Before finding international success and stardom with a string of well-known radio hits, Billy Ocean grinded on the U.K. circuit for well over a decade
The singer released a handful of singles and four relatively unknown albums, which included a mix of Caribbean-influenced R&B, club-shaking disco, and synth-filled boogie
Names are built on hits. While that first hit usually occurs thanks to a stroke of luck, the work leading up to that achievement for an artist usually goes unmentioned—save for the lips of ardent fans and discerning collectors. The early career and discography of ’80s pop-soul phenom Billy Ocean embodies this story line perfectly. The Trinidad-born singer-songwriter toiled in the minor (and near-major) leagues of the record industry a good decade and a half before hitting the jackpot in 1984 with the career-defining “Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run),” a number one pop and R&B single that established him as an international star.
Born Leslie Sebastian Charles, the beginnings of Billy’s road to success can be traced back to his grade-school years in Fyzabad, Trinidad, where his father, a calypso musician, made him a part of his own gigs. “He would take me along to sing at people’s christenings and weddings,” he says. “I don’t think I was that good. I think people were just impressed that I was a brave kid.” By the time Billy was ten, the family had relocated to Essex, England, where the aspiring musician soon began taking day jobs to support whatever gigs he could get. He took up carpentry and, eventually, tailoring. While attending college in the early ’70s, he began doing session work—mostly unpaid. “I was so excited about going into the studio,” he remembers. “It was like a whole different world, to be able to record and hear yourself. I love that part of it. I also learned to write songs during that period. It was like my apprenticeship.”
The first product to surface on wax was a 45 released on the independent Spark label in 1971. Billed as Les Charles, Billy recorded two songs penned by David Myers and John Worsley, who scored a top five U.K. hit that same year with “Jack in the Box” recorded by Clodagh Rodgers. “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!’ I was singing all the time, and always told them I wanted to do that for a living. Then, one day, I had proof that there’s this bit of vinyl with my voice on it. It wasn’t the case of looking for a hit record. In those days, I was just excited to be getting the opportunity to do things.” The A-side, “Nashville Rain,” was a piano-driven ballad with a grand orchestral arrangement; while “Sun in My Morning,” the flip, built off acoustic guitar against sublime vibes and Latin percussion. Billy’s vocal performances glide from restrained to passionate with crystal-clear tonality.
Two years passed before the next release, 1973’s “Reach Out a Hand” b/w “Baby You’ve Got Something.” In the meantime, Billy kept busy with live performance work at pubs and clubs under such monikers as Big Ben, Joshua, Sam Spade, and Piggy Bank. He laughs: “The only name I got from myself was Billy Ocean. The others were on account of whom I worked with. In those days, the independent producers controlled the record industry. They were the ones who found the talent, gave you the name, and produced you. They then took the package to the record company and did some sort of licensing deal.”
Indeed, Billy’s next deal came with the help of independent producer Ben Findon. Their working relationship and resulting record, “On the Run,” would open many doors between 1974 and ’75. Findon assembled a band around Billy called Scorched Earth. Finding a label home on British songwriter Miki Dallon’s Young Blood Records, the driving number’s assimilation of rock guitar and Motown-inspired chord structure soon attracted the attention of major Philips Records. While Philips licensed the record in the U.K., labels big and small in the U.S., Germany, Holland, Italy, and Spain also distributed the single.
Scorched Earth was, in essence, a studio band. Thus, it’s not surprising that some of the pressings of “On the Run” came with picture sleeves bearing a group photo, while others solely showed Billy. The song didn’t break any chart records, but it provided an outlet for Billy’s debut as a songwriter via “Super Woman, Super Lover,” the B-side of the Philips pressing. “Some of the producers were favorable and gave me the B-side. That’s one of the ways I was learning to write. 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. Most of the time, it would be some old track that didn’t work; and they’d say, ‘Go and try something around that.’ I would just create my own melody and write a song around it.”
