Today’s Guest: Billy Ocean, singer, “Caribbean Queen,” “Loverboy,” “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry),” “Sad Songs,” “Going Gets Tough”
By Bob Andelman
(Originally published July 18, 1986)
ls his name really Billy Ocean?
Of course not.
“My real last name,” says the singer, “is River.”
It takes a second to sink in. No. Noooo.
The singer is laughing.
Now he’s laughing harder.
How many times has he told that joke?
“This is the first time,” he swears, the laughter still growing. “It just occured to me.”
Billy Ocean, nee Leslie Sebastian Charles, native of Trinidad, one-time Savile Row tailor, husband and father of two, can still afford the high spirits and giddiness.
He’s No. 1.
As recently as two weeks ago, Ocean’s latest single from the “Love Zone” album, “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry),” had reached the top position on the charts. Not just one chart, though – “Sad Songs” was simultaneously the No. 1 overall single and the No. 1 black single.
BILLY OCEAN interview excerpt: “Instead of thinking about money or how I was going to live, I was more interested in practicing my trade. I just wanted to sing.”
It’s nothing new for Ocean. His previous release was the theme song for “Jewel of the Nile.” It went to No. 2. Before that, a pair of songs from his last album went to the top – “Caribbean Queen” and “Loverboy.”
That’s why this man is laughing.
Four years ago, the expression on Billy Ocean’s face was anything but a grin.
Despite having a hit in 1982 with the song “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down),” he was dumped unceremoniously by Epic Records.
Collecting his wits – and what little money he had – Ocean hit upon the only manner he could to continue performing in England while looking for a new recording contract.
“I was very lucky that around that time, tapes became fashionable,” he says by phone. “It was at the beginning of the new technology of music. It started in Europe (with bands like Human League and Naked Eyes), where there was only two members of the band. One guy might really sing, . the other guy might play a keyboard that triggers a lot of different instruments.”
A few people started performing live to “backing tracks,” which offered the simplicity of pre-recorded instruments. Musicians were unnecessary – a single just needed to turn his tape recorder on and off.
“I used to take my voice off my backing tracks and treat it very much like a band,” says Ocean. “It was for the practice because I otherwise wouldn’t be doing anything.”
And nine times out of 10, it worked beautifully. But that 10th time…
“A couple of times, the tape would stick or something. Or the power—somebody’d kick the plug out in a dark club.
“Sometimes after using the tape so much,” he adds, “you might find one number, the tape might stretch a little bit. “I learned a lot from that period,” he says.
“I learned an awful lot. Instead of thinking about money or how I was going to live, I was more interested in practicing my trade.
That his dedication paid off is obvious.
“I’m glad it did,” he says. “I was more interested in singing. t just wanted to sing.”
An interesting bit of fiction that grew out of those years was that Ocean was rediscovered while working as a janitor at Jive Records. The story may have been true of Evelyn “Champagne” King a decade ago but not of Billy Ocean.
“No,” he says, “that’s not true. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a janitor …
“What happened was, I had already started ihe album (“Suddenly”). Above the (Jive) offic6s in i\ew York, there’s a flat that anyone who’s recording, or the engineers, one of us can use the flat. The girl downstairs was changing offices or moving her desk or something, so I went down and helped her.
“And that’s how that rumor began, I guess. [‘ve heard that one before. I joke about it.”
Ocean coauthors nearly all of his own songs. There’ll be nobody coming out from behind him sne day, claiming credit for his success.
“I’ve always written with other people,” he says. “Who does what? Everybody does everything. You can’t break it down like that. I’m sure there are people who work where one guy does all the lyrics. When I work with people, everybody does everything.”
On the “Love Zone” album, Ocean’s primary collaborators are keyboard player Barry J. Eastmond and bassist Wayne Brathwaite, who has worked with Herbie Hancock.
Complimented on his smooth transitions from a ballad like “Sad Songs” to the uptempo “Going Gets Tough,” Ocean has a one-word response: “shucks.”
He really uses that word.
“I sing either,” Ocean says when pressed. “Fortunately, I write my own songs, right? So I suppose it makes it a little easier for me to come up with a style of things I enjoy doing. It depends on how good the song is.”
The first two elements that are important to Ocean the songwriter are typical: a good melody, a good lyric. But then Ocean the singer takes over with some important logic.
“The song has to be a song good enough for anybody,” he says. “Not only for me. So then I’ll sing it the best I could. What I wouldn’t try to do is disguise a bad song with a style, a vocal style. ‘Cause I’m not really a clever singer. I just sing in cue, a sort of stylized singing So the song has to be right.”
Ocean says he gets a tremendous amount of satisfaction when he finishes writing a new song.
“After all that sweat – ‘God, I’m never going to get this.’Then I go into the studio to record and I hear it a thousand times. I think, ‘God– I’ve heard enough of this one.’
