By Ray Shasho
Billy J. Kramer, the British Invasion crooner and Merseybeat legend generally associated with The Dakotas, is on an incessant and heartfelt crusade to land Brian Epstein into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Brian Epstein was both Kramer’s friend and manager.
Epstein discovered the debonair Liverpudlian songster and quickly arranged a union between Billy J. Kramer and the Manchester-based band The Dakotas. Both signed separate recording deals with Parlophone Records under producer George Martin. It was John Lennon who suggested that Billy personify a “tougher edge” by adding the “J” to his name.
Epstein had recently launched The Beatles and was determined to sustain Merseybeat good fortune by asking Kramer to sing Lennon-McCartney cover tunes. Kramer recorded, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (#2 UK Singles Chart in 1963) followed by the cover, “I’ll Be on My Way.” The song also reached #2 on the UK charts behind The Beatles, “From Me to You” for the number one spot.
1963 proved to be a pivotal year as Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas continued to ride the success of Lennon-McCartney penned compositions and scoring big with “Bad to Me” which became their first UK #1 Smash Hit. The following year, the single infiltrated the US charts becoming a Top 10 sensation. It was the first time a Lennon-McCartney penned song reached the Top 40 for an artist other than The Beatles. “Bad to Me” sold over a million units and was awarded gold disc status. The UK B-side was “I Call Your Name”
“I’ll Keep You Satisfied” recorded at Abbey Road Studios and under the direction of George Martin, reached #4 in the UK and finished at #30 on the US Charts.
In 1964, Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas recorded “From A Window,” the sixth and final Lennon-McCartney composition suggested to Kramer. The single reached #10 in the UK.
Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas became a significant sector that successfully linked to the worldwide musical barrage of “The British Invasion.” The band earned prestigious bookings on numerous television shows in America like The Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo and Shindig! They also appeared in the 1964 rocumentary film The T.A.M.I Show.
Kramer didn’t want to be known as one of those guys that hung off The Beatles shirt-tails, so he reached out for new material. He chose a tune penned by Mort Shuman and J. Leslie McFarland entitled, “Little Children.” The song skyrocketed and became the biggest hit for Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas. Both “Little Children” and its flipside “Bad to Me” were huge Top 10 Hits for Kramer in the U.S. for 1964.
Kramer scored again in 1965 with the Burt Bacharach & Hal David composition “Trains and Boats and Planes” (#12 Hit) which also became a huge hit for Dionne Warwick in 1966. Legendary guitar-hero Mick Green (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates) had also joined The Dakotas.
In 1967, after the death of their Manager Brian Epstein, The Dakotas and Billy J. Kramer parted ways. Kramer went on to a successful solo career performing at venues around the globe, including British Invasion-themed concerts.
In 1996, The Dakotas reformed with Billy J. Kramer and toured the UK.
After thirty years … Billy J. Kramer will be releasing his long-awaited new CD entitled, I Won the Fight, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first hit record. The CD includes the critically-acclaimed single, “To Liverpool With Love.” The CD is expected to be released sometime in late March or early April. Pre-sale-Special Limited Edition orders can be purchased now at http://billyjkramersite.com
On March 3-10, 2013 … Billy J. Kramer, Mark Hudson (Ringo Starr) and Joey Molland (Badfinger) will set-sail on The Fourth Annual ‘Cruise for Beatle Fans’ aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. For more information visit www.musicinmocean.com
I had the pleasure of speaking with Billy J. Kramer recently about his campaign to get Brian Epstein enlisted into the non-performers’ section (Ahmet Ertegun Award) of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Epstein was an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a very important historical figure in the music industry. Epstein was responsible for so many of the Merseybeat/British Invasion bands of the 1960s …including The Beatles, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, The Remo Four and The Cyrcle.
Billy’s thoughts about the British Invasion… “I always tell people … when I first saw The Beatles they were doing all cover versions, I just think we recycled a lot of American music.”
