On record and in concert Billy Ocean, the romantic balladeer who is putting pillow talk back into pop, comes on like a Loverboy (one of his hits) or maybe the king of the Love Zone (his current LP). He coos about wanting to “kiss you all over, running my hands through your hair.” He croons, “Hey, mystery lady, can I spend the night with you?” He ends his concerts whispering the words “I love you.” Taken at face value, he says, that sort of thing tends to make people a little “surprised, disappointed even, when they meet me. They expect me to be taller than I am [5’8’]. They look for me up there and find me down here. And they expect me to ooze love, to be a sex god. I just laugh and tell ’em I’m very sorry I’m not taller. And I’m not Loverboy. That’s just a song I wrote.”
What Ocean is is a 36-year-old, mellifluous-voiced, happily married Caribbean-born tenor who regularly seduces audiences by the auditoriumful. He does it with breathy tunes like Love Zone, which is also the title of a single on his million-selling album, with wistful ballads like There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry) and even the upbeat When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going, his hit from the movie The Jewel of the Nile. Ocean needs one more hit on his current record to match the success of his 1985 LP, Suddenly, which sold two million copies and launched four singles, including Caribbean Queen, which won him a Grammy.
Such success is especially satisfying to a singer who, after a decade in the business, was beginning to worry that his career had peaked in 1982 with the hit Nights (Feel Like Getting Down), which Jane Fonda included in her workout video. A series of contract squabbles with a former record label,. together with a bout of writer’s block, kept him from recording for most of the next three years. “Things deteriorated to the point where I didn’t feel any trust for anyone,” says Ocean of the legal quagmire. “I worked myself into a real depression.” Personal tragedy struck later that year, when Ocean saw his infant son die moments after birth when a midwife prematurely cut the umbilical cord. The singer retreated to the London town house that he shares with his wife of eight years, Judy, 29, and their children, Cherie, now 7, and Antony, 4. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody or see anybody,” Ocean says. “I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to sing. I couldn’t do anything, except step back and assess my life.”
It was not the life of the average Londoner. Born Leslie Sebastian Charles in Trinidad, Ocean grew up “in the bush,” raising chickens, singing in the church choir and listening to his Grenada-born father’s funny, rhyming calypso songs. When he was 3, Ocean remembers, he was given “a blue ukulele by a big black woman—I can see her still—wearing a Panama hat and dancing to a marimba. The other kids in the village all had guns to play war. I got a guitar and played calypso.”
When Ocean was 9, his family moved to London; four years later he began writing R&B-flavored pop songs. Upon leaving school at 19, he worked as a tailor’s apprentice “to please the parents,” while spending his nights singing in London pubs and cabarets, where he was billed variously as Joshua, Big Ben and Sam Spade. Finally, inspired by the movie Oceans 11, he adopted his current moniker, which stuck when his first single, On the Run, began getting airplay—and also got him fired by his pop-music-hating boss. Ocean was installing windshield wipers in a Ford plant in 1975 when another single, Love Really Hurts, hit the charts. “I was on the job when I heard that song on Radio Luxembourg. I felt so good, because I knew I was free to leave. So I left.”
Ocean had become a moderate success in Britain before his troubles put his career in limbo. Only after discovering “the best therapy in the world, digging and weeding in my garden,” did Ocean come around. “Eventually songs began to develop again,” he says, “without forcing, by nurturing ideas and letting them grow. Soon I had enough bits and pieces of songs to begin my career all over again. I can’t say I’m glad things went the way they did. But I don’t think that I was really ready then for the kind of success I’m having now. Those years prepared me.”
Now winding up his second tour of the U.S., Ocean is busy deflecting advances from exceptionally outgoing female fans. Of temptation, he says, “I try to stay away from it. I stay alone with my guitar, and I read, and I call my wife almost every day.” But some demands must be met. No matter how strenuously he discourages them, some fans “still want to kiss me. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. If I had a punk image, they might be spittin’ at me. Instead-they come up and start kissin’ me. I prefer it that way,” he says, “wouldn’t you?”