The momentum from “On the Run” led to Billy and Ben Findon writing a host of tunes together and catching the ears of independent British label GTO Records. Label president Lawrence Myers signed Billy in 1975 and promptly released the first single under the name that would make him famous. “Whose Little Girl Are You” was a pleasant-enough up-tempo number made appealing by Billy’s endearingly soulful performance. The song’s arrangement, however, didn’t pack the necessary punch for chart action, so it was back to the drawing board for a commercially viable single release. The second time proved to be the charm, as “Love Really Hurts Without You” quickly picked up airplay upon its release in early 1976, and went all the way to number two on the Top 75 Singles chart in the U.K. The success spurred much international licensing, most prominently by Ariola in the U.S., where the song reached number twenty-two on the pop charts. A bustling dancer with a classic Motown arrangement, it established Billy as a soulful crooner who could easily appeal to both R&B and pop audiences of all ages. Fittingly, the follow-up single, “L.O.D. (Love on Delivery),” stayed true to the melodic and rhythmic structures of its predecessor. Although not a runaway hit, it placed solidly at number nineteen in the U.K. Top 75 and found its way into the lower reaches of Billboard ’s Hot Soul Singles chart in the U.S.
To capitalize on the impact of those singles, GTO issued a full-length LP consisting of eleven tunes, most penned by Billy and Ben. In addition to the up-tempo single fare, the self-titled album boosted a handful of ballads, including a rework of an earlier Scorched Earth B-side, “Let’s Put Our Emotions in Motion.” Promotion of Billy Ocean faltered, however, as GTO focused on then emerging U.S. disco queen Donna Summer, whose releases the label had acquired rights to in the U.K. “In those days,” Billy says, “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.” The album’s Europe-only release was one of several factors that would stall Billy’s international career over the next four years.
Before an unsettling period of dormancy for Billy, he scored another number two single in the U.K. with “Red Light Spells Danger.” A departure from the sugarcoated soul of previous efforts, the track had a funkier edge well suited to Billy’s impassioned narrative of the anxiety that comes with the transition from playboy to monogamous partner. During the height of the single’s success, Lawrence Myers sold GTO to CBS Records—a change that didn’t fare so well for Billy. “I found it very difficult,” he says. “Here I was with this huge corporation. I couldn’t see anybody, and didn’t know who anybody was. It wasn’t the sort of one-on-one I was dealing with at GTO.” Stateside, CBS-owned Epic Records released “Red Light,” albeit without much backing. A year would pass before Billy’s next single.
“Everything’s Changed” couldn’t have been a more accurate title to describe the state of Billy’s career in 1978, not to mention the shift in musical direction. Rick Hall had cut legendary Muscle Shoals sessions on Etta James and Wilson Pickett when he was hired to produce for Billy. With Harrison Calloway as arranger, the resulting recording bore an interesting blend of soul, disco, and country. “I had a great time down there in Alabama; but musically, nothing much really happened. I was nervous and not confident enough. I was more sure of myself a few years later, when I got a second chance to go to America and work in New York.”
Before testing the musical waters again, Billy’s patience was tested once more. “Everything’s Changed” was not released outside of Europe and came and went without a trace. Another year would pass before his next single. With songwriters Dominic Bugatti and Frank Musker hot off the British chart action of the Three Degrees’ “Woman in Love” and “My Simple Heart,” Epic saw further potential in another of their compositions, “American Hearts.” A pop biopic detailing the struggles of a young married couple striving for financial success ultimately to the detriment of their relationship, the song was set to a string-laden arrangement by Linton Naiff. It managed a climb to number fifty-four in 1979, but it wasn’t a fond moment for Billy. “I was forced to record that song,” he notes. Since then, with the exception of one cover, Billy has written or cowritten all of the songs he’s recorded.
