Billy Ocean holds the prestigious title of being the biggest selling British black artist of all time. During a career spanning over 25 years, he has sold in excess of 30 million singles and albums worldwide, reaching his pinnacle throughout the 1980’s. However, his success is only the tip of the iceberg.
From humble beginnings to international stardom his road to fame has at times been tinged with despondency. His determination to succeed and talent have always shone through even the darkest of times, proving that when the going gets tough… the tough really do get going.
Leslie Sebastian Charles was born on Saturday 21st January 1950, in Fyzabad on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad.
From a very early age he was inspired by his dad’s love of Calypso music and was soon playing a small steel drum pan and a blue ukulele, bought for him by a friend of his mother. Young Leslie also attended choir practice with his two elder sisters. So impressive were his vocal performances that the school’s head teacher would often enter him into singing competitions.
In 1958 his family immigrated to England in search of work, settling in the East End of London.
At the age of eleven he attended Stepney Green School for boys in Ben Johnson Road where he was an active member of both the football and cricket teams.
During this time Leslie would spend hours listening to his dad’s transistor radio, being influenced by American soul singers Brook Benton, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, along with the British sound of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
On leaving full time education Leslie had a variety of jobs including mattress making, carpentry and working as a security guard before going to college on a bespoke tailoring course. Whilst serving his apprenticeship in the Spitalfields rag trade, he bought an old Berry piano from one of the sewing machinists with £30 lent to him by his boss Benjamin Sollinger.
As a fully qualified tailor Leslie worked for Norton and Sons in London’s famous Savile Row. To supplement his income he would perform with various local bands including Shades of Midnight at the Bluecoat Boy public house in Norton Folgate, as well as working as a session singer around the recording studios.
After recording as Joshua, Piggy bank and Sam Spade amongst a variety of other pseudonyms, his first single was released under his own name Les Charles in 1971.
“Nashville Rain” was written and produced by John Worsley and David Meyers who were responsible for Clodagh Rodgers hit “Jack In The Box”. Which was the UK’s entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
A second single “Reach Out A Hand” was released the following year but failed to bring the success he desired, so he returned to the session work.
In 1973 Leslie met Ben Findon at Tangerine studios and together they worked on a number of compositions. One of these was “On The Run”, released under the name Scorched Earth in 1974, although some of the others would not see the light of day until 1986. The single had its first airing on Radio One thanks to Annie Nightingale.
Leslie recalls “It was a magical moment,” as sewing machines stopped and the volume on the radio went up. Unfortunately not everyone felt the same and later that day the singer was promptly sacked.
Leslie took a job working nights at the giant Ford Motors plant in Dagenham Essex. This allowed him to pursue his musical ambitions during the day, but after twelve months he felt it was time to move on.
In 1975, adopting the name Billy Ocean, he signed a production deal with Dick Leahy’s GTO label and later that year his first single was released titled, “Whose Little Girl Are You?”
His next single “Love Really Hurts Without You” soon overshadowed the lack of commercial success.
This song, partly inspired by Billy’s girlfriend Judy Bayne (who later became his wife) reached number 2 in the charts selling 250,000 copies, being kept off the top spot by Eurovision song contest winner “Save All Your Kisses For Me by Brotherhood of Man”.
The following singles “L.O.D. (Love On Delivery)” and “Stop Me (If You’ve Heard It All Before)” both made the top twenty, numbers 19 and 12 respectively.
His first album, the eponymously titled “Billy Ocean” was released in 1976. It contained the four singles and a rather dapper looking Billy adorning the cover.
In March 1977 “Red Light Spells Danger” also reached number 2, this time taking second place to Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and earning Billy his second silver disc for UK. sales. Leslie had at last got the success he had desired for so long
The song writing partnership of Findon & Charles separated and the following year a new song “Everything’s Changed” was released as a single. This was the first to credit Billy Ocean as a composer. The title appears to be somewhat premonitory as things were about to change and not all for the best.
Billy worked with writer and producer Ken Gold on his next Album “City Limit”, who had previously produced hits with British band The Real Thing.
