It would take a mad genius to imagine a band forged in the gutters of the swampy Florida metal scene could one day evolve into a fixture on PBS, a staple of Christmas radio and one of the biggest touring acts in the world.
Paul O'Neill was that madman. He invented the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a holiday phenomenon with roots in Tampa Bay that for two decades filled arenas across America, delivering a seasonal spectacle of lasers, pyrotechnics and grandiose symphonic rock.
The composer and producer behind one of the world's most unique and successful rock bands died this week at 61 from a "chronic illness," Trans-Siberian Orchestra announced Thursday.
O'Neill was found dead Wednesday afternoon at an Embassy Suites hotel near the University of South Florida in Tampa, said USF Police spokeswoman Renna Reddick. Staff and O'Neill's daughter broke into his locked room, according to a 911 recording, and found his body. An autopsy will determine cause of death. There were no signs of foul play.
"He was our friend and our leader — a truly creative spirit and an altruistic soul," Trans-Siberian Orchestra said in a statement. "This is a profound and indescribable loss for us all."
Those who knew O'Neill in Tampa were left to process the news.
"We've lost a real creative musical genius, and I hope the band will play on," said Tampa radio personality Mason Dixon, a friend of O'Neill's. "Just amazing music. Nobody played classical rock and roll the way they did it."
Born in New York, O'Neill had a long and fruitful career in rock and roll before forming TSO in 1996, successfully producing and tour-managing Aerosmith and other bands. One group he produced and took a shine to was Savatage, a metal group formed by brothers Criss and Jon Oliva in Tarpon Springs. When O'Neill got the opportunity in the '90s to launch his dream project, a rock symphony inspired by artists like Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, he thought of them.
"I flew down and saw them at the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City," O'Neill told the Times in 2008. "Jon Oliva's voice blew me away. I knew they were better than thrash metal, and I wanted to take them into the world of progressive rock. More of the band has come from a 50-mile radius around Tampa than we ever could have imagined. Florida has become the band's second home."
Inspired by visits to Russia in the 1980s, O'Neill envisioned a series of operatic albums that evoked the harshness of winter and warmth of a hearth. Holiday music was timeless — as O'Neill told the Times in 2008, "You write anything about Christmas, you're competing with the best of the last 2,000 years."
In 1996 TSO released Christmas Eve and Other Stories, featuring a striking mash-up of Carol of the Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen called Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24. The song was an immediate smash, becoming one of the most-played and best-selling holiday singles of all time.
Dixon was one of the first DJs to give the song serious airplay.
"I see this album that looks kind of heavy metal-ish," he said. "I said, 'Put that thing in the machine, and let's see what it sounds like.' I was expecting something to laugh at. The thing got started, and we were all looking at each other, and our eyes bugged out, and we go, 'This is amazing!'"
So evocative was TSO's music it begged for visual accompaniment. In 1999 O'Neill wrote and produced a made-for-TV movie, The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, that would become a long-running PBS fundraiser and platinum-selling DVD. In the last decade, ambitious homeowners the world over would synchronize eye-popping holiday light displays to TSO songs, generating millions of clicks on YouTube.
But where the band really excelled was on tour.
Every fall and winter, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra crisscrossed the country with a spectacular light and laser show, precisely timed to their music. O'Neill auditioned hundreds of musicians from Central Florida and beyond, knitting dozens at a time into a symphony that could match his Beethoven-sized vision.
"They were a unique touring entity, one that certainly resonated with audiences all over the country," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the tour industry magazine Pollstar. "You would think of the music that Trans-Siberian played as more suited to performing arts centers. But this was an arena tour."
Every winter trek brought a new theme, a tweaked vision, something to win new fans and keep old ones coming back.
"Paul would spend millions of dollars of what would have been profit they put in their pocket to create a bigger, better and more elaborate stage show than the year before," Dixon said. "Every year they go back to these concert halls, and they sell more concert tickets than they sold the year before because of word of mouth."
It worked. In 2016 the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was the 16th most successful touring act in North America, playing 104 shows to nearly 960,000 fans and grossing $55.3 million — more than tours by Kanye West, the Dixie Chicks or Rihanna.
"If you have a great song, that's great," O'Neill said in 2015, "but if you have a great production where the lights and the lasers and the pyro and everything else is going off in time, off of one nervous system, it helps to take it to a whole other level."
In profiles over the years, O'Neill was portrayed as a mysterious, secretive figure, obsessed with world history and folklore. He collected letters from figures like Lincoln, Washington, Churchill, Edison, Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde. Among his possessions, according to a 2016 profile in the British magazine New Statesman, was a Faberge egg containing microfilm of a snippet of the King James Bible that flew into space aboard Apollo 14.
He was generous with his fortune. He would hand cash and silver dollars to strangers, and donated a dollar from each concert ticket to a local charity. Dixon estimated that over the years, O'Neill and TSO had given his nonprofit Christmas Wish Fund more than $200,000.
"He'd take the leather jacket right off his back, give it to somebody, then go right into wardrobe and get another one," Dixon said.
O'Neill once dropped by a listening party for the Tampa death metal band Obituary, friends and peers of Savatage.
"He brought us a whole case of Cristal champagne," said vocalist John Tardy. "But more than that, just him coming into the studio to say congratulations meant the world to us."
O'Neill and his wife Desiree split time between homes in New York and Florida — including a gated community in Tampa Palms — but this was the base of his music operation. He recorded at Morrisound Studios, a facility near the University of South Florida that was instrumental in forging Tampa's reputation as a hotbed of death metal, and at one point hoped to build a sprawling tour rehearsal facility near Land O' Lakes. In 2014, he purchased Morrisound and turned it into TSO's headquarters.
"Now we have two huge rooms that we can go in 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he told the Times in 2015. "Tampa is basically going to be our hometown for recording from now on."
O'Neill himself rarely performed with TSO, which grew so successful it spun off a second version so it could hit more cities each holiday season. But he always oversaw the shows in his adopted hometown.
"He loved coming to Tampa," Dixon said. "Somewhere toward the end of the show, they would introduce him, he would come out and he would play with the band and do a couple of numbers with them. He didn't do it everywhere. But he would always do it in Tampa."
O'Neill didn't make it to the stage at Trans-Siberian Orchestra's final Tampa concerts in December, hobbled by what Dixon described as an ankle injury. Instead he sat in the back in a black leather jacket and sunglasses, greeting friends and watching the show from the soundboard. He nodded intently as his creation filled the room with a light and sound like no other, drawing 30,000 fans over two shows to their feet.
Kevin Preast, senior vice president of event management at Amalie Arena, said he and Trans-Siberian Orchestra had already been discussing their return to Tampa in December. While nothing has been decided, he doesn't think TSO will end with O'Neill's death.
"The business of it is such a strong brand, I can't imagine it not going on," he said. "It's become a cultural thing as well, no different than the circus or going out to dinner for Mother's Day. ... If anything, it could be more compelling this year as a tribute. I can't imagine them not wanting to tip their hats — or their bows — to their founder and creator."
Times staff writers Paul Guzzo and Dennis Joyce and senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.