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Issue 1084

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Feature

Billy Ocean: I've got somethin' to tell ya

Billy Ocean @bluesandsoul.com
Billy Ocean @bluesandsoul.com Billy Ocean @bluesandsoul.com Billy Ocean @bluesandsoul.com Billy Ocean @bluesandsoul.com

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 act Britain has ever produced. This month, meanwhile, sees him return to the public arena with a new, 18-track compilation âThe Very Best Of Billy Oceanâ plus an extensive, 30-date UK tour.

Born Leslie Sebastian Charles in Fyzabad, Trinidad in 1950. singer/songwriter Billy migrated with his family to Londonâs 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 âLove Really Hurts Without Youâ (1976) and âRed Light Spells Dangerâ (1977).

However, it was not until he signed to the then-independent Jive Records in 1983 that the universal appeal of Billyâs 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 âCaribbean Queenâ, Oceanâs period with Jive would see him attain global sales comparable to the biggest US black megastars of the day (Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, etc) via a string of international smash singles, including two further American Pop and R&B Number Ones - 1986âs âThereâll Be Sad Songsâ and 1988âs âGet Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Carâ. All of which emanated from his multi-Platinum-selling albums âSuddenlyâ (1984); âLove Zoneâ (1986); and âTear Down These Wallsâ (1988).

Nevertheless, following his final studio album for Jive - 1993âs âTime To Move Onâ (interestingly produced by a then-up-and-coming R. Kelly) - Billy retired from the public eye before (having in 2002 been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the University Of Westminster) re-emerging in 2007 for his first live dates in over 15 years. The success of which has ultimately led to his current full-length tour plus his âThe Very Best Of Billy Oceanâ compilation, which boasts all his most memorable and chart-topping tracks from both the Seventies and Eighties.

Cue an ever-humble-mannered Billy to reacquaint himself with Pete Lewis to discuss in-depth both the background behind many of said compilation albumâs featured songs plus what audiences can expect from his current British tour.

Billyâs ideas on his new 18-track compilation LP âThe Very Best Of Billy Oceanâ

âI think itâs good. And what I particularly like about this compilation is that theyâre using some songs that were overlooked on compilations the FIRST time round, like âStop Meâ and âRed Light Spells Dangerâ. You know, because I used to write so many songs I guess it was inevitable that some would end up getting overlooked - not because they werenât any good, but because the compilers were kinda spoilt for choice! So to me this is almost like a second time around, when some of those previously-overlooked tracks are now getting a chance to be heard again.â

Billyâs memories of his first run of success with GTO Records in the mid-Seventies that spawned four consecutive, Motown-influenced UK Top 20 singles - peaking with two enduring Number Two smashes âLove Really Hurts Without Youâ and âRed Light Spells Dangerâ

âWell the strange thing is, when I hear those records now, to me they still sound GOOD! You know, in those days the things that influenced me spread from The Caribbean to England to America. Because donât forget, I was born Trinidad where I grew up with calypso. Then, as a boy of seven, I came to England where pop music like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was flying - and then later on we started getting Tamla Motown from The States and words like âsoulâ started coming into it. So my influences were very much based on what I was listening to at that time. And, with my first experience of American music being really Motown, I guess itâs not surprising that that sound had a strong impact on my early records. Plus I also think the actual RECORDING methods of the time also helped make those records what they were. Because they were all done on 16 tracks, and back then youâd have this thing called âmixing-downâ which really created a sound of its own, with all the feedback, all the mish-mash, all the different frequencies... You know, sonically thatâs what most of those records were all ABOUT - and thatâs why they still sound exciting.â

How Billy came to sign with Jive Records in 1983 - the deal that would soon make him into a bona fide global superstar

âAfter Iâd had the UK success with âLove Really Hurts Without Youâ and âRed Light Spells Dangerâ, I felt Iâd done what I wanted to do here and I was ready to go to America. And, to be fair, GTO Records did send me to Alabama to work with a guy called Rick Hall (legendary Southern soul producer). But - to be honest - I just wasnât READY. So after that I took a break, became despondent, and almost gave up the business... But then Clive Calder - the head of Jive - came looking for me. He came to my house, heard the songs Iâd been writing - which included âSuddenlyâ - and straightaway was like âBilly, youâre going to America to record!â... Which was like a million dollars to my ears! So I went over there for three or four months, and it was almost like I was being TESTED! Because it was winter, and Iâd never seen so much snow in my LIFE! But the opportunity was just too great for me to miss. So, while I was there, I wrote âCaribbean Queenâ and pretty much the whole âSuddenlyâ album. And, by the grace of God, everything worked OUT! I came back to London with the album, everybody at the record company liked it... And, as you know, the rest was history!â

How Billy now looks back on âCaribbean Queenâ - which not only topped both the US Pop and R&B charts but also became his first worldwide hit before, in 1985, winning him a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance - plus its multi-million-selling accompanying album âSuddenlyâ

âWell, I have to give a lot of credit to Clive Calder, whoâs a very clever man. I mean, heâs actually the most amazing person Iâve ever met in this business. Because he literally just lived what he did and he put me together with some of the most genuinely nice, yet talented, musicians in America. People like Keith Diamond - who wrote âCaribbean Queenâ with me; Barry Eastmond - whoâd been Lena Horneâs musical director at 18; and Wayne Brathwaite, whoâd previously been Herbie Hancockâs bass player. And, in terms of the song itself, whenever people ask me whatâs my own favourite track I do get kinda mercenary and always say âCaribbean Queenâ! Because that was the one that gave me the worldwide acclaim - and the rest, like âWhen The Going Gets Toughâ, all followed FROM that.â