Billy acknowledges Gold’s contribution.
“He really should get a little respect in the sense that he was one of the innovators of English producers, taking black artists and treating them with a certain amount of respect and being serious with the music and sort of making an opening for us”. City Limit was dedicated in memory of Billy’s father who had passed on during the recording.
The first single taken from the album was “American Hearts”, a song not written by Billy but by successful British songwriters Dominic Bugatti and Frank Musker. It failed to reach the top 40, as did the follow ups “Are You Ready” and “Stay The Night”. Both recorded later by LaToya Jackson.
Hopes of releasing “Who’s Gonna Rock” You were dashed by GTO who claimed it lacked commerciality, although The Nolans had a top 20 hit with a cover version the following year. By now GTO had been sold to American giant CBS Records, who were unable to fully support and promote their new artist.
Around this time Billy met Laurie Jay who had been a successful drummer during the early sixties with The Echoes and The Laurie Jay Combo. He became Billy’s manager and lifelong friend and together they raised their own finances to record a new song, “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)”. A favourite Billy Ocean track “Nights” once again had a less than favourable response from GTO and failed to make any impact on the charts.
Happier news came for Billy when Judy gave birth to their first child in 1979, a beautiful baby girl called Cherie. Nigel Martinez, a former A&R man for GTO and an accomplished drummer produced the first album for CBS, “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)”. Released on their subsidiary label Epic, it contained five tracks previously released on City Limit and without the full backing of the record company the album didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
In America things were very different, both the single and album sold well and Billy was voted best R&B newcomer.
Billy had spent a lot of time performing in Europe and was ready to take on the world but the lack of interest in his last contractual album for CBS, “Inner Feelings”, which he co-produced with Nigel Martinez left him feeling despondent and contemplating his future career.
1983 brought a new addition to the Charles family, this time a boy named Anthony.
Laurie Jay clinched a deal with Clive Calder’s newly formed Jive records and Billy flew to New York to work with producer Keith Diamond who was also born in Trinidad, originally the duo were supposed to do four songs as a try-out but in no time at all they had almost an entire album.
One of these tracks “European Queen” was issued as Billy’s first single for his new label, but boss Clive Calder thought it would sound more exotic and appeal to a wider audience if the title were changed to “Caribbean Queen”, an exceptional move.
The new recording was released in September 1984 and went on to be a million selling worldwide hit earning Billy a Grammy award the following year.
Another version of the song entitled “African Queen” was recorded for the African music market spending ten weeks in their charts. Billy Ocean was once again, back in business.
The album entitled “Suddenly”, included a beautiful cover of The Beatles “The Long And Winding Road” which was one of Billy’s favourite Lennon & McCartney compositions along with “Loverboy”, a track co-written with Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange best known for producing rock bands like AC/DC and Def Leppard.
Suddenly earned Billy his first gold disc for UK. sales and a single release of the title track, which was Billy’s first big ballad, a silver disc. The song became particularly poignant when Billy sang it at Keith Diamonds funeral in 1997.
1985 saw Billy promoting his album with the Ocean across America tour the first time he had performed live in the United States, culminating at the JFK stadium in Philadelphia where Billy performed two songs “Caribbean Queen and Loverboy” as part of the phenomenal Live Aid broadcast on 13th July.
Billy produced fellow Jive artist Ruby Turner’s “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” single which also featured Jonathan Butler, the track made the top 30 and entered the charts the same day as Billy’s most successful single.
“When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going” was again co-written with ‘Mutt’ Lange and was not only the opening track on “Love Zone” Billy’s next album, but also the theme to the Michael Douglas Film The Jewel of the Nile; it spent four weeks at the top of the charts in February 1986 earning Billy another Gold disc.
Love Zone was produced by Barry J. Eastmond had also worked on Suddenly and Wayne Braithwaite. It went straight in at number 2 on its first week of release and spent a total of eight months in the charts, selling 100,000 copies and adding yet another gold disc to Billy’s collection.
To promote the album Billy toured North America and Japan to sell out crowds before returning home in November for his final shows. The performances from the Hammersmith Odeon were recorded and issued on a video, “Billy Ocean in London” the following year.
