A career spanning four decades. Countless hit records, awards, and accolades. How does Billy Ocean do it? With a positive attitude, myriads of talent, and passion.
He took awhile away from the music business to concentrate on family and other personal pursuits; but now, with Because I Love You, his first album of new material since 1993's Time to Move On, Billy is back in full swing - touring the world and writing classics for the next generation.
He's worked with so many greats. Keith Diamond, Wayne Brathwaite, Teddy Riley, R. Kelly, Ben Findon, Rick Hall, Jonathan Butler -- from smooth purveyors of R&B and funk to country-inspired pop craftsmen. More importantly, though, he's had his own voice through it all. Both on paper and on record, that is. He's had a hand in writing every one of his hit singles from 1976 on - some 25 of them.
Billy's personality is just as warm and humane as the glow of his music and performances. To many folks, he seemed to appear out of nowhere in the mid-80's with a long line of smash chart hits. But the road to that success had actually been a quite lengthy, not always gold-paved, one. Growing up in Trinidad, Billy was raised by a Calypso musician dad, who used to take him along "to sing at people's Christenings and weddings. [The attendees] would want me to sing and I would! I don't think I was that good," Billy relates." I think people were just impressed that I was a brave kid."
At age 10, the family moved to England. "My childhood was very good," he recalls. "There was no great amount of money, but we had a lot of love in the family and my parents encouraged us kids to do our best, and I think we did just that." During his early adulthood, Billy was determined to build a career on the musical talent he had been cultivating while growing up. He worked a variety of day jobs while taking whatever performance and recording work he could obtain. He remembers that during the early 1970's, "I used to do a lot of different sessions for people. A lot of them, in fact, were for free, because I was so excited about going into the studio. It was like a whole different world, to be able to record and hear yourself -- and I love that part of it. Also during that period, I learned to write my songs. It was like my apprenticeship, really."
The first product to surface on wax was a single entitled "Nashville Rain," which came out on the small Spark label in 1971, under BIlly's birthname, Les Charles. "You can imagine the pure excitement," Billy reminisces. "To be able to go home to my parents and say, 'Look, here's my first record!' ... You're singing all the time, and you say you're interested in singing and all that, and one day you have proof that there's this bit of vinyl with your voice on it. Yeah, it's a great feeling! It wasn't the case of looking for a hit record. In those days, you were just excited to be getting the opportunity to do things, really."
While "Nashville Rain" and its follow-up single, "Baby You've Got Something," appeared under Billy's real name, he would actually spend a lot of time over the next few years trying out different monikers -- among them, Big Ben, Joshua, and Sam Spade. Interesting choices, eh? "I never gave myself those names," Billy relates. "The only name I got from myself was Billy Ocean. The others were on account of working with other producers. In those days, the independent producers more or less controlled the record industry in that they were the ones who found the talent, gave you the name, and produced you. They did everything. They took the package to the record company and did some sort of licensing deal."
Following the Les Charles records for Spark, Billy's next notable output came in the form of a 'band' project by the name of Scorched Earth in 1974. "That was really on account of a song that Ben Findon wrote called 'On the Run.' If anything happens, then you build a band around the artist." The song was initially released on the independent Young Blood label run by Miki Dallon. The label licensed it to a number of different record companies across the world, including Bell in the U.S. Most of these 7" single releases bore a picture of just Billy on their respective picture covers. Eventually, though, the bigger Philips label released the single on a wider scale in the UK -- along with bandmates to accompany Billy in the publicity shots.
Not only did "On the Run" begin to garner interest from record labels in Billy as a solo artist; but it also afforded him his first release on wax of a song that he helped to write. Specifically, this was a song called "Super Woman, Super Lover," found on the B-side of the Philips edition of the single. Thinking back to that time, Billy offers, "Some of the producers used to be favorable and give me the B-side. That's one of the ways I was learning to write. And if you're going to have your song on the B-side of what you think is a potential single, you do your best to try to match it up to the A-side. And most of the time, this B-side would be some sort of old track that didn't work -- and they'd say, 'Go and try something around that.' All I would hear was the backing track, and I would just create my own melody and write a song around it."
While one subsequent Scorched Earth single was released in Italy, most of the material recorded would not surface until a decade later -- in remixed form -- after Billy had achieved superstardom. But his climb to that level would see a serious escalation in 1975, when he was signed by Laurence Myers' GTO label, at the time boasting acts such as Donna Summer, Heatwave, and The Dooleys. While Billy's first single for the label, "Whose Little Girl Are You," didn't become a chart-topper, it did make a little bit of noise, and paved adequate interest for a follow-up, which started the string of classics Billy is known for. That song was "Love Really Hurts Without You," a feel-good dancer with an arrangement and melodic structure reminiscent of Motown's 60's output with the likes of the Temptations, but sung in Billy's distinctly lovely tenor range, with just the right combination of tenderness and gutsiness.
