Billy Ocean: When the Going gets Tough
Billy Ocean has been hailed the most popular British R&B singer of the 1980s – with hit singles, When the Going Gets Tough, Caribbean Queen and Get Outta My Dreams Get Into My Car, making him a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic.
He reinvented himself to become the smooth and soulful singer/songwriter we know today, as he started his career as ballad singer Leslie Sebastian Charles but when his image and music style failed to take off, Billy Ocean was born and he hit the big time right away with his first single.
Photo Credit: Eva Rinaldi
Born in Trinidad in January 1950, Ocean said his father, Hainsley, was a Calypso singer and his inspiration. Although he wasn’t very successful, he spurred the young Leslie to start singing himself. His mother, Violet, also sang. He came from quite a poor family and when there wasn’t a lot of money or food, they made their own entertainment.
They went to the Baptist church, where there was also a lot of singing. Despite not having much in the way of money or possessions, he said he grew up with a great sense of community spirit that was almost like having an extended family. They lived on the border of a cocoa plantation, surrounded by acres of land.
Move to England
When Ocean was 10, he moved to Romford with his family, as his parents were keen to find a better life for the family. Even though they did menial jobs, Ocean said it was a chance for them to change their future.
As a teenager, he began singing in London clubs to make extra money, while working by day as a pot washer, which he hated! It was a culture shock coming to England, as the climate was cold, with regular smog and fog, and they lived in a built-up urban area of the East End, which was a far cry from their spacious plantation home.
Ocean told his parents he wanted to be a singer and that his ambition was to buy his mother a lovely house, if ever he became famous. Although she backed him in his dreams, she also sent him on a tailoring course, so he had a skill to fall back on, should the singing not work out.
Ocean worked as a tailor in Savile Row in London, while singing around clubs in the capital under his real name of Leslie Charles in his leisure time.
However, his type of ballad singing, backed by an orchestra, was going out of style in the 1960s, so despite being spotted by talent scout, John Morphew (who became his manager), there was no interest in Ocean from any major labels.
He was released from his contract with Morphew and continued to play live gigs. Major changes came in 1976, when Ocean decided on a complete style change. He took his new name from the Ocean Estate in Stepney, where he was living at the time. He swapped the ballads for more upbeat pop and R&B songs.
In 1976, he released the first album under his new name, entitled Billy Ocean, and although it wasn’t a massive hit commercially, he also released a single called Love Really Hurts Without You from the album.
This finally broke him into the charts, as it peaked at number two in the UK and also charted in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.
Following his first major hit in 1976, Ocean never looked back. Enjoying a string of hit singles, these included Red Light Spells Danger in 1977, which peaked at number two in the UK, Caribbean Queen in 1984, which was a chart-topper in Canada, New Zealand and the US, and Loverboy in 1985.
His biggest hit was When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going in 1986. It was number one in the UK, across much of Europe and in Canada and Australia, achieving gold certification – it reached number two in the US.
It also became the theme song for the box office hit film, Jewel of the Nile, starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito.
The song’s chart success was helped by its unusual video, featuring Douglas and his film co-stars as lip-syncing backup singers. It was a massive international hit and remained at number one in the UK for four weeks.
Co-written by Ocean, Barry Eastmond, Wayne Brathwaite and Mutt Lange, When the Going Gets Tough is an inspirational song that is sung from the point of view of someone who will never give up on their dream.
In the case of the narrator, it’s a man singing to the woman he loves, telling her he’s determined to win her love and work through the tough times. He tells her he’ll “climb any mountain”, “swim any sea” and “do anything” to be with her.
The song was revisited in 1999, when Boyzone recorded it for the Comic Relief fundraiser. Their version reached number one in the UK and was certified platinum.
Ocean’s own perseverance paid off after his early career amounted to nothing. He said that when he finally made the big time, he recalled his mum was very proud of him and told all her friends to watch his first Top of the Pops appearance.
Ocean took a career break to raise his children after marrying his wife Judy in the late 1970s. They have three children, Cherie, Anthony and Rachel, and live in Sunningdale, Berkshire.
After winning a Grammy Award in 1985 for Caribbean Queen, he continued recording until 1993, when he released the album Time to Move On, before taking a break from the studio until 2009. He then returned and recorded the album, Because I Love You. He was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award on 20th October 2010, at the MOBO Awards in London.
Ocean had a cameo role in the 2012 British comedy film, Keith Lemon: The Film, playing Lemon’s father. He performed his classic hits in January 2016, on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, to promote a new album, Here You Are: The Best of Billy Ocean, while he went on tour in March and April 2017, playing at venues around the UK.
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