Paul O’Neill, who founded the progressive metal band Trans-Siberian Orchestra that was known for its spectacular holiday concerts filled with theatrics, lasers and pyrotechnics, has died. He was 61.
University of South Florida police spokeswoman Renna Reddick said O’Neill was found dead in his room by hotel staff at a Tampa Embassy Suites late Wednesday afternoon. She says there were no obvious signs of foul play, and a medical examiner is working to determine an official cause.
The band said in a statement that O’Neill died from a “chronic illness.” The band calls his death “a profound and indescribable loss for us all.”
O’Neill was a rock producer and manager who began putting together Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996, blending heavy metal with classical music and creating a unique brand of rock theater. He tapped three members of the Tarpon Springs, Florida, band Savatage to be part of TSO and intended for it to be a “supergroup,” similar to popular bands like ELO, Pink Floyd and Yes.
“The best description of a TSO show I ever saw came from a reporter who said the only way to describe TSO is ‘The Who meets Phantom of the Opera with Pink Floyd’s light show,”’ O’Neill told the Tampa Bay Times in an email interview in 2012. “I would take any one of those alone as a compliment.”
The band is best known for its hard rock takes on Christmas staples like “Carol of the Bells,” but also more experimental, arena-rock songs such as “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” which described a lone cello player playing a forgotten holiday song in war-torn Sarajevo. That song was on the band’s 1996 album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” which went triple platinum.
Fans especially loved the band’s Christmas tours, which were heavy on guitar solos and heavier on special effects — similar to a Broadway Christmas pageant with a heavy metal soundtrack. One magazine once wrote that “TSO has enough pyro to BBQ an entire school of blue whales” during a show.
“My personal theory is it was being in the right place at the right time. It was easier for us to jump the generation gap between all the people before us. There’s something magical about watching a 15-year-old kid get into an Al Pitrelli guitar solo and his father jamming out there with him. That’s [proof] enough time has gone by that everybody has rock in common now, which simply didn’t exist when it was born in the ’60s,” O’Neill told Billboard.
But O’Neill, with his signature flowing locks, sunglasses and leather jackets, was remembered by legions of fans on social media Thursday for something else: his deep generosity.
Fans recalled how O’Neill would often approach them before concerts and hand them a silver dollar from the year they were born (he kept a case of them while touring), or sometimes hand out jean jackets. And others recall him tipping waitresses thousands of dollars for a post-show meal, buying drum sets for young fans and on numerous occasions, would not let security guards kick fans out until everyone received an autograph.
O’Neill is survived by his wife and daughter.