■ The legendary R&B singer, 69, on his favourite Eighties acts, why he made his own clothes and being dad to Keith Lemon
You’re back this summer with the Let’s Rock festivals — why do you enjoy them so much?
I love festivals in general but Let’s Rock is the one that introduced me to them. I’d never really done festivals before — I’d always thought they were for the elite, I was never asked to do them. Since then I’ve done many and really enjoy them.
There are a lot of ’70s and ’80s revival festivals now…
Exactly — they’re so different from concerts. The people come along with a lovely free spirit ready to enjoy themselves. Love Really Hurts Without You for some reason really gets people moving and Red Light rocks them too. But then so does Caribbean Queen, Get Into My Car, When The Going Gets Tough — all of them!
Are you friendly with other ’70s and ’80s acts?
Yeah, you see them in passing and say hello, but life is such that you don’t really get to make any solid friendships. Back in the day, most of my friends were people I grew up with but I always looked forward to seeing people like The Real Thing, Heatwave. I used to bump into Duran Duran quite a lot, people of that sort of era.
Your songs have been covered by LaToya Jackson, Randy Crawford, The Nolans and Boyzone — which is your favourite?
Haha! The one that made me the most money, which is Boyzone! And in fact they did the best version out of all the songs anyway. Since then I’ve got to know Ronan Keating and the boys and they’re really nice people.
You’ve been hailed as the biggest black recording star Britain has ever produced — how does that make you feel?
I’m proud of it but it’s not something I dwell on because there’s a lot of really good black talent in England, so why more haven’t come through I don’t know. The music industry has changed. You no longer have the enjoyment of seeing a record climbing up the chart over the weeks and looking on Top Of The Pops to see, or going on it. It’s quite sad everything has gone online.
What times have you enjoyed most in your career?
So many. Number ones in America, working with Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito on Romancing The Stone, the thrill you get out of writing new songs. The band I’m working with now are such a lovely bunch of people I wish I’d had them before because I probably wouldn’t have stopped for such a long while. Winning a Grammy, meeting people like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. They’re such important milestones in your life and lovely memories that you save up for when you get older and can’t do anything any more.
Do you still have your classic ‘80s outfits?
Oh my gosh! I still have some of them. My favourite is the checked jumpsuit. I made some of them myself because I’m a qualified tailor and couldn’t afford to buy them. My mum said, ‘If you’re going to pursue music you better have something to fall back on just in case it fails.’ But it never failed. After my first successful record Love Really Hurts, I never looked back. I kept on going uphill and I’m still going.
Your real name is Leslie Sebastian Charles — does anyone call you Leslie?
You just did! Not very often, no. It’s very rare. My bank manager maybe. Even my family don’t — they call me another name, which I won’t tell you. No one knows that other name!
Is your eldest daughter Cherie still a backing singer for you?
Yes! I love having her with me. Rachel, my youngest, plays piano and cello, my son Anthony plays drums and keyboard but Cherie’s the only one who supports me and loves singing. I really am proud to have her with me. My wife travels with me now and again.
You’re still touring a lot — Australia in June — where do you get the energy?
Yes, I’m going to America and Africa too. The truth is when you start off in this business it’s fresh, then after a while you wonder why you’re doing it, whether it’s for money or because someone is telling you to. But age is the only thing that gives you knowledge and understanding. And for me I know exactly what my job is now — it’s to make people happy. When I do that, it makes me happy.
You played Keith Lemon’s father in his film. Would you do that again?
Yes, he’s my son! I’m very proud of him. We’re in touch. Actually he keeps in touch with my kids mainly, believe it or not — his ‘sisters’! But it’s always nice when I see him — I like him very much. One time he even came to see me in Disney World. Out of character, he’s totally different — he’s a very normal nice guy.
■ Ocean will be one of the headliners at Let’s Rock festivals across the UK this summer. letsrock80s.com