Why the âSuddenlyâ album (which spent a year in the US chart, selling over two million in America alone) showcased so much musical versatility. Ranging from the commercial R&B/pop groove of âCaribbean Queenâ to the surging love balladry of âSuddenly; the raunchy rock/soul of âLoverboyâ to Billyâs ultra-soulful rendition of The Beatlesâ classic ballad âThe Long And Winding Roadâ

âYou hearing that diversity doesnât surprise me, because thatâs what I AM. You know, because of the experiences I had growing up - being born in Trinidad and raised in this country - I am able to accept all sorts of music and enjoy them. And so I guess that, when I write, all those different styles do come OUT. I always say that one of the greatest things for me, when I first came to this country, was the fact that there was very little choice of RADIO stations. You know, this was before the pirates and all those things came along. So the radio you had at the time would play everything from Beethoven to Frank Sinatra to Bob Marley! Whereas, if Iâd grown up in America, the radio there would have been more segregated and Iâd only have been listening to ONE kind of music. So thatâs why inside of me I have all these different influences. Which I think, at the end of the day, is what Billy Ocean is ABOUT... And I wouldnât have it any other WAY! Because now, when I go out and do shows, itâs made up of all the hits. And theyâre so varied - different rhythms, different vibes - that it does make for a very interesting show.â

How Billy recalls âWhen The Going Gets Toughâ - which, in 1986, gave him his first UK Number One

âWell, when you have Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner performing with you in your video, what else are you talking about but smash?! You know, thatâs worth money in ITSELF! So the way I look back on it, is that Iâm just glad it was my video and not someone ELSEâS! I mean, at the time when they first asked us to write the song for the film âJewel Of The Nileâ and sent us a few clips of what it was about, I was actually in the studio recording with great people like Mutt Lange and Keith Diamond. So I was definitely in the right musical environment! The engine was already revved-up, it was moving and ready - and so we just had to bring it ON really! You know, whatever theyâd have brought me at that time - when I was in that frame of mind - you donât really MISS! You just hit the TARGET, mate!â

Why his 1988 US Number One (and worldwide smash) âGet Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Carâ - plus its accompanying LP âTear Down These Wallsâ - basically marked the end of Billyâs global hit-making career

âI was very, very successful - but at the same time Iâm only one person. You know, I was doing interviews, I was touring... Basically in those days my whole life was write, record and tour⦠write, record and tour... And that just went on and ON! Touring would take me away from home for months; recording would take me away from home for months... And all this time at home the kids were growing up, and I just needed to GET some of that. I mean, my wife was having to deal with everything by herself, which wasnât really fair. Then Iâd come home and the kids werenât calling me Daddy any more, they were calling me Billy Ocean! Plus, to be honest with you, I did get a little LONELY out there. And I just feel that, once you start losing the flavour, then you donât mess AROUND! You donât hang around, you just get out of it, and you take a back SEAT for a while... But then of course, my âwhileâ did go on for a good 15 YEARS! But, when I look back, I do think I was true to MYSELF. You know, youâre on a high; youâre on a buzz; youâre on a roll - and you just GO with it! And I WENT with everything, and I LOVED everything - until it came to a point where I just thought âIâve gotta have a break!â! So, if I had to do it all again, Iâd do the same thing - though maybe Iâd try not to stay away for so long.â

What audiences can expect from Billyâs current, 30-date UK tour

âWell, I brought out a new album last year called âBecause I Love Youâ - which is like my own personal little project that I sell on tour as I go along. So, while I am doing a couple of songs off that, really and truly the majority of the show is made up of the songs people know and ASSOCIATE with me. Because to me it doesnât make sense to be doing anything ELSE. I mean, sometimes my MD is like âWell, you should change thisâ or âWe should change thatâ⦠But then Iâm like âHow can I change âLove Really Hurts Without Youâ or âCaribbean Queenâ for something nobody KNOWS?â! You know, with my show being about two hours long, rather than giving people two hours of boredom at least this way I have people singing, people enjoying themselves⦠Which is what I LOVE! Because to me, when youâre onstage and you get that reaction, thatâs really what itâs all ABOUT!â

The make-up of his audiences today

âTheyâre ALL ages! I see grandmothers, I see mothers, I see children... I mean, on one occasion I had FOUR generations of people come up and introduce themselves... And itâs like âWow! If thatâs the kind of effect what you do has on people, then you just keep on DOING it!â!.. I mean, we might think weâre just earning a living or satisfying our own egos or whatever... But you know, when you reach a certain age like I have now, then you realise âMy God, what youâre doing does mean an awful lot to a lot of peopleâ - and it really does put it all into perspective.â

Billyâs current recording situation

âWell, as I said, I did release that one album over here last year and Iâm now looking for distribution for the rest of the world - America, Australia, etc⦠But having said that, though I have got my own little studio in Grenada Iâm actually not in that much of a hurry in terms of recording these days - because the BUSINESS of the industry has changed so much! You know, thereâs all sorts of things that I really donât understand yet and that I do need to come to terms with - like downloading, Facebook-ing, Googling... So, whereas I used to record almost every couple of years, the focus now - as far as Iâm concerned - is more on touring and just selling my CD at my shows. And I guess Iâll KEEP it like that until something better develops really. You know, I canât say I havenât had my time. So right now Iâm enjoying the live side of it all, and Iâm trying not to be greedy. Because as I say, Iâve had my time - and so anything I get now at my age of 60 is like âThank you Fatherâ and a bonus.â

Billyâs current 30-date UK tour runs from now to June 10; taking in such cities as Aberdeen, Newcastle, Dumfries, Birmingham, Belfast, Cheltenham, Swindon and London

Billyâs album âThe Very Best Of Billy Oceanâ is out now through Sony Music
Words PETE LEWIS

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