Here’s my interview with Merseybeat/British Invasion sensation …BILLY J.KRAMER.
Ray Shasho: Hello Billy …Happy 2013!
Billy J. Kramer: “Thank you very much Ray!”
Ray Shasho: You’re calling from New York, do you live out there?
Billy J. Kramer: “I live in New York most of the time and live out in Santa Fe, New Mexico some of the time.”
Ray Shasho: Santa Fe is a beautiful area, have you been out to Roswell?
Billy J. Kramer: “Of course I have … that’s how I discovered Santa Fe.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve got a brand new CD coming out soon?
Billy J. Kramer: “It should be out late March or beginning in April. I have a single out at the moment which is on iTunes called, “To Liverpool With Love.” It’s a song that I wrote and recorded; about that period in the 60’s mentioning The Beatles and Brian Epstein …it’s that kind of song. I’ll be launching it all at ‘The Fest’ For Beatles Fans on April 6th in Secaucus, New Jersey and performing these songs live with my own band. The band lineup is Liberty Devitto on drums, who used to be with Billy Joel for a long time, Adam Roth on guitars, Muddy Shews on bass, who used to be with Southside Johnny and Andy Burton on keyboards. They’re fun to play with and I love them all. It was amazing … these guys have played with a lot of big names and two years ago I went back to Liverpool with them and they were just like little kids. It was one of the most fulfilling gigs in my career to go back there and play with these people.” www.thefest.com
“This is actually the first time that I made an album. My albums were …I would sing songs off a piece of paper with the lyrics and most of the songs that I recorded … I never ever did them live. I’m not proud of that, this is the first time that I’ve written songs that I really wanted to do. And I never had the luxury of spending a lot of time in the studio until now. That’s why it’s called, I Won The Fight.”
Ray Shasho: Brian Epstein was so instrumental to your life and of course your music career. I’m also surprised that he’s not in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he probably should have been inducted when The Beatles got in.
Billy J. Kramer: “Yes… why isn’t Brian Epstein in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? It’s been a whole thing that I’ve tried to push for quite some time. The man that brought the biggest band to the world… and still the biggest band in the world is not in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I think it’s ludicrous. This is a man who pounded the pavements in London and suffered a lot of rejection, and I think The Beatles could quite easily been overlooked had it not been for what he did.”
Ray Shasho: I’m not so sure The Beatles had the discipline to make it without Brian.
Billy J. Kramer: “I’ll be very honest, coming from Liverpool at that time; it was very difficult to get any recognition from London. There were no studios in Liverpool, no TV, radio …there was nothing. And Brian to me was a great representative and he made it happen. I think he should get the recognition, it’s like he’s a forgotten man and I think that’s wrong. Let’s face it; it was the biggest thing that ever happened in Pop music, The Ed Sullivan Show sparked it… and I think it’s a disgrace.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve never put much stock in The Rock and Roll Hall of “Cronyism” anyway … there are so many legendary artists who haven’t already been elected and many who never deserved to be there in the first place. Maybe it should be the people who decides who gets in; after all, we’re the ones who bought the records.
Billy J. Kramer: “Maybe I’m naive, but I never use to think it was that kind of thing, but as time went on, I saw people that are in there that shouldn’t be and others who were totally overlooked. I always thought that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have been something that was for the fans. You’re right; the fans bought the records, made people stars, so that’s the way it should have been worked. Too me it’s … what do you consider rock and roll? Because there are people in there that I don’t consider rock and roll.
Ray Shasho: Sorry, but I don’t consider The Beastie Boys …Rock and Roll.
Billy J. Kramer: “Good example… nothing against the guys, but it’s not Rock and Roll!”
Ray Shasho: I know so many dedicated music fans and aficionados that know more about the music than the artists themselves.
Billy J. Kramer: “I can show you fans that know more about me than I know about myself.”
Ray Shasho: (Laughing) It’s the truth …so many of us made music our lives and we weren’t musicians. We inhaled the music on a daily basis like breathing in the air.
