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Billy Ocean: ‘Even as a little kid in Trinidad I was singing in school’

Britain's most commercially successful black artist recalls how, when the going got tough, he always met his challenges with a smile in his uplifting Letter To My Younger Self

When I left school at 16 there was only one thing I wanted to do, and that was to make music. The academic side of life never appealed to me, I just wanted to join a band. So I did an audition to join the band Shades of Midnight – I remember I sang Summertime from Porgy and Bess – and I got through. From then on it was all about the music.

I learned to hold a rhythm on a stringed instrument when I was about five or six years old. My mother’s friend bought me a blue ukulele. A blind man taught me the first three chords G, D7, E minor, then back to G. I taught myself the rest.

I used to make my own little instruments, like making scales out of tin and mimicking the steel drum. Later on, I did get a steel drum from one of my father’s friends. I used to play that; in fact, I still do. I think it’s the most amazing instrument. That big round sound, it’s like the world. So I can’t read or write music but I can play instruments.

When I was in Trinidad as a kid, we never had much. I don’t want to use the word poverty but there’s no other word for it.

Even as a little kid in Trinidad I was singing in school. The headmaster used to take me around schools all over the country to compete in senior competitions. I’ll never forget Mr Frederick. Now that I stop to think about it, he really was… it’s like he was sent by God almighty. He was a very strict teacher, he would be the first to pull out the strap and beat the hell out of you. But in that situation, he was something totally different.

I never won anything in competition. Oh my god, I got so nervous. I used to be dying, to be honest. But I see now it was part of my apprenticeship. I look back and I wish Mr Frederick was alive, so I could ask him why he did it.

When I was in Trinidad as a kid, we never had much. I don’t want to use the word poverty but there’s no other word for it. My mother was a domestic, she worked for the technicians who came to work in the oil fields. When I look back on my father now I think he must have been a very frustrated musician, with six kids, trying to write songs that never really went anywhere. I think he got some satisfaction out of the adulation from the local people. But for me growing up, I was always making an effort, I would never sit down idle. I was very focused on my goal to achieve something musically.

Billy Ocean performing with UB40 in 2012. Image: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr.

When I came to England [to Stepney in East London, when he was seven years old], I found it very strange going to school with white kids. It was really weird because when I was in Trinidad we weren’t allowed to mix. It wasn’t apartheid, it was just the social structure. White people lived in their own area and we lived in our… poverty. They had the wealth of the oil fields and we were basically their subordinates.

When I came to England I was one of four black kids in a school of about 1,000 white kids. So I was like, who are all these white kids, this is weird man! I didn’t have too hard a time. Kids are kids, you know? To be honest, my music got me through.

My dad got a radio and that introduced me to international music – Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. A kind of music other than calypso. So that kind of prepared me for what I would hear when I came to England. Though by then music had moved on, with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Kinks… the English music felt alive and kicking and really ruling the world, literally ruling the world.

Then the American music started coming over in the shape of Motown and soul music, Stax, what is now reggae. So I really couldn’t have grown up in a better place. If I’d grown up in America, I would have been stuck in one kind of music on the radio; soul, R&B, middle of the road. On the radio here it was much more a mixed bag, from The Beatles to Stax, George Formby… I was lucky at that time and that really helped to shape my musical ideas.

My father used to write calypso and play the guitar. My mother used to sing as well but she always encouraged me to sing to her. Whereas my father wanted me to sing WITH him.

I always loved singing; I didn’t know at first if it was good or bad but I always enjoyed this sound that was coming out of my body. And we would all dance because that is such a natural thing for black people.

One of the things I never understood is that the English people would go to parties and not dance. No music, no dancing, everyone just standing around talking! The Scottish people are a different breed. I love Scotland. Every tour I do I start in Scotland.

My kids, my family, give me great pleasure and I hope it never changes.

I was a happy teenager. I’m still the same. My wife says to me, you don’t worry about anything, do you? I say, no, I don’t. Because why worry? There are some things you can do something about and some things you can’t. I was always happy go lucky. A little bit daring. I never went crazy though, I wasn’t a bad kid to my parents.

My father always said we came to England to give you an opportunity. So I’ve always been conscious, even now, that I shouldn’t do anything that would put me or my family, including my kids and my grandchildren, in a bad light. I try to stay on the right side. I’m not perfect, nobody’s perfect, but if I see something coming I avoid it.

I knew I’d made a big step forward when I wrote Love Really Hurts Without You. I didn’t know if it would change my life but I knew that it was a good song. I thought wow, this is unlike anything I’ve ever attempted before. This feels good. It just gave you a nice feeling. I mean, I still get that vibe, I rely on that. It’s the feeling of creativity. You never lose it. I was glad when it was a success [It reached number two in the UK in 1976] because, you know, it’s not the same when you think you’ve written a great song but nobody else likes it. You need the adulation from other people. That’s where confidence comes from.

I met my wife when I was 15 and she was 13. That was cool and we had a sort of vibe. Then we stayed friends after school, that thing was still there. And we just keep going. My kids, my family, give me great pleasure and I hope it never changes.

I know that as far as my kids are concerned, there must be a certain amount of stability and joy in knowing mum is taking care of dad and dad is taking care of mum. No relationship is perfect. Sometimes you wish you just weren’t there to be honest. But at the end of the day, if you’ve built up something over a long period of time, it is strong enough to withstand most things.

To start something new… I don’t know if I’ve got the patience. I often think to myself, if my wife passed away, I don’t know if I’d have another relationship. I’m 70 years old now. Could I put that amount of effort into a new relationship? Relationships are not the easiest thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s good it is unbelievably good. But when it goes a bit sour you question yourself. That’s life. If you don’t have the low points, how will you know the high points?

I think one of the biggest joys of my life, as well as my family, was getting my first number one in America [with Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run) in 1984]. That gave me world acclaim basically. I was just sitting in my house in England and I got a phone call; ‘You have a number one in America.’ You couldn’t imagine what a number one in America would be like. You jump up with excitement but then you think, oh my god. What have I done? This monster I’ve got to face. It’s amazing but at the same time you think, so what happens after this?

Billy Ocean’s new album One World is out now on Sony Music