"Love Really Hurts Without You" reached #2 on the U.K. singles chart, and quickly found its way to international success in 1976. In the U.S., the single was picked up by Ariola Records, on which it found its way to #22 on the pop chart. The follow-up single, "L.O.D. (Love on Delivery)," reached #19 in the U.K. and crossed over to the lower half ot the U.S. R&B chart.
Both of these hits, as well as the subsequent "Stop Me (If You've Heard It All Before)," were penned by Billy with Ben Findon, the man behind the Scorched Earth project. The two partnered on penning nine of the 11 cuts that made up Billy's self-titled debut album, which was released throughout Europe, but never came out stateside. "In those days, the record companies really weren't prepared to spend the money on a black artist. They'd take a chance with a single; but with the expense you have to put into an album, you're talking about a difference of economics. I was fortunate in that I had hit singles, which kept the whole thing going."
One single which unmistakably kept things going was 1977's "Red Light Spells Danger," a fiery dancer which shot to #2 in the U.K. and got picked up by Epic in the US. It also landed Billy his fourth appearance on the famed British TV program of chart hits, 'Top of the Pops.' Around the same time, Billy's label home, GTO, was bought by Epic -- a change that didn't fare so well for Billy as an artist. "I found it very difficult, because here I was with this huge corporation. You couldn't see anybody, didn't know anybody. It wasn't the sort of one-on-one I was dealing with at GTO."
Not only was it harder for Billy to talk to executives at his new, by-default label home; but it was also harder for him to get product out. Releases became less frequent, with just one single released in 1978 after the big success of "Red Light." 1979 saw two single releases which charted, but it wasn't until 1980 that his second album finally surfaced. While there was certainly a lack of certainty surrounding his status at the label, the situation did, at least, provide Billy with some interesting creative opportunities. The aforementioned 1978 single, for example, was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producer Rick Hall -- known for his work on classic sides for the likes of Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Laura Lee, to name a few. Harrison Calloway was arranger on the session. The song was entitled "Everything's Changed," and, indeed, marked a notable change in sound for Billy -- an interesting mixture of soul, disco, and country. "I had a great time down there, but musically, nothing much really happened, because I was nervous. I wasn't confident enough. When I compare it to the time I got the second chance to go to America -- New York, I was more sure of myself then."
The next interesting opportunity came out of what might have initially appeared to be a dim situation. While the singles "American Hearts" and "Are You Ready" just missed the UK top-40 in 1979, their companion LP, 'City Limit,' appeared to wane quickly, sales-wise. However, it proved to be a treasure trove of quality R&B, pop, and disco gems, which some savvy publisher picked up on. Over the next year, no less than five of the album's songs were covered by a variety of established artists including The Dells, Lenny Williams, The Nolans, and La Toya Jackson. Billy discloses, "I never had any contact to be able to get my songs to them, so I can only imagine that they probably heard my work through the publishers. In any case, It came at a very good time, because it put me in a very good light -- not only as an artist, but also as a songwriter." This happening also put things in a good commercial light for Billy. The Nolans cracked the top 20 in Europe and Asia with their recording of "Who's Gonna Rock You," while La Toya Jackson took "Stay the Night" to the R&B top-40 in the U.S.
While other artists were achieving chart success with Billy's compositions, he quietly released a single simply entitled "Nights" in late 1980. Epic's U.K. chapter didn't seem to put much promotional muscle into the release; but it found its way to dancefloors in a big way in the U.S. And before long, Billy was experiencing his biggest hit yet in this country, with the retitled "Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)" making major noise on radio stations, propelling it to #5 on the R&B singles chart. He recalls, "All these songs that were hits were really so on their own strength. In comparison to my [later] days with Jive, where people were actually working the records to create hits. But one of the things ['Nights'] did is really help me in the U.S. market. They invited me to Paradise Garage, and I did very well. It wasn't from scratch, because I was over here in Europe doing a lot of club dates. I really wasn't getting a lot of money for them, but it was a great period -- because it was experience. So, when 'Nights' took off in America, I was ready. I was nervous, but I didn't have any rust. I was really at the top of my trade." To this date, the song remains a classic crowd-pleaser as a regular part of Billy's shows.
