March 11, 1985
By David Huff
Caribbean Queen's Music is Ocean's Apart
One of the most fascinating aspects about music is it's so unpredictable. Anything can, and does happen in the blink of an eye. It's not unusual for a band or an artist to lie in obscurity for years then find themselves an overnight sensation. Just ask Mr. Billy Ocean.
For years, Ocean had been holed up in England writing music basically for other people. It took some rather emotionally charged setbacks in his career to set this native from Trinidad on a path from obscurity to worldwide acclaim.
"I am a firm believer in fate," remarked Ocean from his Boston hotel room. "Things happen for a reason. If I had had the success I'm enjoying now say two years ago, I don't know how I would have coped with it in all honesty. I am sure that I would be able to do it, but I feel a lot better about it happening now."
Ocean feels his long overdue success was a direct benefit of Michael Jackson's Thriller album. That record shattered all sorts of industry records that not only opened up radio, particularly Top 40, but also broke down color barriers that were prevalent in the industry.
"Well,” offered Ocean candidly, “I am not ashamed to say that I'm a direct benefit of the backwash that was created in the wake of Michael Jackson. What he accomplished with his music and videos sort of cemented the idea of people getting accustomed to seeing and hearing black acts on TV and radio.”
The color barriers Jackson broke has more or less created a sense of parity in the industry and in some ways, revolutionized the business. MTV regularly mixes in black artists in with their video rotation that pretty much featured white rock and roll, heavy metal and pop acts. Before Jackson, they steadfastly refused to air any other type of musical genre. Today, Top 40 has embraced black artists with a fervor.
“Whether or not this barrier you mentioned,” confided Ocean, “will remain broken for good remains to be seen. However, I do like what it has done so far. Music by artists like myself and others are not only gaining more acceptance by a broader audience, we have been given a chance to succeed.
“In a real sense, the success I’m currently enjoying is a tribute to America. Whether it’s relegated to Top 40 remains to be seen. The majority of my initial success was limited to R&B radio stations. Now it has crossed-over.
“I would have never gotten the initial exposure with only an R&B crowd. Thank God Top 40 radio came into existence. It broke the whole music industry wide open.”
You can't help getting drawn into Ocean’s world listening to soft British accent with a hint of the Caribbean sprinkled on it. The way he looks at the world today isn’t through a pair of rose-colored glasses. He attributed good luck and timing for his self-titled debut album’s success. He has been fortunes fool in the past, but the days of empty promises and broken dreams are now behind him.
"I cannot take what is happening to me right now for granted," conceded Ocean. "Believe me, I am not living in any sort of a dream world because I know exactly what is happening around me. Sometimes, I will admit, I just laugh at the whole the whole situation. I mean, there was talk of me receiving something like two Grammy nominations for best R&B pop vocal performance and something else because of this record. It just goes to show you what life can be like. Nothing should ever be taken for granted ."
Ocean was born as Leslie Charles in Fyzabad, Trinidad and Tobago and moved to England, with his family at the age of eight. During his teenage years, he sang regularly in London clubs and worked as a tailor on London’s famous Savile Row. He released his first single at age 22 as Les Charles. Unfortunately, the balladeer role he was accustomed to singing was going out of style and his career languished.
Ocean took his stage name from the Ocean Estate in London's East End, where he was living at the time. The singer gained some notoriety in 1976, when he released his self-titled debut album with the hit, "Love Really Hurts Without You." It reached all the way to No. 2 on the English and American Charts. The songwriter also enjoyed some club music success with the songs, “Are You Ready" and "Stay The Night" from his second recording City Limit. He finally scored a major label deal with epic Records, and in 1981 he scored an R&B hit with “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)". The joy was so tempered by sorrow once he realized the singer realized he was being led around by wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“With Epic,” admitted Ocean, “there was always this fear in the back of my mind that if I didn’t come up with a hit immediately, that was going to be it.
“Nobody wants to fail. I don’t want to fail. But you can’t have a piece of mind to the extent that you turn out rubbish because who wants to do that. If a song was right, I wanted it released. If it wasn’t I wanted to be told about it. It just seemed as though nothing worked between us.”
The label confirmed Ocean’s fears when they bounced him off the label a year later. The singer says he had the ‘stuffing knocked out of him’ when he received the news. Instead of retreating, he vowed to move forward. Fortunately, he had a manager that believed in him, and together, the two of them forged a path to keep the singer in the public eye.
“In order to keep in the mental side of the business,” replied Ocean, “I would perform in whatever clubs would have me. Since we couldn’t afford a band, we would tape music and I would perform with backing tracks providing the sound for me to sing to. These gigs weren’t promoted, so sometimes I would perform for two to three people in a club that would seat hundreds more than that.