Billy J. Kramer: “It’s a whole new world … when I was a kid; my big thing was to walk a few miles and go to a record store called Alan’s in Liverpool and pickup my records … that was my thing. To me it’s one of those things that will stay with me my whole life. It’s something I loved from the start and still love today.”
Ray Shasho: Did you play an instrument and join a rock band when you were in high school?
Billy J. Kramer: “Yes I did, I had a band with local friends and we were getting nowhere. So one day they said maybe you should front the band. I thought, well, it would be a novelty. The first show I did … I had the guitar on the stand and thought, if I get nervous I’ll pick up the guitar. I left the guitar in the dressing room and it was stolen. I couldn’t afford another guitar so that’s how it all started. I never wanted to be the frontman of a band; I just wanted to play behind somebody else.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, how were you first discovered as a singer?
Billy J. Kramer: “I was on the circuit playing the Cavern Club, the same sort of thing as The Beatles and all the local gigs, and there was a popularity poll in the Mersey Beat which was a local paper for the fans. They had a Top 20 poll and I came in third and was a nonprofessional. Brian Epstein saw me perform at this, and we all had to perform, and he gave a prize that was a tour of Scotland for the highest nonprofessional artist which was me. I had to turn it down because of my day job. I was going to leave Liverpool for a year as part of my training which was an engineer. Brian stepped in and offered me a contract … something I couldn’t turn down.”
“The rest is history … I had a number one hit with a Lennon and McCartney song before they recorded it, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and then “Bad To Me” after that …and “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.”
Ray Shasho: “Bad To Me” was always my favorite; you did an incredible job with that Lennon and McCartney tune.
Billy J. Kramer: “Thank you very much … I enjoyed doing all of them, it was a bit of an ordeal at the time, I was only a young guy and a bit intimidated by the whole thing. It was a big step from being this blue-collar worker’s son to working with people like Georg Martin and people on that level. I read things in books …and in one particular book (I can’t remember which one it was) it said, Billy J. Kramer was number one with “Bad To Me” and the Beatles knocked him off by the end of the week. And the truth of the matter is … I hadn’t even heard the song. I remember that week distinctly because it was my twentieth birthday and John Lennon came up to me … he was reading the paper and said, “We just got into the charts in the states and by the way, I’ve got a song for you.” I said are you going to play it? He says “No, come to Abbey Road next time we’re recording.” Brian threw a party for me that night back at the hotel after the show, so I asked John again … Why don’t you just play it for me and he said, “No.””
“He finally played it to me at Abbey Road …he sat at the piano and played me the song. That’s how I got the song. People asked me, was there a demo… but that’s how I got the song. At the same time …John said to me, “I want to run a song by you and want your opinion,” it was, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” To be in the room with him playing that song was awesome.”
Ray Shasho: I heard you wanted that song too?
Billy J. Kramer: “I did …yes. Somebody emailed me a thing last week where it said that I turned down, “A World Without Love,” but I didn’t; I never heard the song, only that Peter and Gordon had a hit record with it. I’m one of these people; I think it would be nice if a lot of this stuff would be historically correct.”
Ray Shasho: The Liverpool music scene must have been incredible… and musicians quickly became a hot commodity, like the Detroit music scene eventually became in America.
Billy J. Kramer: “It was a very healthy live scene in Liverpool; I used to be out five or six nights a week playing at different places.”
Ray Shasho: “I chatted with Pete Best last week … such a great guy. What was your interpretation on the whole Pete Best firing from The Beatles?
Billy J.Kramer: “I think it’s one of those things that there hasn’t been an out an out answer. It just seems to me that …me as an onlooker, I saw Bob Wooler say… Let’s hear it one more time for John, George, Paul… and when Pete Best walked back on the stage at the end of the show, young girls just went crazy. It’s something that always baffled me and I don’t have the answer. I saw The Beatles many-many times and Pete sounded great. I think they owed it to him to make amends.”
