Smooth and glamorous, with a soothing voice and a charisma that makes him appear larger than life, Billy Ocean falls easily into the category of rhythm and blues/pop superstars that includes Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, and Jefferey Osborne. Even his stage name evokes images of a suave, glittering persona. His songs, such unmistakable hits as “Caribbean Queen,” “Love Zone,” and “Suddenly,” are filled with sexy, romantic lyricism and danceable rhythms that speak to a crowd that wants to feel good.
But a closer look reveals a man in contradiction with his public image. Most music fans probably assumed, on first hearing Ocean’s voice over the radio, that he was American. In fact, Ocean was born in Trinidad and grew up in London. Though being black may have been an advantage to the American R & B stars, Ocean idolized as a young man, Ocean explains that he had trouble gaining notoriety as a black singer in London. “It’s very difficult for black artists to get their records played on the radio [in London],” he told Rolling Stone. “When something comes from America, it’s ten times more successful than something that comes from here.”
Even more contrary to his bona fide superstar status, Ocean seems, even on the heels of three immensely successful LPs in the 1980s, remarkably unaffected by his financial success. “He doesn’t have a mansion,” writes Rolling Stone’s Michael Azerrad. “He drives a Volkswagen Golf. ‘Material things are too much for the mind,’ Ocean says dismissively. He is vaguely spiritual, but he doesn’t go to church. He has been married for ten years, has three kids and helps support his mother and three sisters. Ocean doesn’t touch cigarettes or alcohol and stays out of the whirl of publicity and parties that he calls ‘the socializing thing.’ In his leisure time he likes to do a bit of gardening.”
To better understand the humility that lies behind the glittering character dancing and singing on television videos, it is best to retreat to Ocean’s childhood in Trinidad, where he was born Leslie Sebastian Charles in 1950. Music was a big part of young Charles’s life; his father, an amateur calypso musician, used to push his son toward center stage to sing at parties. The boy was even forced to sing in an all-girls choir when his sister/babysitter dragged him to her choir practices rather than leave him home alone. He received his first musical instrument, a ukulele, from a friend of the family when he was three. “The other kids in the village all had guns to play war,” Ocean told People. “I got a guitar and played calypso.”
Ocean was eight when his family moved to London’s East End in search of better opportunity. But as his interest in music grew, his grades in school deteriorated badly, so, to satisfy his parents’ wishes, Ocean became a tailor’s apprentice. At night, however, he began singing with local bands. He was working successfully on London’s Savile Row as a tailor when, one day on the job, he heard one of his singles on the radio. Ocean was promptly fired from that job because he “wasn’t one hundred percent with the firm,” but he continued recording under such stage names as Piggy Bank and Sam Spade. At age twenty-five he was working in a Ford auto assembly plant when his single “Love Really Hurts” hit Number Two on the U.K. charts. He quit the job and never went back.
It was around this time that the “man with a hundred names” finally decided to call himself Billy Ocean for the rest of his career. He took the name from a football team he had followed in Trinidad called Oceans Eleven, then added Billy. Billy Ocean continued to have minor successes with a number of singles in late 1970s Great Britain. His 1982 hit single “Nights (Feel Like Gettin’ Down)” became popular in America when it was chosen to play on a popular Jane Fonda aerobics video. But when GTO, the label Ocean recorded for, was bought out by CBS Records, Ocean’s career stalled. The new label’s plans for Ocean were sketchy, at best, and contract squabbles kept the singer out of the recording studio for a couple of years. To make matters worse, Ocean’s depression was compounded by the tragic death of his infant son.
But the singer’s career received a huge boost in 1984 when he was signed by the Jive label. That year he released the LP Suddenly, which took the world by storm with several hit singles, including “Caribbean Queen,” Ocean’s biggest hit ever. Suddenly has sold more than two million copies to date, and “Caribbean Queen” won Ocean a Grammy award. Ocean followed this success with two more platinum albums, Love Zone (1986) and Tear Down These Walls (1988). He also had a runaway hit with “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the film “Jewel of the Nile”.
Though his popularity has been proven with consistently strong record sales, Ocean is not without his critics, some of whom take issue with Ocean’s tendency to write his songs according to a pop formula. “Billy Ocean’s voice is no more innocuous, and no more distinctive, for that matter, than that of Freddie Jackson, James Ingram or Jeffrey Osborne,” writes Rolling Stone’s Rob Hoerburger. “The reason Ocean’s had more pop success than the others seems to have been his uncanny ability to recycle past hits. ‘Caribbean Queen’ was merely a dressed-down ‘Billie Jean’; ‘Loverboy’ just a bit less than ‘Urgent’; and ‘Suddenly’ an echo of ‘Hello.’ Familiarity, it seems, breeds the Top Ten.”
But Ocean acknowledges these shortcomings readily, without bitterness. He knows what he is trying to accomplish with his music, and he knows his own limitations. He’s only giving his fans more of what they want. “I just try to instill happiness in my music,” he told Rolling Stone. “You know, my songs may not be the best songs in the world, but I really think that what I lack in talent and everything, I gain in approach. I just want it to be fun. I just want it to be loose.”
Because I Love You So, the 2009 album from one of the most successful British male artists of all time, is Ocean’s first studio release in fifteen years and is a culmination of his unique Pop style and his Caribbean background, sounding fresh and soulful with an eclectic mix of ballads and Soul, Reggae tunes. The tracks are a fusion of both the old and new sounds of Billy Ocean.