“At times I always felt we were lucky to get these gigs in the first place. That is why I now appreciate going out and performing today. Already I have had three sold-out performances. When I think back to what happened to me before, I can’t believe what I’m doing today. I’m so lost at times all I can do is just sit back and laugh.”
Ocean is very quick to point out he doesn’t long for those days of obscurity. With a platinum album under his belt, an internationally acclaimed single in “Caribbean Queen” and the potential to hit Grammy gold, there’s very little chance the past will repeat itself for Brit transplant.
Ocean’s odyssey finally ended, and his fortune finally changed when he was introduced to Clive Calder, the president of Jive Records, a small independent label in London. For six weeks starting in August 1983, a record contract was hammered out between the two parties. In November, with the deal signed, the singer met up with Calder to discuss song ideas for his debut album. Calder in turn set up a meeting with producer / songwriter Keith Diamond whom he felt would work with the singer.
"Keith and I had met in November,” recalled Ocean, “when he had come over from New York to work on some projects. We sort of felt out where each of us were coming from then, but really had no time to actually work together on some songs until the new year.
"When I arrived in New York from London on New Year’s Day in 1984, Keith and I spent about six days writing and came up with "Caribbean Queen," "Lucky Man," "Suddenly" and one other song. I’m serious, the music and words just came out of us just like that. At first we were just going to record a four-song EP, but when Clive heard our material, he gave the go ahead to finish the entire album."
The music for the project was recorded in New York with the vocals recorded in London. Videos were shot and Jive released the album, Suddenly, in England. It had been decided to release "Caribbean Queen," under the name "European Queen" for audiences overseas. The single flopped in the United Kingdom.
"It didn't surprise me too much," lamented Ocean of the single’s poor showing in his adopted country. “I had been trying without success for the last few years to chart singles in England with no result. When the single flopped, I just thought that was it. Arista Records in the United States picked up the option on the album. The released the song as "Caribbean Queen" to R&B stations. It became an instant hit.
"When the song hit No. 80 on the R&B charts, I was jumping for joy. At least it was something for me to be happy about. The Top 40 radio got a hold of the song, and the next thing you know my song is No. 1 on the Billboard charts.”
That success launched Ocean into orbit both personally and professionally.
"This album,” proclaimed the artist, “the way I saw it, was probably my last shot at making it in this business. Here today, gone tomorrow is a quote that I am very, very well aware of. That is why I treat what is happening to me with respect and I understand fully what is happening.
“That is why I am a firm believer in fate. If all this had come from nothing, if this had been my first album ever, and this sort of situation had occurred, it could have been a little frightening. “
Ocean justified Calder’s faith in him. His debut for the label became an international hit, anchored by the hits “Caribbean Queen,” Loverboy” and the title track “Suddenly.”
“Sometimes when I look back at everything that has happened to me,” offered Ocean, “I think ‘Christ Billy! This has all moved so fast.’ And it has. If you had told me this time last year that I was going to have a record in the American Top Ten with two No. 1 singles on it, and it sold three to four million copies worldwide, I would have stopped you and said, 'Wait, that's it. What are you talking about?' It still doesn't sink In that that's exactly what happened."
Billy Ocean's ship is currently taking him his first American cruise that will see him visit the Longhorn state this month. He is finally fulfilling one of many dreams he set forth for himself long ago.
"I think that patience is a blessing in almost anything you believe in," commented Ocean. "As long as you are doing what you do honestly and positively, and keep that attitude, it gives you a piece of mind. I am not saying that it’s a formula for success, but even when your spirits are down, you survive through it because you have to. That's why it is so important to have people in your corner that believe in what you're doing."
Interestingly enough, Ocean has included his own rendition of the Beatles classic, "The Long and Winding Road," on this album. The tune neatly sums up his career.
"I have liked that song for a long time," said Ocean, "and by coincidence, it happens to sum everything up. It is a nice feeling to know that people are at last respecting you for what you do. I can look at the success of "Caribbean Queen," and "Loverboy," and know that we were right.
Ocean pauses for a moment.
"I'm not worried about the future,” he said cautiously, “because of the precedent this album has set. I'm not at the stage of thinking, 'God, if the next album doesn't sell like this one, what am I going to do? Am I going to jump off a bridge or something?' No. I was surviving before today. I am just on a totally different plane now and I have to get accustomed to it. But believe me, it is a great thing to get used to."
And has it been profitable, Billy?
"Very profitable I would say.”