Billy Ocean - Here You Are: The Music of My Life (2017)

Billy Ocean
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Billy Ocean - Here You Are: The Music of My Life 

When Trinidad-born Les Charles immigrated with his family to England at the dawning of the 1960s, he already had a history of singing with his calypso-musician father at weddings. The musical styles he was exposed to broadened continually—as a listen to his often overlooked ‘70s recordings aptly demonstrates. After christening himself “Billy Ocean,” he regularly combed his American influences while infiltrating his island roots on a storm of international R&B and pop hits throughout the ‘80s. But he largely disappeared from the public eye for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s.

Billy Ocean - Here You Are: The Music of My Life 

When Trinidad-born Les Charles immigrated with his family to England at the dawning of the 1960s, he already had a history of singing with his calypso-musician father at weddings. The musical styles he was exposed to broadened continually—as a listen to his often overlooked ‘70s recordings aptly demonstrates. After christening himself “Billy Ocean,” he regularly combed his American influences while infiltrating his island roots on a storm of international R&B and pop hits throughout the ‘80s. But he largely disappeared from the public eye for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s.

It’s been nearly 25 years since Billy’s last record in America, although he’s toured prolifically overseas during the past decade (and also independently released two albums in the UK). Building on that momentum, Sony’s Legacy label has assembled a slightly revised edition of his latest collection, Here You Are, for stateside fans. The set consists of two new Ocean originals, eight readings of songs that fostered his appreciation of music through childhood and young adulthood, and five of his biggest ‘80s hits.

The opening title track is a graceful ballad that embodies melodic elements of signature Ocean tunes like “Suddenly” and “There’ll Be Sad Songs (to Make You Cry)”—both included here—while showing a mature restraint that Billy has adopted with age. That’s not to say that he doesn’t still vocalize with passion and gusto, as is well the case on the truthful and celebratory uptempo number, “A Simple Game.” His keen sense of interpretation in both contexts remains strong over the course of the covers that follow—ranging from Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” to Vincent Ford’s “No Woman No Cry” (made famous by Bob Marley) and Ervin Drake’s standard “It Was a Very Good Year” (popularized most notably by Frank Sinatra).

The first incarnation of Here You Are arrived in 2013 on Billy’s own Aqua label. Last year, Sony UK re-released the album with several additional new recordings (the aforementioned “A Simple Game,” as well as “High Tide Low Tide”—not included on the U.S. edition) and packaged it with a second CD consisting of 19 Ocean classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Thus, Legacy’s new single-disc version is a sort of sampler of the full story, as it omits several tunes from the original release (“Time and the River” and “You Send Me”) and on the hits end, focuses only on his mid-‘80s sessions.

The omission of “Time and the River” (a gem much loved by Nat “King” Cole fans), is regrettable given its elegant, understated beauty. Billy has referenced the tune as the first international one he heard on his dad’s radio while still living in Trinidad, so it’s odd that in its place here is a rendition of The O’Jays “Love Train” (a song released in 1972, after Billy himself started recording). But that’s actually the only selection that falls short—perhaps because it’s been covered so frequently and is so strongly associated with its first exponents.

One of the most moving moments on Here You Are lies in Billy’s reading of “It Was a Good Year,” which finds him illuminating the pensive melody and arrangement with deep-hued tenor tones evoking a tender melancholy. More upbeat in nature, yet still swinging on a slow groove, “These Foolish Things” (which has been interpreted by the likes of Billie Holiday, Aaron Neville, and James Brown) is an ideal context for his smooth falsetto and romantic crooning. On the other end of the rhythm trail, his phrasing is engaging and dynamics lighthearted on “Having a Party.” Musically close to The Pointer Sisters’ 1977 version, Billy’s take is faithful to Cooke’s vocal premise and rings authentically.

Although Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me a River” has been remade countless times by artists of nearly every generation since its 1953 publication, Billy nonetheless makes his mark on it a memorable one with a finely balanced performance of nuance and strength. But perhaps one of the most personal entries comes via a take on Bob Marley’s “Judge Not.” Billy has stated the importance of Marley to both his musical and spiritual self, and while it’d be difficult to match the raw spunk of the original, he does a commendable job of preserving its style and wit.

The additional five Ocean classics here (including the #1 pop and R&B hits “Caribbean Queen” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car”) don’t necessarily correlate smoothly with the core of Here You Are, but could possibly serve as a catching introduction for younger American fans who know bits and pieces of Billy’s work from its use in jingles and TV programs. For longtime fans, it’s not uncharted terrain—and certainly not likely considered the cream of the crop by many SoulTrackers familiar with his earlier soul hits, like “Nights (Feel Like Getting Down)” and “Love Really Hurts Without You.” In the end, his new release will be a welcome introduction to a new generation of fans, and just as welcome a return for those who’ve missed the talented singer for the past two decades. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor
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