BILLY OCEAN: Caribbean King
Having sold over 30 million records worldwide and topped the charts across America, Europe and Australasia, Grammy-winning Billy Ocean is without question the biggest black recording artist Britain has ever produced. This month, meanwhile, sees him return to the public arena with an extensive, 19-date tour of the UK.
Born Leslie Sebastian Charles in Fyzabad, Trinidad in 1950, singer/songwriter Billy migrated with his family to London’s East End at just seven years old. Initially a calypso-crazy kid who later soaked up the influences of soul singers like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke (in addition to pop groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones), Ocean enjoyed his first taste of success in the mid-Seventies with a two-year run of catchy, Motown-influenced UK Top 20 singles; peaking with the Number Two pop smashes ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ (1976) and ‘Red Light Spells Danger’ (1977).
However, it was not until he signed to the then-independent Jive Records in 1984 that the universal appeal of BiIly’s infectious blend of emotive soul with radio-friendly, melodic pop would turn him into a bona fide worldwide superstar. Prestigiously kicking off his then-new record deal with the Grammy Award-winning US chart-topper ‘Caribbean Queen’, Ocean’s period with Jive would see him attain global sales comparable to the biggest US black megastars of the day (Lionel, Stevie, etc) via a string of international smash singles, including two further American pop and R&B Number Ones - 1986’s ‘There’ll Be Sad Songs’ and 1988’s ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’. All of which emanated from his multi-Platinum-selling albums ‘Suddenly’ (1984); ‘Love Zone’ (1986); and ‘Tear Down These Walls’ (1988).
Nevertheless, following his final studio album for Jive - 1993’s “Time To Move On’ (interestingly produced by a then-up-and-coming R. Kelly) - Billy retired from the public eye before eventually re-emerging last year for his first live dates in over 15 years. The success of which has in turn led to this month’s aforementioned full-length tour.
“Basically this tour will take in 19 dates. I’ll be in Cardiff, Croydon, Nottingham, Basingstoke, Cheltenham, and so on. It’ll actually be the biggest UK tour I’ve done!”, begins a talkative Billy from his Berkshire home: “And most of the show will consist of the hits. Fortunately I’ve had quite a few years to build up a nice repertoire of songs, and I’m not at all ashamed to be doing them. Because they’re what the public want to hear, and I still enjoy SINGING them! But then I’m also going to be putting two or three new songs in there, which are from a new album I’ve got coming next spring. And the reason I’m doing this tour at this point is because, with my kids being grown up now, it just feels like the right time. I initially took a break from the industry to spend more time with my family. But, at the same time, I never intended to take off as long as I DID! But I guess that’s just the way things go. You know, you can’t just switch things off and then switch them back on again. And it basically took me 15 years to just get myself together and get back to doing what I do.”
So what can Billy tell us of his forthcoming new studio LP, his first in 15 years? “The album will actually be called ‘Because I Love You’, which is also the title of one of the ballad tracks. To me it seemed the best song to choose as the title-track, because it really represents the album overall. In that whatever I sing about - it doesn’t matter what sort of lyric I use - I always come back to love. So, rather than making it difficult for people to understand, I felt as a title ‘Because I Love You’ was just straight-in-your face and uncomplicated. And pretty much most of the record was recorded at my studio, which I built in Grenada during my years away from the business. It’s a multi-purpose studio and one of the keyboard players in my band helped me produce it there, while I actually wrote the songs around his tracks. And, while the essence of my songs will never change - they’re still commercial, still about love, still easy to understand - the fact I was recording in The Caribbean does mean I am using a fair amount of Caribbean rhythms. So the record does have a very sunny, very happy vibe to it.”