It's said that the third time is the charm, and that was arguably the case with many of the same songs from Billy's 'City Limit' LP that were covered by the aforementioned artists. With the sudden success of "Nights," Epic's U.S. division commissioned a full-length album. Pressed to get it out in a timely manner, Billy re-recorded those tunes, which had first been produced by Ken Gold, with producer Nigel Martinez. The result was the nine-cut "Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)" album, released in 1981. "I recorded the whole thing in something like 11 days. If you look at the 'City Limit' album as, 'This is a demo of what it should be like,' then it [didn't seem] like starting from scratch. Nigel had enough to go on to produce and create his own idea of what it should be." Unfortunately, the full-length didn't get all the attention it was entitled to, with Epic throwing out only one further single (the beautifully funky "Another Day Won't Matter") and then dropping the ball. Shortly thereafter, Billy recorded what was to be his last album with Epic: 1982's masterful 'Inner Feelings.' The first single was a sort of take-off on "Nights" with authentic Caribbean influences integrated into the funkiness -- "Calypso Funkin'." Chart positions weren't as lofty this time around, though, and the subsequent single releases ("Inner Feelings" in the U.S., "I Can't Stop" in the U.K.) fizzled without notice.
But a major turning point was shortly around the corner. Signing with Clive Calder's Jive Records in 1983, Billy finally found a label home where he could work on his craft while being supported by the company's infrastructure to get it out in the marketplace in a far more noticeable, much less nonchalant manner. "What can I say? It's almost as if it was something that I was working towards, and all of a sudden, my time had come. Jive promised they would send me to America. All of the promises that they made, they kept. I was working with people like 'Mutt' Lange, Barry Eastmond, and very talented people. Barry was Lena Horne's musical director when he was 18. Wayne Brathwaite was working with Herbie Hancock as a bass player. And the nice thing about all of these people, except for Mutt Lange, is that they were unknown producers. We found success together. It was a very creative period. I have to say thanks to Clive Calder, who has to be the greatest record man in the world. He really knew how to put teams together. He knew what he wanted for the label, and for the artist. I had a lot of artistic freedom. I was working one-on-one with him, so it was a very good relationship."
The hit streak that Billy was about to experience was of great proportion. Beginning with "Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)" in early 1984, he scored seven top-10 hits on the pop chart, and nine on the R&B chart, in the U.S. Furthermore, he won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal in 1985 and two American Music Awards in 1986. He was also invited to perform at the American Live Aid Concert before an audience of 99,000. At this time, he was riding high on the success of his first Jive album, 'Suddenly,' produced by Keith Diamond and featuring now-classic hits like the title ballad, as well as "Loverboy" and "Mystery Lady." By year's end, though, he was nearing completion of his second LP for the label. 'Love Zone' was preceded by the uptempo pop-R&B driver "When the Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)," which was boosted by an appearance in the movie "Jewel of the Nile." Further big hits from the album included "There'll Be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry)," "Love Is Forever," and the titletrack - a super smooth and sultry midnight groover.
In between touring and recording, Billy also found time to produce for several other artists in the mid-80's. Notably, he helmed Ruby Turner and Jonathan Butler's cover version of The Staple Singers' "If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)" and several cuts on teen singer Warren Mills' debut album. By 1987, though, he was getting ready for his own next album, 'Tear Down These Walls,' which would continue his streak of chart success and packed concerts. The album gave Billy his third #1 pop (and 4th #1 R&B) single in the U.S. via "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car," and also spawned the popular singles in the top-10 R&B ballad "The Colour of Love" and titletrack single, co-written with Teddy Riley.
Considering the constant success Billy enjoyed from 1984-1989, many were surprised when he decided to retreat from the limelight for nearly four years. However, the homefront was calling. So, after releasing his "Greatest Hits" album in 1989, he lay low until 1993. As Billy mentioned during an interview on the TV program 'Regis & Kathie Lee' that year, he had stopped to think about the time with his family he had been missing while constantly touring and recording. He also remarked that his mother's death had been a factor in putting his career on hold temporarily.
When his comeback album, 'Time to Move On,' surfaced, Billy began sporting the hairstyle that he maintains to this day -- dreadlocks -- and began exploring new musical styles. During his hiatus, he had taken up playing steel drums. On the album, he wrote and produced with a diverse cast of players including R. Kelly, Hula and K. Fingers, Steely and Clevie, and Timmy Allen. The result was a potpourri of Caribbean-spiced dance numbers, romantic pop/R&B ballads, new-jack swing, and reggae. Unfortunately, not many people heard the album -- at least in comparison to his mid-80's output. "It was a very interesting period then," he recalls. "Clive Calder was going over to America, and I came across another transitional stage. I had fallen out with my manager, so all of the machinery that went into creating the hits wasn't there anymore. Hence, I didn't record for awhile."
Indeed, Billy didn't record any further material for nine years. In 2002, Jive released a collection of his ballads entitled "Let's Get Back Together" in Europe. Among the contents were a previously unreleased ballad recorded in the 80's, and two newly recorded songs -- one a cover of Tracy Chapman's "Baby Can I Hold You," the other a rendition of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." The long drought of new material wasn't necessarily intended. "After the 'Time to Move On' album, when Clive went to America, it wasn't the same with the people I had to work with over here. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, I thought, 'Maybe I'll just spend some time with my family. Of course, it sort of drifted into nearly 15 years, because, you know, time flies!" Notably, during this hiatus, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Westminster.
