Billy Ocean: Caribbean king


This article by Tom Cardy appeared in New Zealand’s Stuff.

Trinidad-born Billy Ocean is best known for a string of hit singles in the 70s and 80s. Caribbean Queen, released in 1984 – which won Ocean a Grammy – was No 1 in New Zealand for two weeks.

But Ocean, part of a lineup featuring Ronan Keating, Sharon Corr, Leo Sayer and former Spice Girl Mel C performing at Mission Estate Winery on Saturday, is better remembered in New Zealand for another thing entirely.

In 1986 he sang the theme song When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going for the comedy adventure movie The Jewel of the Nile starring Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner.

The song was catchy and got as high as No 3 here. But it was as much a memorable music video. Rather than simply have Ocean singing the song, or show clips from the film while the song played, it met in the middle. Ocean performed on stage while Douglas, DeVito and Turner, in matching white tuxedos, were Ocean’s backing singers.

“It was my favourite video,” says Ocean from his home in Berkshire outside London.

“Every time I think about it I almost get emotional because they were such lovely people. You are talking about Michael Douglas and you couldn’t come bigger than that. Kathleen Turner – huge; Danny DeVito, a little man but huge. There they are with little old me.”

Ocean, who now sports greying dreadlocks after years of having a clean-cut matinee idol look, remembers when they shot the video at popular London music venue the Brixton Academy. At that time, says Ocean, the venue was closed and looked dilapidated. “We brought it back to life again.”

And what impressed Ocean was that Douglas, Turner and DeVito sang for real. Their voices weren’t dubbed by professional backup singers. “They were singing and they were great. I still look at that video sometimes and I love it. And I had the added joy of Kathleen Turner coming to see me [perform] one night. It was a big deal, you know.”

What comes across as Ocean reminisces is that he never took his success for granted.

Born Leslie Sebastian Charles, his father was a musician who played guitar and wrote songs. Ocean says he learned a lot from his father. His family was the first in their village to own a radio. “I don’t know where my father got this radio because we had no money to buy anything. There wasn’t even food on the table. Then one day he came home with this little battery-operated radio and the very first song that I heard when we switched it on was a track by Brook Benton called Time and the River.

” The only music you were exposed to is calypso and steel bands. Then suddenly you get music from another part of the world. I heard people like Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra – all these beautiful classics. I thought one day I’m going to record some of these songs – and by the grace of the god I had the opportunity to do it and I’m very proud of it.”

Ocean’s family emigrated to Britain when he was 8. Even then, he says, he wanted to become a professional singer. “It was always my burning ambition. I was never academically good.”

Ocean got session work as a singer even doing sessions with the likes of Sir Cliff Richard and Ellen Page. But session work couldn’t pay all the bills, so Ocean also relied on his day job as a qualified tailor. “Then one day I got the sack,” he says. “The very first record I had played on the radio and I told all the other workers. They turned off all their machines and all listened. There was polite applause and [a few] well dones. Management didn’t like the brief stop work.

“The next Friday I got my marching orders. I’ve never been one to sit around and wait for things to happen, so I grabbed the bull by the horns.”

Ocean got a job at a Ford Motor Company plant. The shifts meant he had more freedom to do his session work and pursue a solo singing career. “I was much younger then so you wanted to have a few dollars in your pocket to impress the girls.”

He could earn £70 to £80 a week at Fords – big money in the early 70s, compared with £20 a time as a session singer.

“[At Ford] you had two weeks [working] days and two weeks working nights. I would do sessions during the day and after I had finished a session I would go work at Ford all through the night. It half killed me, but while I was doing that I met this producer who gave me an opportunity through a song that I had – and the first that I wrote.”

That song was Love Really Hurts Without You. It got to No 2 in the British charts in 1976 and No 13 in New Zealand.

The hits followed, including the funk-driven Red Light Spells Danger (No 2 in 1977). In the 1980s Ocean had his first British No 1 with When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going. His last big selling single was Get Outta My Dreams Get Into My Car in 1988.

After that Ocean’s recorded output slowed. He spent more time with his family and released only four albums since 1988, including last year’s Here You Are, a selection of covers that includes Ocean’s version of Time and the River. About six years ago – with his children grown up – he returned to doing live shows and with his daughter, Cherie, doing backing vocals.

Ocean, who turned 64 three weeks ago, likes to describe his continued passion for singing as “the hunger”. “[It’s] singing songs and being in the music business. It wasn’t like a case of ‘I want to be successful’. It was what I wanted to do.”

THE DETAILS Billy Ocean plays Mission Estate Winery, Napier on Saturday as part of the British and Irish Invasion – A Night of Hits lineup with Ronan Keating, Sharon Corr, Leo Sayer and Mel C.

For the original report go to

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