Billy Ocean music was as ’80s as DayGlo spandex and pastel blazers.
But Billy Ocean the man has grown out of the decade that helped to define him into a more spiritual, more centered performer. Sure, he’ll happily still sing you his hits. But the 65-year-old entertainer appreciates his time onstage more than back in his “Caribbean Queen” and “Loverboy” heydays.
“I am enjoying it a lot more than the first time around – a lot, lot more. Age brings wisdom and knowledge,” he said in a phone interview from New York City recently, after taping a surprise appearance on “The View.” “I appreciate what I am doing, know why I’m doing it. I realize I can make a lot of people happy with my music.”
Ocean was born in Trinidad and raised in London’s East End from age 7. He grew up listening to everything from Sam Cooke and Otis Redding to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He began his own music career in the United Kingdom in the late ’70s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that he found an international audience – and superstardom – with a string of hits.
His tropically infused R&B songs made him an MTV staple, and his songs were featured in some of the biggest box office hits of the era, including 1985’s “The Jewel of the Nile” (which used “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” as its theme) and 1988’s “License to Drive,” which featured “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” prominently in its soundtrack. Over the course of his career, he sold more than 30 million albums.
But then, after the whirlwind of big singles and music videos and casual three-quarter-sleeve suit jackets, Ocean left the music scene in the early ’90s. His family was the main reason for his departure, but he also said it was the best thing for his psyche.
“You know, I’d done some very successful things. But I came to a point where I really don’t know where I was going anymore. It was a dangerous point in time,” he said. “I thought I should spend time with my kids while they were growing up. They were babies when I was traveling. But then it had come to the time when they needed some attention. I took time out to do what I did. It’s something I don’t regret.”
Now his children are all grown and have careers of their own – including his oldest daughter, who performs with him as a backup singer. So Ocean decided the time was right to return. In 2009, he released “Because I Love You,” his first new music in 15 years.
“I thought it was a good time. By then, everyone had grown up, everyone was driving and no one needed me to chauffeur,” he said. “Everyone was responsible and taking care of themselves. So I said, ‘What am I doing now?’ The need and desire to get back into music was as strong as anything else.”
Still, Ocean hasn’t just been chauffeuring his children around during his sabbatical. He built a recording studio in Grenada, where he recorded his return album. He also delved deeper into his faith, Rastafari, which he joined after his mother’s death in 1989. Ocean calls the religion his anchor – both in his personal life and career.
“Yeah, my music has always had an edge of spirituality in it. But now I understand it more. I understand life more now because of the Bible,” he said. “There are many pitfalls in this business we’re in. It’s like going through a minefield sometimes. There are a lot of casualties and I don’t want to be a casualty. The beauty of the Bible is it’s a manual of life. If you buy a box of matches, even that has a manual. It says ‘Before striking, close box.’ Our Lord Jesus Christ left us a manual of how to live our lives, too.”
Ocean’s look today, dreadlocks either flowing or tucked neatly into a bun, reflects his faith. The rest of his look continues his well-tailored style of the 1980s.
The singer is also working on another throwback, but even further back, to his music inspirations. His next album, “Here You Are,” will feature mostly covers of his biggest influences, including Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Bob Marley. He is adding new tracks to the album for a U.S. release sometime later this year.
But, Ocean said, his No. 1 priority now is touring. After all that time away from the road, he cherishes his time in front of a crowd. And, don’t worry, he knows exactly what you want to hear from him.
“All the hits; I don’t do the self-indulgent thing where I do new songs and have a bored audience sitting in front of you,” he said. “I do the hits, all the hits.”