Bill’s colonial Virginia, Cumberland Gap, and White River roots have deeply influenced his renditions of both Irish and American folk tunes. Since at least the mid-18th century his fraternal pioneer forebears have played folk music on banjo and guitar. His maternal roots, however, hail from Ulster Catholicism.
Bill’s love affair with music began in earnest during the fourth grade of grammar school when the instrumental teacher first approached him (she would in later years recruit him to sing in a La bohème production at TSC). She wished to make of him a clarinet player. He said he preferred the trumpet. She said it was the clarinet or nothing. he passed on her offer. This was his first poor career decision. The following year she offered him the coveted trumpet (later he learned baritone horn and French horn). Thus began his formal lessons. During the winter holiday day show of that same year, Bill sang his first solo: The introduction to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The part came with tin foil ears and a red nose. Like all of the other male children, he sang in the boys’ choir of the school. Mrs. Smith was their vocal instructor and she took quite a shining to him for some odd reason. The following year he was given his first real solo, the first verse of “Rise Now, Oh Shepherds”, a tune so obscure that we dare anyone to find it on the internet. The most notable student to grace his grammar school stage was Ernie Kovacs who, while yet a student, portrayed Old King Cole, but that was decades before Bill’s arrival.
Above: Bill O’Neal, Sr. back on the farm with his mother at age 16, and later with his bands, and with his wife.
Bill’s childhood home was his primary source of musical influence, for his father was a gifted country singer and guitarist with quite a good reputation in local circles. He has fond memories of Dad and his band rehearsing in their home, and fonder ones yet of Dad singing children’s songs to his children. Bill, Sr. was a local legend of sorts. Wherever they drove about town in the family car, people would honk their horns and wave their way. A bronze star recipient and Sgt. Major, Bill, Sr. came to New Jersey area to instruct ROTC candidates at Princeton University. Later, he became a radio disc jockey and a union musician who played in the local clubs, most notably The Frontier Room in Bordentown, his band being the house band in its early years. In time he set aside his guitar and instead emceed, helped manage the venue and, most importantly, booked the big and little names who filled the weekly bill at the venue. He put down his guitar because the union kept hounding him about his drummer’s negligence in paying his union dues. You don’t have to be in the union to sing, so he quit. Bill’s father had ties with Ernest Tubb in Nashville, and it was Tubb who provided most of the headliners who played there. During his teen years the younger Bill washed dishes on show nights and had the distinct pleasure of hearing and then meeting backstage many of Country & Western music’s biggest stars.
Below: Bill as seen in the high school yearbook during his junior year; Joe Kramer and him in the mid 1970s.
Bill O’Neal, Jr. is a retired high school teacher of English, a published author, and a performer of traditional Irish music who has traveled extensively in Ireland, primarily in the North. Born and raised in New Jersey, where he now lives with his wife and their children, Bill earned a B.A. in Philosophy cum laude from The College of New Jersey in addition to completing his graduate work in English education at Rider University. He is a deacon and elder of his church. Having devoted many years to youth ministry, he now simply sings in the choir. He is a long-running participant in and a former site coordinator for the Geraldine Dodge Poetry teacher’s program, and is also a leadership team member of The National Writing Project at Rider University. Bill has served as a trustee and as former president/vice president of The Friends of the William Greenhouse, and remains an active member of the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee to his township’s planning board.
©2018 and all prior years