Indeed, Billy to this day still attributes his early Caribbean upbringing with instilling in him a strong early love of music: “Yes, I think my father was probably the very first prominent Grenadian musician. So, growing up in Trinidad as a little boy, I was very inspired by the things he did. Like, when I was about three or four years old, I used to get these tin containers and really try to mimmick the steel pan sound by tuning them in to the scale and playing them! So my early experiences of music were really very much a self-taught sort of discovery thing. Plus, since I was very small, I was always singing in school. And a lot of that came about because I grew up with four sisters, and the eldest one would take care of us all. So, anywhere THEY went, I had to go as well! And, with them being in the school choir, I ended up the only boy in a choir of about 35 girls - which was weird! But, you know, my philosophy is everything happens for a reason. Because, at the end of the day, I did sort of develop a lot of my early singing skills from that. So that, by the time I came to this country, I was already motivated in music and straightway started singing in school concerts and stuff.”
Spending most of his study-time in his new school’s music-room, an eight-year-old Billy initially found settling in London’s East End a major culture-shock: “Well yes, the change was DRASTIC! Back in The Caribbean we lived on the edge of a cocoa and coffee plantation. So I was always in short trousers - bareback with no shirt - running into the bush. Whereas, when I got here, it was a totally different climate - very cold – and there were different people, different customs, a different culture... All in all, it was quite a transformation that I had to get used to! But, fortunately, there was also a lot of good MUSIC here - good songs, good melodies - that I immediately latched onto, because it was different from what I’d been accustomed to. I mean, back in Trinidad the songs were very humorous, very simple, very rhythmic... Whereas here it was a bit more MUSICAL, in the sense of melody structures and different-sounding chords. So, without realising, I was subconsciously developing and learning musical techniques just by LISTENING. You know, I never really got to the stage of learning music in an orthodox fashion, because I never had the finance at the time.”
While working as a tailor on London’s famed Saville Row by day, by night a teenage Billy could often be found singing his heart out in various London clubs: “Yeah, since I was small I’d always known I wanted to sing. So, when I left school, the first thing I did was audition for a band called Shades Of Midnight”, he recalls fondly: “I got the position as singer, and we actually performed all OVER the place! I remember we even went as far as some university in Wales once! But, at the same time, we never really made much money. And, any money we DID see, we used to call ‘curry money` - ‘cause we’d always spend it on curries! Then one day a couple of songwriters - who were attached to a company called Southern Music - came down to watch us. They were based on what was known back then (late Sixties) as Tin Pan Alley - a very musical street off Charing Cross Road, where a lot of publishers had their offices. Anyway, they invited me to come to their studio - and that was like my introduction to a whole new world!”
“So I started working with them, singing on a lot of their demos... And then one day I met up with a gentleman called Ben Findon, who used to do stuff with The Nolan Sisters”, continues Billy: “He offered me 20 pounds a week to be chief-cook-and-bottle-washer at his studio. And, looking back now, I see that time really as my training and apprenticeship. I got used to the studio environment; I’d write songs while I was in there... Then one day I brought the song ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ to Ben; we finished off recording it… And, next thing I know, I’ve got a Number Two record! And that was it really! There was no looking back after that!”
Despite having already released his (little-known) first single back in 1972 under his real name of Les Charles, in 1975 Billy adopted the recording-name ‘Billy Ocean’ (from the Ocean Estate where he lived in East London) to sign with then-up-and-coming UK indie GTO Records. With the ensuing instant success of ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ (which additionally hit Number 22 Stateside) leading to a self-titled debut album, Billy today recalls his GTO period (which spawned three further British Top 20 singles) with mixed feelings: “Looking back, I just say ‘Thank God I got through it all and came out in one piece!”, he laughs good-naturedly: “Not that there was anything wrong with the people or the company. It’s just that, when you come from nothing - I was living in a council flat - to be acclaimed, to be earning good money, doing TV... You know, I was very naïve. I wasn’t really a man of the world. But yet suddenly SUCCESS came along! So then the main question becomes, ‘How do you deal with it?!’!”