Whilst in New York Billy met up with soul legend Millie Jackson who signed to Jive records and recorded “Love Is A Dangerous Game”, a track Billy co-wrote for her along with Jonathan Butler.
Billy spent most of 1987 recording his next album with the successful production team of Lange/Braithwaite/Eastmond and enjoying fatherhood with his baby daughter Rachel.
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” caused controversy when issued as a single in early 1988. It made number 3 in the charts despite nearly being banned from radio because a national newspaper implied the song made reference to child molestation.
Billy explained that while growing up as a teenager none of his friends drove cars, most of them rode scooters, so a song called Get outta my dreams, get onto my scooter just wouldn’t have worked.
The album “Tear Down These Walls” again went gold and Billy toured to promote it between April and November with former Matt Bianco vocalist Basia Trzetrezelwska (pronounced as Basha Chechelevska) as support artist.
After years of hard work and well-earned success, Billy decided to take time away from the music business and devote himself to his young family.
Jive issued a “Greatest Hits” package in September 1989, which went on to be Billy’s biggest selling UK album, this time going Platinum.
Included were two new songs co-written with ‘Mutt’ Lange, “Licence To Chill” and “I Sleep Much Better In Someone Else’s Bed” which featured Hollywood actor Will Smith.
Billy started performing with Ebony Steel Orchestra, one of Europe’s top steel bands, rekindling his passion for pan. Although his affiliation with them goes back to their inception in 1969 due to his friendship with Pepe Francis, the bands musical director.
Starting off on Iron but later moving on to Tenor, Billy would go on to play at the World festival in Trinidad, the European festival in France and the Notting Hill carnival Steel bands Panorama which Ebony won for a record 13th time in 2001.
By 1993 the music scene had changed and Billy’s next studio album had changed with it. The appropriately titled “Time To Move On” was recorded in Chicago with amongst others R. Kelly, who had been a long time admirer of the way Billy was able to mix the more emotive soul style with a crossover pop and rock vibe.
A new image accompanied the album with a younger looking Billy sporting dreadlocks following his conversion to the Rastafarian religion.
One of the leading tracks was “Pressure”, a song recalling the time Billy was wrongfully arrested, and later released unconditionally.
A period of his life Billy referred to euphemistically as “when I was out of it”. “Time To Move On” wasn’t a successful release and remains Billy’s last studio album to date.
In September 1998 Jive issued “Love Is For Ever”, a twenty-four track double album covering much more of Billy’s back catalogue than the previous compilation. Again it sold well spending nearly six months on the charts and achieving Gold disc status.
Billy continued to pretty much stay out of the limelight for the next few years although he did perform at the South Africa Freedom Day concert on Sunday 29th April 2001. Held in London’s Trafalgar Square it marked the seventh anniversary of South Africa’s free elections and was attended by Dr. Nelson Mandela. Billy performed with ‘Celebrate Music’, a combination of 36 South African and UK musicians.
On 11th November 2002, Billy was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the University of Westminster, where his eldest daughter Cherie studied for her degree in Commercial music.
This accolade was recognition for his contribution to the music industry, with the presentation at the Barbican Centre in London.
2003 saw the release of a new compilation CD, “Let’s Get Back Together The Love Songs Of Billy Ocean”. It included Billy’s most popular ballads along with a previously unreleased track from the Tear Down These Walls sessions and new recordings of Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You?” and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”.
Billy’s daughter Cherie signed a recording contract with Jive in 2004 and released her first single “No 1” on 9th August, she had studied music throughout her education and once performed with the legendary Chaka Khan.
To celebrate, Billy and family dined at a restaurant in London’s Savile Row, the very place a young Les Charles started some 30 years before.
Also released that year was “The Ultimate Collection”, which very much appeared to bring Billy’s recordings full circle, although it is reported Billy may one day record a version of Ian Dury and the Blockheads “One Love”.
Billy continues to live in England and enjoys spending time with his family, gardening at his home in Berkshire and performing around the globe with Ebony Steel Orchestra.