In spite of the artistic disappointment with “American Hearts,” the recording was the beginning of a brief, yet productive, writing-and-producing relationship with Ken Gold. The British composer had landed songs on U.S. albums by Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson, and scored a number one U.K. entry with “You to Me Are Everything,” recorded by the Real Thing in 1976. The B-side of “American Hearts”—a mellow, Heatwave-esque soul-dancer entitled “My Love”—was penned by Billy and produced by Ken. Then, the pair came up with “Are You Ready,” an engaging slice of up-tempo soul with light touches of funk. It climbed to number forty-two in 1980. At long last, this provided the opportunity for the release of Billy’s second LP, City Limit. Although sales and airplay were limited, the album gave him new credibility. “Are You Ready” and “Stay the Night,” a festive funk romp with bright horns and flourishes of calypso, garnered club play in the U.S. Both tunes were also recorded by La Toya Jackson on her first two LPs, La Toya Jackson (1980) and My Special Love (1981), respectively. In other corners, acts as diverse as the Dells, the Nolans, and Lenny Williams recorded selections from City Limit. 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. It came at the right time and put me in a very good light—not only as an artist, but also as a songwriter.”
The material on City Limit demonstrated Billy’s impressive artistic growth from his first LP. The emotive melodies and tender phrasing of the ballad “Maybe Tonight” are a prime example, as are the seriously funky rhythms and urgent delivery of “What You Doing to Me.” Meanwhile, the positive self-affirmations of “Whatever Turns You On” are brought to life with celestial horn arrangements complementing one of Billy’s more understated vocal performances. Once again, the album’s release was limited to Europe. Shortly after the single release of “Stay the Night,” CBS released a follow-up single, “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down).” The song was written by Billy with Nigel Martinez, former drummer for Al Jarreau and the Real Thing. Nigel, a former talent scout for GTO, was hired to produce the session. What ensued was a contagious jam that incorporated jazzy keys and percussion with funky guitar licks and a seeping bass line. The intense groove found its way to discos in New York, where Billy’s lyrical cry to break away from the daily grind and find refuge on the dance floor resonated loud and clear.
Over the next few months, the heat generated by “Nights” on dance floors spread to the airwaves, helping the song to enter Billboard ’s Top R&B Singles chart in May of 1981. By summer, it became Billy’s highest-charting U.S. single to date, peaking at number seven. He recalls, “All the songs that were hits early in my career were really so on their own strength. Later, in my days with Jive Records, people were actually working the records to create hits. ‘Nights’ really helped me get into the U.S. market. I was invited to Paradise Garage, and the performance went over very well. It wasn’t from scratch, because I had been over here in Europe doing a lot of club dates. I really wasn’t getting a lot of money for them, but it was great 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.”
Just as “Nights” was climbing the charts, La Toya Jackson released her version of “Stay the Night” as the lead single from her second LP, My Special Love. Producer Ollie E. Brown upped the tempo and embellished the original arrangement with a riveting breakdown, propelling it to number thirty-one on the R&B chart. Simultaneously, both Lenny Williams and Ray, Goodman & Brown recorded a ballad from the City Limit LP, “Taking Chances.” With sudden newfound success, Epic needed a full-length domestic release to fuel the fire further. Thus, Billy and Nigel went back into the studio. They picked four songs from City Limit to recut. “We recorded the whole thing in eleven days. We looked at City Limit as a demo; so 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.”
The full-length Nights (Feel Like Getting Down) LP indeed boasted spruced-up arrangements of the songs “Are You Ready,” “Whatever Turns You On,” “Who’s Gonna Rock You,” and “Taking Chances.” Whereas Ken Gold’s original production of “Are You Ready” had a simplistic rhythmic structure, Nigel’s faster-paced adaptation made a much more striking statement from the get-go with a blazing horn intro accentuated by punchy snare-drum gusto. The subsequent energy of slap bass, horn fills, and Billy’s feverish delivery complement the song’s party-hardy lyrics perfectly. Similar is the case with “Who’s Gonna Rock You,” which had become a number twelve hit in the U.K. for Irish-English female trio the Nolans during the time between City Limit and Nights. “Don’t Say Stop” and “Another Day Won’t Matter” were new compositions cut specifically for the Nights LP. The former is a sensual funk workout, while the latter has a summery groove and sublime melody. Also included is the romantic mid-tempo dancer “Everlasting Love,” which first appeared as the B-side to the British single release of “Nights.” Ken Gold’s original production of “Stay the Night” rounds out the LP. Regrettably, both of the latter tunes were edited versions. Big Break Records’ 2010 CD reissue of the album includes the full 12-inch mix of “Stay the Night.”