“Fortunately I was still at home with my parents”, he admits: “So I still had support around me, and so I just sorta got ON with it really! With the success of the record a band was formed around me. So I used to go around doing gigs on the Baileys circuit all around the country. And, by having people around me that were relatively protective, I guess I was relatively secure in what I was doing. Even though I still didn’t quite really understand certain aspects of it. Like, for example, when I was first told I’d be singing on ‘Top Of The Pops’ - which I think had ratings of about 13 million people at the time (1976) - I was like ‘Why do I have to do it? Can’t they just play the record?’!... But, you know, I did it… And, by the next week, the record had charted!”
With Ocean’s period of greatest success beginning with the hit-singles-packed ‘Suddenly’ album in 1984 (which spent a whole year in the US chart, going Double-Platinum along the way), his aforementioned trailblazing Eighties period with Jive Records not only saw him becoming a truly world-conquering singer/songwriter, but also saw him making inroads into Hollywood by writing and recording the theme to the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner/Danny Devito movie ‘Jewel Of The Nile’, ‘When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’. Which - with its entertaining video featuring Billy singing along with the film’s three stars themselves - scored him his first UK Number One in February 1986. With other highlights of Billy’s “international superstar” period including performing in Philadelphia for the American half of 1985’s historic Live Aid concert, he looks back on his time in the global spotlight with a mixture of pride and humility.
“Yeah, what with the Gold and Platinum discs and everything that came with it, all I can say is thank God it didn’t all happen during that initial Seventies period! Because that would have been MADNESS!”, he chuckles: “You know, by 1984 I’d already got accustomed to certain aspects of the fame and success. So to me it genuinely was an exciting time. And I wasn’t afraid, or scared, or phased by it. I mean, to have a Number One record in America - which is every artist’s dream really - and then, on top of that, to get a Grammy - was BIG! It’s like there are certain things that you aspire to do. And then, when you find yourself successful at doing them - not just in this country but round the entire world - it truly is an amazing experience.”
With compilation albums like 1997’s UK Top 10 ‘L.I.F.E.’ and 2004’s Top 30 ‘The Ultimate Collection’ having kept Billy’s name on the charts over the last decade-and-a-half, 2002 saw him being prestigiously awarded an honorary Doctorate Of Music by the University of Westminster. While, in US urban circles, he’s regularly been referenced in songs over the years by such chart-topping rappers as Outkast’s Big Boi; Atlanta crunk duo Ying Yang Twins; and West Coast G-funk pioneer Warren G. Nevertheless, in terms of UK media and award shows - both mainstream and black - his past accomplishments have remained inexplicably overlooked in favour of more celebrated (yet statistically less successful) British black music pioneers like Jazzie B, Loose Ends and Sade. A strange and ultimately questionable state of affairs, which Billy himself remains typically humble and philosophical about.
“Yeah, I have been ignored in a lot of ways”, he concedes honestly: “But, having said that, I genuinely don’t do what I do for the glory of it. It’s great to be recognised; it’s great to get the awards; it’s even great to get the money. But for me it’s never been primarily about that, it’s been about PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT. You know, I do treat this as a job, and I always have done. Which may have been the reason for my survival in this whole thing! So while yes, I might have been overlooked, the fact is the success and the statistics are there for anyone to see that WANTS to see them. I mean, even when I got my Grammy, I got no acclaim or acknowledgement for it over here! It was never spoken about. But for me, as I say, that’s not the criteria. Because sometimes people can put you up on a pedestal, so that you can become a target for them to shoot you back down again. You know, you can get all the glory in the world, and really and truly some of us cannot deal with it. It can be destructive to some of us. So for me I really do take life as it comes. I’m not an academic. So, if it hadn’t been for music, I’d probably be out of a job right now, or maybe something like a labourer. So, first and foremost, for me to be able to make a good living out of something I really enjoy, in my eyes genuinely does supersede any acclaim or award anyone could have given me.”
BiIly's current UK tour runs from October 1 to October 28
Words PETE LEWIS