“I treat my music the way I live my life, basically,” the singer continues. “You get in contact with all sorts of different people, all sorts of different elements, and music is part of life. All the different types of music I come in touch with, I guess that’s the way it comes out.
“It’s nothing especially clever.”
When “Caribbean Queen” reached No. 1 two years ago, it changed Ocean’s life. But not his expectations. When “Sad Songs” hit No. I two weeks ago, he was “very surprised.”
“With so many records being released a week, to have any record anywhere on the chart is a tremendous amount of luck. It’s like a blessing.”
On the subject of personal blessings, Ocean took the conversation on a swing past the subject of his wife, Judy, and their 6-year-old daughter and & year old son.
“It all helps,” he says.
“It’s all part of the picture, a part you don’t see. All people see is me, up front, singing hits with records on the charts.”
What they don’t see is a father and husband missing in action, one who can’t wait till his kids are old enough Io come on the road with him.
“My kids haven’t seen me too much. It’s difficult. I hope in time to come, they will be interested in trying to come with me,” he says. ‘Hopefully, I’ll be able to afford certain things to make it comfortable for them.”
Ocean’s own father brought his wife and four children to England from Trinidad to find a better life when Billy was a young boy.
The senior Charles did “everything and anything,” his son remembers, “from a fisherman to a mechanic, from a carpenter to a salesman. He also-was a musician. He played guitar.
“I think he would have liked to be a professional (musician), but he had four kids, so he didn’t quite know which direction to pull in.”
Ocean says he believes a straight line through much of his success can be drawn back in time to his father’s decision to leave the family homeland.
“I think that the reason I came this far is that I left Trinidad at such an early age. My eyes were opened up a lot bigger than if I’d stayed. What I , learned in England in maybe 5 or 6 years as a kid, it probably would have taken me 20 years back in Trinidad. I wouldn’t have seen as much. I wouldn’t have been exposed.
“Maybe if my father had come to England at the age I did…”
Charles died almost a decade ago. He saw the beginnings of Billy’s potential but not the payoff nor the grandchildren.
“I’m sure he’s there somewhere, watching me,’, says Ocean.
Esquire Magazine has an occasional propensity for using well-known people to model clothes.
Billy Ocean was recently one of those. He was described in a caption as, “The picture of sartorial correctness.”
“It’s a snappy little picture,” says the singer, chuckling. “I look very much like my dad in that.”
Ocean’s father must have been a very dapper dresser.
His son rarely is photographed looking anything less than exquisite. Part of the credit may go to the old man, part to Ocean’s training as a jailor.
But “not that much,” he insists, with regards to his short career fitting other people’s clothes. ,,I did it, really, because it was something to fall back on. My parents really had big intentions for me, you know. I preferred music. Music is all I wanted to do.”
Nonetheless, Ocean picks out his own clothes for the stage, shopping exclusively at a London men’s store called Ebony.
“If I’m on stage,” he explains, “I like a bit of color and I’ll be a little bit more daring. If I’m 9-to-5 Billy,’ then it’s just my jeans and a T-shirt. Realty very ordinary. If I’m going out to dinner, I’ll probably wear a suit. A silk suit.”
Despite his image of “sartorial correctness… Ocean insists he only pays attention to what he’s wearing when he’s working.
Still, he must travel with a large wardrobe besides his stage clothes, right?
Ocean laughs at the thought. “No, I don’t,” he says. “I’m on tour – in America at least – till about September, at least.
And all [‘ve got is two pair of jeans – one on one off – a few shirts, and training shoes. And everything that I came with fits in a Nike bag.”
“I’m 36. I’m an old man. Thirty-six years old.” Billy Ocean may be 36, folks, but remember, he’s still carrying his clothes in a Nike bag.
“The way I look at the whole thing – life – is I’m here, I don’t know why I’m here: I think I know why I’m here – but that’s for me to consider and have faith in. Then one day, I’m gone. And a lot of the things we get involved in, it really doesn’t matter.”
For the things that do matter, such as his family and career, the singer is trying to make the most of his time.
“I’m sure I’m not making as much of it as if I had more get-up-and-go in me,” he says. “But … I’m always doing something. Some people can be all over the place, in that, in this. I know when I do something, I put all of my energy behind it.”
There is still the question of his last name. Why “Ocean,” Billy?
“People get ideas,” he says tentatively. “Sometimes ideas come and you don’t really take notice from where. It’s just put there.
“When I left Trinidad, there used to be a (football) team in the village called Ocean tl. But they got their name, in turn, from an old film with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
“When I went to England, I hit on the name ‘Ocean,’ forgetting that there was a football team or that there was a film. So when I went back, they said, “This is where you got the idea from,’ and they were right,” he says.
“It just seemed right.”