Singer Michael O'Brien signed autographs nonstop for more than two hours last week at the F.Y.E. music store (formerly Record Town) in the Westgate Mall.
It was past closing time when the final fan in line got her turn with O'Brien. She bought the last of the remaining "It's About Time" CDs, newly released by AMI International Records, that O'Brien was autographing that Thursday night. "It's About Time" is the fourth CD O'Brien has produced in his singing career, which began in the '80s.
"He calls himself a secular rock 'n roll artist who loves God," said Ron Gresko, O'Brien's current road crew manager. "He doesn't bill himself as a Christian artist. ... You'll find his music in the pop section of the music stores."
But most of O'Brien's song themes are spiritually based.
Having embarked on a 50-city nationwide tour starting July 31 in Maryland, O'Brien arrived in Minnesota three nights before the autograph signing in Brainerd. He played concerts in Mankato, Sleepy Eye and Little Falls. O'Brien has performed in 500 cities since 1995. His music is sold in 40 countries worldwide. And he's sold somewhere in the neighborhood of a million albums, Gresko said.
"The thing about Michael is that where a lot of music is not that positive for kids to listen to, his music is very positive. At his concerts, you'll see 3-year-olds, teens, adults and seniors. He plays to young and old alike. He bridges the gap."
As O'Brien's song "Change Your World" played in the background, Gresko said, "This song is about anybody that has problems -- from eating disorders to financial problems to addiction -- he (O'Brien) says, 'Let's do something about it!' He always sees the silver lining. He always stresses that if you have it bad, it could always be worse."
"'Angel for You' is his No. 1 song," Gresko said. "He wrote it for his little sister. She died when she was a child. He believes that everybody has their own angel, and that his sister never left him, and that she is his angel."
Gresko had accompanied O'Brien on his last six shows, and was heading back to Pittsburgh the following day. He helps O'Brien by providing security and miscellaneous other duties on a volunteer basis. Even though O'Brien tries to pay him, "I just don't accept it," Gresko said.
He first saw O'Brien on MTV in 1990 singing "I Believe," Gresko recalled. "I taped it. And I thought -- what a neat song! ... A couple years later, I got married and I chose one of his songs to play at the wedding," not knowing at the time that it was O'Brien singing.
"Back in '97 I told some people, after I knew who he was, 'I think I'm going to invite Michael O'Brien to come to the area.' I live about one-and-a-half hours east of Pittsburgh." At Johnstown, Pa., "I made the phone call, and he was coming to Pittsburgh, and he said, 'Sure, I'll come to your area.' It sold out in about four weeks. Nobody knew who he was. I played his music for people and they bought tickets. September of 1998 was the first time he came there."
Seven months later, someone brought him back. Concerts on two consecutive nights both sold out on that visit.
"So he had three sellouts in our area in seven months," Gresko said. O'Brien went back again this year, and played to yet more sold-out houses.
O'Brien's producer, Nile Rodgers, called him "the most famous person you've never heard of," said Gresko. Running through a who's who of Rodgers' clients, Gresko named Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Madonna and Eric Clapton. Rodgers, who has produced 35 platinum albums, heard O'Brien for the first time from the audience of one of O'Brien's concerts. And he later signed him to AMI.
O'Brien is scheduled to record and appear in a VH1 music video in or around November. At this point, the plan is to film the video in the gymnasium of St. Francis College in central Pennsylvania, O'Brien said. The gym full of people will be recorded waving their arms in unison to O'Brien's rendition of John Lennon's and Paul McCartney's renowned "Let It Be." "He's probably looking at doing the 'Oprah' show, too," Gresko said.
On a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in Bosnia, about a decade ago, a visionary who did not know him, or the fact he was a singer, apparently told O'Brien he should be playing his beautiful music for Mary and Jesus.
"The Medjugorje WebT is dedicated to providing information about one of the most incredible and important supernatural events of our time. Since 1981, in a small village named Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, The Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing and giving messages to the world," the Web site says. "She tells us that God has sent her to our world and, these years she is spending with us are a time of Grace granted by God. In her own words she tells us, 'I have come to tell the world that God exists. He is the fullness of life, and to enjoy this fullness and peace, you must return to God.'"
"Since the apparitions began in 1981," the Web site says, "millions of people of all faiths, from all over the world, have visited Medjugorje and have left spiritually strengthened and renewed. Countless unbelievers and physically or mentally afflicted, have been converted and healed."
O'Brien's ongoing, primary message, which has developed largely in response to his experiences at Medjugorje, is one of spiritual healing, Gresko said.
His wife is a woman he met on one of this 40 trips to Medjugorje, where O'Brien now leads pilgrimages.
According to O'Brien's Web site, found at www.michaelob.com, he has broken store records for the most albums sold at in-store autograph signings at Sam Goody in New Jersey, Borders in Maine, and The Wall in Pennsylvania since his 50-city tour began in late July. So far, the "It's About Time" tour has taken him to Indiana, Oregon, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota in just seven weeks. Next on his agenda, O'Brien had concerts and record signings scheduled in Kansas and Colorado.
For tour information call 1-800-681-6335, or visit the Michael O'Brien Web site online.
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