“Another Day Won’t Matter” was released as the follow-up single to “Nights,” but its success paled in comparison, reaching just number sixty-six on Billboard ’s Top R&B Singles. Simultaneously, CBS was phasing out the GTO label. While some acts were dropped, Billy was among those moved to the Epic roster. What emerged was arguably Billy’s strongest—and least promoted—set to date, Inner Feelings. He returned to the studio with Nigel, but also handled production chores himself on three tunes. The lead-off single was “Calypso Funkin’,” a sort of take-off on “Nights” with steel pans and other instrumental Caribbean flavors added in to pay homage to his musical roots in Trinidad. Commercially, it stalled, only managing a number seventy-two showing on the U.S. R&B chart. The title-track ballad served as a follow-up, but failed to chart.
Hidden gems abound on Inner Feelings. Billy’s own composition “No Matter What” foreshadowed the mastery of love songs that would bring him international fame in the latter part of the ’80s with classics like “Suddenly” and “There’ll Be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry).” Yet, its stripped-down piano-and-strings arrangement leaves much more room for his heartfelt vocals to shine through, whether it be his legato stylings on the verses or his intense belting at the climax. Likewise, the powerful “Tryin’ to Get Through to You,” produced by Billy, invokes a wealth of emotion through its subtle groove, moody keyboard layerings, and Billy’s earnest phrasing. Bringing up the groove, Billy proved once again his ability to boogie with the best of them on the percolating “Was It You.” The jam’s syncopated nuances fit right in the pocket with his crystal-clear locution. Furthermore, the hook-smart “Dance with Me,” which he also produced, is evidence of his adeptness at creating tunes equal-parts radio and club friendly.
Epic’s disappointing decision to let Inner Feelings fall by the wayside would prove a blessing in disguise for Billy within two years’ time. Although the immediate time following his release from the label found him doing track dates of older material, he would soon connect with rising industry mogul Clive Calder, who was still in the early development stages of his own label, Jive Records. What followed was Billy’s transition from a struggling, occasional hitmaker to a bona fide regular on pop and R&B charts around the globe. “Caribbean Queen,” “There’ll Be Sad Songs,” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” all went to number one on both charts in the U.S., while “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” did the same in the U.K.
“It’s almost as if it was something that I was working towards, and all of a sudden, my time had come,” Billy says. “Jive promised they would send me to America. All of the promises that they made, they kept. I was working with producers like Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange and Barry Eastmond. Barry was Lena Horne’s musical director when he was eighteen. Wayne Brathwaite was working with Herbie Hancock as a bass player. Most of these people were unknown. 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.” Billy continued making albums regularly until 1993, when corporate changes at Jive and a falling-out with his manager resulted in a decade of inactivity on record. “When Clive went to America, it wasn’t the same. Instead of beating my head against a brick wall, I decided to just spend some time with my family. Of course, it sort of drifted into nearly fifteen years!” That said, he’s recently come out of hiding as a regularly touring and recording artist.
Billy ended his absence in 2007, embarking on an ongoing comeback tour. Most dates have been played in the U.K. and elsewhere abroad, but there have been a few stops in the U.S., including B. B. King’s in New York. With the positive response generated from these shows, Billy began writing and recording new material in 2008—independently. “At my age,” he ponders, “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.” February 2009 saw the release of Because I Love You on his own Aqua Music. “Nothing happens without a reason,” he says. “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.
On his continued passion for making music, Billy notes, “Truly, if you’re 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.”
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