Founder of Trans-Siberian Orchestra found dead in Tampa hotel

- Paul O'Neill, the founder and leader of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, passed away Wednesday in a Tampa Hotel.

According to the 911 call placed by a hotel employee at the Embassy Suites near the University of South Florida, O'Neill's daughter and a hotel staff member broke into his room and found the composer's body "cold" and "stiff."

An autopsy is underway to determine the cause of death. USF Police said foul play did not appear to be a factor in O'Neill's death.

In a statement on the website for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), band members said O'Neill suffered from a "chronic illness." No other details were provided.

O'Neill's unique style of music, blending symphonic metal, heavy metal and Christmas classics, gained him fans across the nation. He was known for putting on elaborate productions.

"It was a grandiose experience. You had laser lights, you had smoke and fire. You had snow falling. All of these things, and it just made for a spectacular show, that with the music," said Mason Dixon, a long-time friend and radio personality with Tampa's Q105.

During his Tampa shows, O'Neill credited Dixon with giving him his first break in radio.

Dixon recalled back in 1995, when a  CD from a little-known band called "Savatage" came across his desk.

He and his music director at Mix 96 listened to the feature song on the album, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12-24."

"We put it on, it started playing, we sat there and both our jaws hit the floor," said Dixon. "It was like, this is amazing. That night, my music director put it on 'Make it or Break it.' He called me that night and said, whatever you do, when you get on the air in the morning, you're going to have to play this song. He said, I have never seen phone response on anything like this," said Dixon.

The song became O'Neill's biggest hit, and a Christmas staple among neighbors syncing music to their Christmas light displays.

O'Neil, a New York native, formed Savatage along with two band members from Tarpon Springs. He later renamed the band the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and expanded the band, adding mostly musicians from Tampa Bay.

The area became the starting point for the TSO holiday tour for many years.

"They never forgot where it started, and every year they were here in Tampa Bay, they gave credit," said Dixon.

Dixon said those who knew O'Neill will remember him most for his generosity. Each year, he donated $1 from every ticket sold at his shows to a charity in each city on his tour. In Tampa, the money went to the Mason Dixon Christmas Wish Fund, with 100% of the funds benefiting local families in need.

"When he didn't have things to give away, he'd start pulling money out of his wallet and giving it away," said Dixon, recalling the times he'd often see O'Neill handing out $100 bills and silver dollars to people back stage at his shows.

"It was more about putting on the show to the people than it was about making money. Gosh knows they did make a lot of it, but he gave it back," said Dixon.

O'Neill leaves behind a wife and a daughter.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has yet to release details on the bands' plans moving forward.


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