In the Hollywood film “Ray,” Ray Charles, played by Jamie Foxx, goes to a nightclub to see legendary Toledo jazz pianist Art Tatum played by Johnny O’Neal. During filming, O’Neal played three or four songs, although only one “Yesterdays” made it to the silver screen.
“That was a real honor for me, and for Toledo audiences, to play the part of Tatum—one of the greatest pianists ever.” A lot of people asked Johnny what Tatum record he was playing along with. “I was playing live! That was me,” he said. Following the success of “Ray”, the Ray Charles Band asked Johnny to take the piano chair for its major venue tour in 2005. This band is just the latest to seek Johnny’s talents.
Johnny’s enormous musical gifts were immediately apparent to jazz icon Ray Brown and led to his 1983 debut album “Coming Out”. Stints with Ray Brown, Milt Jackson and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers soon followed.
Johnny has been tapped for appearances by Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Pass, Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Benny Golson, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and Clark Terry, among others. Performances on the festival circuits in Europe, Australia, Japan and a recent tour of South Africa have gained Johnny an international following.
“Johnny is outstanding in his ability to interpret a wide range of material with ease and sensitivity,” according to Parkwood Records’ Hugh Leal. This versatility was showcased on his debut recording for Justin Time, “On the Montreal Scene”, which soulfully interweaves gospel, blues and mainstream jazz. Jim Little, who writes regularly for the Montreal Weekly Hour, proffered, “O’Neal offers up a serving of the blues and gospel ingredients that help make him such a tasty player.”