“I’ll be honest with you… on the early records Pete would have been fine, I don’t know as they progressed, if he would have progressed. I think Ringo did a great job. The bottom line was, it was their band and they did what they wanted to do. What we think is history now.”
Ray Shasho: What was Brian Epstein like?
Billy J. Kramer: “Brian Epstein was a class act. I don’t think there’s enough being said about him as a person. It must have been horrendous for Brian back then being gay while it was illegal. To go through that for any gay person had to be a nightmare and I have a lot of compassion. He did a lot for me. He’d come to my shows and never told me that he was going to come. He’d be there backstage after the show and critique the shows I did, how I introduced them, the lighting, the way the band played. He was a man for instance, when my mother died, if he was in Liverpool, he’d see my father and take him out to dinner. He always sent Christmas cards to my family and always showed up on my birthday.”
“You know it’s funny enough, like when John Lennon went on a vacation with Brian and everyone wondered …did they have this thing. Well, I came to New York with Brian and nobody ever asked me. (Laughing) And I mean it.”
“I did my thing and Brian did his thing and we’d meet up and have dinner and that was it.”
“When I went to see Brian we’d go out to dinner, play cards and hangout. He’d ask me who I thought would be number one on the charts and he was never too happy when I’d tell him that it wasn’t one of his acts.”
Ray Shasho: I studied footage on Brian that I’ve watched over the internet. He seemed to be extremely cordial and a very personable guy, but I also sensed, as he spoke with people, he always seemed to have something else on his mind.
Billy J. Kramer: “You mean he sometimes seemed preoccupied. I think he had a lot going on. And let’s face it he must have tried to hide his homosexuality because he got crucified for it. He also had a lot of responsibilities for all the acts he had. But Brian to me was a great representative the way he presented himself. I couldn’t see anyone else in Liverpool going and negotiating with some of these top companies the way he did. To me rock and roll today is still what it is because of him. The Beatles did that Shea Stadium thing and that was the start of big outdoor gigs. Honestly, when I came to America with Brian it was very difficult getting recognition coming over from England. Brian opened the doors for all of us. He did a great deal with Ed Sullivan; the best ever …and to me he brought The Beatles to the world.”
Ray Shasho: Do you think Brian Epstein intended to end his life or do you feel it was an accident?
Billy J. Kramer: “All I know is that I went through a period where I was more interested in partying than my career and Brian wasn’t sort of pushing me the way he used to. Then I did this show at The Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool and he came to see me, I’d stop drinking and was very slim. He came and saw the show, was very pleased and said, “I’m going to America … when I come back, let’s get together and work on a whole new thing.” He looked better than previous times that I’d seen him. Then I remember that I got a letter on the Saturday night that I sang, apologizing for not coming, one of his parents had just died at the time (I think his father passed) and didn’t like leaving his mother at home. But he said, what we talked about in our conversation … I’ll see you when I get back. The next thing, I walked over to the hotel one day … there was no TV in your room back then, you had to go over to a TV lounge, so I turned the TV on and found out Brian had died.”
“I’ve always thought that maybe he was on prescribed medication and then he drank. I don’t think he intentionally killed himself … that’s my opinion. But the press had a field day because it’s Brian Epstein, The Beatles Manager.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve talked with a lot of artists who played The Ed Sullivan Show, what was it like for you?
Billy J. Kramer: “Believe it or not, I wasn’t aware what a big deal it was. I think if I had known what a big deal it was I would have been terrified. We did the soundcheck in the afternoon and I met Ed Sullivan on the set and he just said, “Here’s… Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas” and we went into music …and that was it.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, do you have a good story from back in the British Invasion days?
Billy J. Kramer: “I was doing a recording session at EMI and John Lennon came in and said, “Great song.” We had about fifteen minutes left and just knocked the track down, but don’t know why we never went back and finished it. I sat at a restaurant a few years ago and suddenly I hear this song come on over the speakers in the restaurant, and it was me doing this song with today’s technology, we had done two takes and they edited them. There was some bantering between me and John… a lot of it they left out, but at one point he said to me … “You sound like Adam Faith you fool!” (All laughing) But it was funny hearing that after all those years.”
