow for a #6 hit in NZ, and her debut self-titled album charted #3 in1980, and in 1981 she relocated to Australia.
Sharon’s first top 40 hit in Australia was How Do You Talk To Boys, co-written by Steve Kipner, who would subsequently write songs for Olivia Newton-John, including the mega-hit Physical, but as Sharon was committed to writing her own songs, she had to be persuaded by producer John McCready, that it would be a hit, and she should record it. It peaked at #25 but it did help to break O’Neill in this country, and also gave her the confidence to persist with her own compositions in the future.
Sharon was promoted as one of the lurexed bad girls of the era and became a regular performer on Countdown, she aspired to a Suzi Quatro persona but unlike Suzi Q she was not being fed a production line of hits by Nick Chinn and Mike Chapman. She did however possess a curious charm, decked out in fishnet stockings and gold lame bomber jackets, a blond shag hair-do, and trademark shark-tooth earring, she contrived to produce unusual lyrics that occasionally rose above the banal, even if they were sometimes a little weird “We like movies, we like rock and roll”, she sang “We like anything that occupies our spare time/ I like your car so why don’t we go driving/ Phone New York and tell them we are arriving.”
In 1983 she would hook up with US producer John Boylan below (LRB, Boston, Charlie Daniels Band) in Los Angeles to record her fourth album, Foreign Affairs, the session musos included saxophonist Tom Scott (L A Express, The Blues Brothers) and guitarist David Lindley (Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Warren Zevon, Cutis Mayfield) who both played on the recording of Maxine, and Eagles Don Henley and Timothy Schmidt who provided backing vocals on several other album tracks.
Maxine chronicled the life of a Kings Cross prostitute who O’Neill had seen working in the area, it was the second single lifted from Foreign Affairs and at #16 it was her biggest hit, the album charted well for a #17 here and #12 in NZ.
An early reference to the world’s “oldest profession” can be found in the Bible when Rahab of Jericho was identified as a prostitute, and the red light hooker music genre has had a long history since then, with references to sex workers in blues songs pre-dating the modern era including I Got What It Takes (Bessie Smith), Down In The Alley (Memphis Minnie), and Nobody’s Sweetheart (Cab Calloway), which all meditated on the power of “the moneymaker”. More recent examples of performers who have explored the red light zone of hits include O.C.Smith (Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp), Bobby Gentry(Fancy) (above), The Animals (House of the Rising Sun),The Police (Roxanne), La Belle (Lady Marmalade), Donna Summer (Bad Girls), Lou Reed (Walk On The Wild Side), Cher (Gypsies,Tramps and Thieves), and locally Richard Clapton (Girls on the Avenue), Paul Kelly (Darling It Hurts), Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Jubilee Street) and Jon English (Hollywood Seven), have continued to musically underscore the lives of sex workers.
The promo video featured Maxine plying her trade; in conversation with O’Neill; trying to escape men intent on pack rape, cutting drugs in a toilet, being arrested, and ultimately a scene at her graveside – the imagery was heavy-handed but musically Tom Scott’s steamy sax solo set the appropriate mood- “On a rain-slicked avenue/ Long shadows in the night/ Take off your spike-heeled shoes/ You’ve got to run for your life…”
O’Neill was a ubiquitous chart performer in the period 1980-88, taking six songs into the top forty including Maxine, How Do You Talk to Boys, Maybe, Losing You, Power, and Physical Favours, she was a member of the Kiwi Family of female performers who attacked the charts here in Australia in the 80’s and 90’s and included Jenny Morris, Margaret Urlich, Bic Runga, Shona Laing, and Tina Cross (Koo De Tah), Jenny was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame in 2017. Below Sharon O’Neil and Alan Mansfield (former keyboard player/producer for Dragon), her partner since 1981.