Billy Ocean "I remember"

Simon Button 19 October 2020

Coming to fame in the 1970s, Billy Ocean has sold more than 30 million records. Now aged 70, he looks back on moving from the Caribbean to England, getting sacked from Savile Row and performing at Live Aid

…I realised I had something called a "voice"  from around the age of three or four, and my mum always encouraged me to sing. She was a domestic and would sometimes bring home work, like ironing, and when she was doing it she’d ask me to sing to her to keep her company. I remember many a Saturday night when that happened. Dad was a musician, which also inspired me as a youngster. He’d compose calypsos on his guitar and he was like the village entertainer.


…My father did all sorts of jobs. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, until we moved to England when I was ten, and there wasn’t an organised system of work. You either worked in the oil field, which was the most responsible job there was, or you did whatever you could to feed your family. Back then people were dab hands at everything—such as gardening, fishing, making utensils out of discarded tins—and my father was one of them. That’s really the main reason he emigrated to England as part of the Windrush movement, eventually bringing us over with him in 1960.

"Becoming a dad made me more responsible because you have mouths to feed. You have to put food on the table and I tried to make sure my kids got a good education because I didn’t have the opportunity to have one myself."


...Arriving in Aldgate East was total culture shock. I’d come from living on the border of a cocoa and coffee plantation, then suddenly there were all these buildings and streets and cars. It was all very strange to me but as a child, you adapt very quickly, whereas if I’d been a grown-up I’d probably have fled back to the Caribbean!


…School was big adjustment. There wasn’t much contact with white people in Trinidad and Tobago, except for those my mum worked for, so mixing with white kids was very strange to start with. Again, the thing that helped me out a lot was music because I helped organise concerts and because I’m a pretty friendly person anyway, I didn’t have any problems, but initially I was very cautious. I wasn’t very academic. I found mathematics very difficult; logarithms and square roots and that kind of thing baffled me, although I learned my times tables and my alphabet. The teachers never really explained anything properly and they concentrated on the brighter kids. There were some kids who were so bright it made me wonder how the Lord made both of us.


…I first met my wife, Judy, when I was boy. She went to Tower Hamlets girls’ school and I went to Stepney Green boys’ school, and we used to pass each other in the street in the morning and evening. A friendship blossomed, then after we left school we started going out, we’ve been together ever since and we now have three kids and three grandkids. Becoming a dad made me more responsible because you have mouths to feed. You have to put food on the table and I tried to make sure my kids got a good education because I didn’t have the opportunity to have one myself.

My youngest daughter, Rachel, is now a teacher and Cherie, who always loved music, is one of my backing singers, while Anthony is a fitness instructor.

"I taught myself how to play the piano, one day I started plonking away and the riff, melody and words just came to me"


…By age 13 I realised my future lay in singing so the first thing I did when I left school was audition for a band. I sang in London clubs and everything just stemmed from there. Back then the music industry was basically run by independent producers, who would make a demo, then go looking for someone to put a decent voice to it. Fortunately I was one of the people they picked up on. It was like my apprenticeship because through that process I learned to write songs and suddenly I was doing something that really excited me.


…I qualified as a tailor and worked in Savile Row to support myself but I got the sack because of music. There was a BBC radio show called Round Table and they played one of my songs, so I told everybody on the floor about it, the machines were switched off so they could listen to it. I got a polite round of applause, then the next Friday I got the sack because of it. After that I worked on the assembly line at the Ford factory before quitting to pursue a full-time music career.


…Changing my name to Billy Ocean was a strategic move. Working with producers, they’d write the songs, feed you, clothe you and give you a name, but if they fell out with you—no matter how successful you were—you couldn’t keep the name. My birth name is Leslie Sebastian Charles and I decided to give myself a new name that no-one could take from me. Ocean came from the name of the football team in my home town of Fyzabad, who were called Oceans 11, then it was just a case of putting a Christian name to it and I settled on Billy.


…I wrote Love Really Hurts Without You on an old piano I'd bought for £23. I lived with my parents in a council flat and this mini upright piano fitted beautifully into an alcove. I taught myself how to play it, one day I started plonking away and the riff, melody and words just came to me. A producer I was working with helped me finish it, then the next thing I know I’m on Top of the Pops. I went back on the show five or six times and the song eventually made it to number two.


…Doing Live Aid in 1985 was amazing. Having had a number one hit in the States with “Caribbean Queen” the previous year, I was invited to perform at the Philadelphia concert. I was extremely nervous because I was on the same bill as people like Teddy Pendergrass and Tina Turner and it was the biggest audience I’d ever sung to, but I got through it and, of course, raising money for famine relief was very important.


…Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny De Vito flew over to make the video for “When the Going Gets Tough”. They’d done the sequel to Romancing the Stone, namely The Jewel of the Nile, and needed a song for it, which we only had a day and a half to write and I didn’t finish it until six o’clock in the morning. I sent it over, they liked it, then they turned up at Brixton Academy with the words and dance routine already memorised.


…Meeting steve wonder was a real highlight. I met him in the US when we were planning to work together. The collaboration never happened in the end for various reasons but he’s such a lovely man. Our paths have crossed several times since and we always have a nice chat and send messages back and forth.


…My parents were separated by the time my father died from natural causes when he was 65. I’d gone looking for him and was told he was in hospital, but when I got there a couple of days later he’d died. That was very sad.


…When my mother passed away I was heartbroken. She was 69 or 70 and she died from cancer. It prompted me to take time out from my career and also to become a vegetarian because she died from stomach cancer and I wondered if eating a lot of meat—as was common in Caribbean culture—might have contributed to that. I also began reading the Bible she’d given me as a gift many years before, which helped me connect with my spirituality and gave me an anchor to grab onto and keep me going.


…Receiving a MOBO Award was a great honour. I was given the lifetime achievement award in 2010 and it was very special to me, as was being named a Companion of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts the following year. It was presented to me by Paul McCartney and I grew up listening to The Beatles when I came to England, so meeting him was like Flipping heck! I cherish all my awards, although I used to hide them away in my manager’s office. For some strange reason I didn’t want my kids to see them because I didn’t want them to think I had a swollen head, nor did I want them to think that I no longer had to strive. When my manager passed away I moved all the awards into the house, although most of them are packed away under the piano rather than on show. 

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