“John Lennon had tremendous insight. I remember when The Dakotas employed this new Road Manager and setting the gear up on the stage and John said to me, “Who’s that Billy?” I said that’s The Dakotas new Road Manager. John said, “You better get rid of him before he grows on you” and you know something, awhile later, the guy pulled out after an important tour, at an important time and left everyone high and dry. Yet, John said that to me after only one meeting with the guy and it’s always blown me away. John was so spot-on … on so many things.”
Ray Shasho: Do still speak with the surviving members of The Beatles?
Billy J .Kramer: “I see Paul from time to time and he’s always been cool to me. Maybe if I was a vegetarian I’d see him more often (All laughing). The last time Ringo played on Long Island, he found out that I lived down the road and called me up and said, “Come down and see the show.” When he had his art showing in New York, I went down and hung out with him and had a chat. Ringo, to me, is a lot of fun. It’s funny, when I went to see him, my wife walked into the dressing room before me and she’s very short and the first words out of his mouth were, “Billy …you’ve changed a lot!” But he’s great! When we spoke he said, “You know, they hate me in Liverpool now.” I’m not sure what he said to the press or the media but apparently it didn’t go down so well.”
“I liked George Harrison very much too and was blown away with what he did with The Traveling Wilburys. I remember George taking me to meet Roy Orbison. I was a big fan and George introduced me to him, I was just like a little kid. But the last time I talked with George, he was doing a session with some friends of mine that he was going to produce and I went down. It was awhile before he died.”
“I had never met Yoko Ono and she got in touch with me and asked me to write an essay about my relationship with John for a book. I wrote a short essay and they never changed one word, which really surprised me.”
“I get on really well with Cynthia; we used to hang out at parties or at a launch of a new album … and I love her dearly.”
Ray Shasho: What was the origin behind your version of “Trains and Boats and Planes”?
Billy J. Kramer: “I heard the song on a TV show. Mick Green was a great guitar player with The Dakotas at the time and never got the recognition that he deserved. I was at Mick’s house and watched this Burt Bacharach Special; we started playing around with the song and realized that we could do a version of it. We took it to George Martin and just put it together. We just tried to make a good record out of a beautiful song.”
“In 1968, I also recorded the Harry Nilsson song, “1941”which a lot of people don’t know.”
Ray Shasho: Billy, here’s a final question. I ask everyone that I interview this very same question. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish to sing or collaborate with anyone form the past or present who would you choose?
Billy J. Kramer: “John Lennon.”
Ray Shasho: Have you recorded with John before?
Billy J. Kramer: “No, only when he came down with, “I’m In Love.” I never finished the first version, so I remade it and thought it would be a tribute to John on the new CD, and did it how I thought it should be.”
Ray Shasho: Thank you Billy for being on the call today and for all the fantastic music throughout the years. We will all be watching out for the release of the new CD.
Billy J. Kramer: “I’m very proud of what I did in the 60s and want to get out there to play the old stuff, the new stuff and continue recording, which is something that I had not done in a long time.”
“Let’s keep banging on that door to get Brian Epstein into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. …Thanks Ray!”
After thirty years … Billy J. Kramer will be releasing his long-awaited new CD entitled, I Won the Fight, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first hit record. The CD -includes the critically-acclaimed single, “To Liverpool With Love.” The CD is expected to be released sometime in late March or early April. Pre-sale-Special Limited Edition orders can be purchased now at http://billyjkramersite.com/#/presale/
Billy J. Kramer official website http://billyjkramersite.com
Brian Epstein official website and petition www.brianepstein.com/petition.html
‘The Fest’ for Beatles Fans Official site www.thefest.com
The Cruise for Beatles Fans 2013 official site www.musicinmocean.com
Very special thanks to Steve Petrie for this interview.
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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