To the relief of many fans the world over, Billy finally ended his absence from the music business in 2007, when he began embarking on a comeback tour -- mostly in the U.K., but with a few stops in the U.S. Of the latter, a particularly notable engagement was at B.B. King's in New York on October 27. This writer attended the show, and can vouch for the sheer energy and joy that permeated the club that night. Not to mention, it was my first introduction to the warm personality of Mr. Charles, who was very gracious at our backstage "meet-and-greet."
With the delightful welcome-back response generated from these shows, in 2008, Billy took two more important steps toward making a full-fledged comeback: writing new material and recording it. The first result of this came in the spring, with the song "Chained" being featured on the U.K.-only compilation, 'Wilberforce 200 (A Change Is Gonna Come)' - commemorating the bicentennial anniverary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Continuing to tour while readying a new full-length album, Billy made one very important decision concerning his new musical ventures: he would release his music independently. Billy notes that he decided, "I'm just gonna try things on my own. I had enough experience. At my age, where am I going to go to a record company and say, 'Hi, I'm Billy Ocean. Sign me.' They'd show me the door! But the truth of the matter is I'm still out there making music, touring, and I still feel I have something to offer."
In February of this year, Billy put an end to the 16-year absence of a full-length album with the release of 'Because I Love You' on his own Aqua Music. Previously serving as his publishing company, Aqua now acts as his bonafide record label. "Nothing happens without a reason. I've always wanted to know what it would be like to be in charge of my own label and projects. But you don't know how to do it until one day you get the opportunity." 'Because I Love You' brings together Billy's loves of pop, R&B, and reggae in a cohesive sequence that showcases both his mastery of the ballad and his funk savvy.
Commenting on his continued passion for making music, he notes, "Truly, if you are a writer and musician, and your concentration is on making the music, then that buzz will always be there. I can pick up my guitar and get a buzz from what's coming between myself and the guitar -- whether I'm strumming a John Lennon song, or Marvin Gaye." Those diverse influences are reflected in both the contemplative midtempo selection, "The Question Is" and the titletrack, an emotive, compelling ballad. Meanwhile, Billy takes the vibe back to his 80's groove with "Baby Don't Go," then does some unique sonic experimentation on the percussive, swaying dancer "Tenderness."
Billy produced 'Because I Love You' with Greg Assing, whom he described as a full-fledged musician with a lot of technological prowess. The two first met while playing in a steel drum band together. The last few years, they've been working in the recording studio that Billy built in Grenada, where some of his family is from. "Every once in awhile we'd have a party at the panyard - where you rehearse and practice the steel drums. I met Greg down there and told him about my studio. He was interested, so we went down to Grenada, just after Hurricane Ivan. It was his first time there. He liked the country, and the whole set-up [of the studio] and said, 'I'm in!' I then got some new equipment. He told me what we needed to bring it up to date. Then, we started writing, and the album was made!"
While 'Because I Love You' has so far only been released in the UK, that will likely change in 2010, when the album is set for release in America. "There was a plan to do it this year...but at my age, you don't need to rush anything, really. I think it's more important to take time and do it properly, because I don't have the facility of a [major] record company. Jive was a giant with connections all over the world, so they were ready to move whenever. It's not the same this time."
In fact, many aspects of the industry have changed drastically since Billy's last album; but the reason that he's in the game again is the same one that prompted him to enter it over 30 years ago. "I am really a dinosaur when it comes to technology. Maybe if I knew too much I might find it disheartening. When I started, there was vinyl; then there were CD's; now there's I-Pods. When I started recording, I was doing so on an 8-track machine. Then I moved on to 16, then 24, and 32 -- and now, you can get a million! It's digital now. All of these transitions, I sort of move with -- without really understanding the mechanics of it. My attitude as far as music is concerned, though, hasn't really changed. At the end of the day, if you have a good song and you deliver it to the best of your ability and produce it to the best of your ability, then the rest is up to Joe Public."
Well, Joe Public has been pretty kind to Mr. Ocean over the decades -- hit records, awards, sellout tours. Reflecting thus far on his accomplishments, Billy says there are a few standout moments. "I've been lucky. I've had some very successful periods in my life. People ask me what my favorite is. As a whole, I like all of them. But I get people saying to me, 'We played Suddenly at our daughter's wedding,' or 'The Colour of Love.'" But I do think "Caribbean Queen" is my favorite in the sense of being mercenary...That's the one that brought me to the attention of the world market." Be sure to listen to soulmusic.com's interview with Billy Ocean to hear additional scoop on specific phases of Billy's career!
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.