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Neal Francis

Prior to launching his solo career, Chicago singer, songwriter, and pianist Neal Francis cut his teeth at a young age first as a blues sideman, then as a member of a promising funk ensemble, before addiction nearly got the best of him. After getting clean, he developed a retro-driven style blending classic R&B with New Orleans rhythms, blues, and a healthy dose of early-'70s rock and launched a solo career with his 2019 debut album, Changes. Two years later, he released his absorbing and kaleidoscopic sophomore effort, In Plain Sight. Born Neal Francis O'Hara in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois, he began playing piano at age four and, after showing an interest in blues and roots music, was eventually turned on to players like Pinetop Perkins and Otis Spann. This direction was further nurtured under the tutelage of Chicago boogie-woogie and stride specialist Erwin Helfer. By the time he was 18, O'Hara had earned a spot as the touring keyboardist for Muddy Waters' son Mud Morganfield. Taking some of the tricks he'd learned on the road from this veteran band as well as his obsession with New Orleans icons like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, he joined up with the Heard, a rising Chicago instrumental funk ensemble, in 2012. Over the next few years, he and the Heard broke onto the national touring and festival circuits, sharing stages with acts like the New Mastersounds, the Revivalists, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. However, as the band's star rose, O'Hara's descent into alcohol addiction worsened and by 2015, he'd not only been fired from the Heard but had suffered a life-threatening alcohol-induced seizure. Taking stock of his life and career, he began to reverse course, getting clean and trying to focus on writing songs. A new sound based on his lifetime of influences began to take shape, and he put together a tight band to record an album in Los Angeles with retro-driven producer Sergio Rios (Orgone, Cee Lo Green, Alicia Keys). He signed on with like-minded Ohio soul imprint Karma Chief Records, shortened his name to Neal Francis, and released the vibrant, impeccably arranged Changes in 2019. He spent the next year piecing together his sophomore outing while living in a supposedly haunted church in Chicago. Recorded to tape and mixed by Dave Fridmann (Spoon, Tame Impala, Flaming Lips), the vibrant and hard-won In Plain Sight appeared in 2021.
© Timothy Monger /TiVo
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