From the 1970s into the early ’80s, the hard-rocking Sheiks played New Orleans venues such as Jimmy’s Music Club and Ole Man River’s as well as the I-55 corridor from New Orleans to Chicago. Singer-songwriter Michael O’Hara, decked out in Middle Eastern costume, was the band’s vibrant frontman.
“People compared me to Mick Jagger and Tina Turner on steroids,” O’Hara said recently.
In 1982, O’Hara left New Orleans and the Sheiks for Los Angeles. He experienced much success in Los Angeles as a songwriter for Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle, Jody Watley, CeCe Peniston and more. Four of his songs reached No. 1, and he received four Grammy nominations.
O’Hara’s songwriting success continued following his move to New York. After New York, he staged and starred in a gospel musical in Branson, Missouri.
From there, he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he’s a minister, evangelist and traveling entertainer who performs on a huge circuit of assisted-living facilities.
Back in New Orleans, veteran club owner and promoter Jimmy Anselmo never forgot about O’Hara or the Sheiks.
“After I left the band, Jimmy called me twice a year and said, ‘Michael, are you coming out of retirement, coming back to Jimmy’s?’ ”
The answer was always no, until last October.
“Jimmy gave me one of his calls,” O’Hara said. “I said, ‘Jimmy, just like before, let me get on my knees and ask God. I’ll call you right back, as soon as I hear from him.’ I called Jimmy back two minutes later, I told him, ‘I can. Let’s set the date.’
“I’ve been working since then in the studio to put the show together. And that’s how I came out of retirement.”
O’Hara, following Anselmo’s many years of encouragement, will perform a one-man show Saturday at The Willow, formerly Jimmy’s Music Club.
Excited about his return to the performance of songs he hasn’t done in some 30 years, O’Hara said he feels like a lion in a cage. “It’s like, ‘Let me at ’em.’ ”
The one-man show O’Hara has planned is organized in two acts. Act I features songs he wrote that became hits for Baker, LaBelle and others. Act II features the return of the Sheik.
“The second act is nothing but Sheiks songs,” he said. “As many of the ones that I can fit in that people love and remember. The greatest hits, let’s put it that way.”
For the autobiographical portions of Act I, O’Hara will not lack for material.
A native of St. Louis, O’Hara played piano in his father’s church at 6 and directed the church’s choirs soon thereafter. At 15, he joined the Spoon River Band, the St. Louis rock band that evolved into the Sheiks and relocated to New Orleans.
By the early ’80s, O’Hara had bigger things in mind for the Sheiks than gigs in bars and clubs. Hoping to get a songwriting deal, he sent cassettes of songs he’d written, featuring only verses and choruses, to music publishers. A song plugger with MCA responded enthusiastically.
“I went back to the band and said, ‘Hey, I have a publishing deal on the table,’ ” O’Hara recalled. “ ‘We can get a house like we used to have and everybody can live together for a while. I can pay for it, because I’ll be making money writing songs. If we play three or four months to a year in LA, we’ll get noticed and we’ll get bookings.’ ”
But his fellow Sheiks declined to leave New Orleans and accompany the singer to LA.
“I hated to leave the guys, but I knew that I wasn’t getting any younger,” O’Hara said. “I had to go to where the music industry was. I packed up and I went. I don’t regret it, because it allowed me to have the career that I’ve had. But I still miss everybody so much. That’s why, when God said I can come back, believe me, I was ready.”