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Interview with Billy J Kramer
As one of the biggest stars to emerge from Liverpool in the wake of The Beatles, Billy J. Kramer was managed by Brian Epstein and had hit songs written for him by Lennon and McCartney. Now, 50 years later, Billy has returned to the recording studio to release a new album, I Won The Fight.
One of the tracks he is most proud of on the new album is “To Liverpool With Love”, which seemed a good place to start; talking about this song, and his home town of Liverpool. The first thing I noticed was that he has a slight American accent, which he puts down to spending the last 27 years married to his American wife, Roni. However, like may Scousers, in between sentences he will throw in “you know”, which is so Liverpool! “There is a part of me that is still Liverpool, and always will be,” said Kramer proudly.
We talked about his new album, which is his first for over thirty years. “I’m really happy with it,” he said, “which is the first in a long time. It is the first time I have written a lot of the songs myself. One song is called ‘I Can’t Keep the Dog Outside Tonight’ which is symbolic about someone who, as time goes by, becomes more mellow and less selfish.
“That is where that first song came from, and the start of it. I then wrote the song which is going to be my new single, called “To Liverpool With Love”. It’s like an autobiographical song about how I feel about the city that was my home. It mentions my old girlfriend; John and Paul; Brian, plus a lot of other references to growing up in Liverpool. I’m looking forward to seeing how people respond to it. No matter where you go, it is always a part of me. I wanted to write about Liverpool, because even though I live in New York, Liverpool is still very special. When I go back there I walk the streets and get a great vibe.
“I then wrote the title song, ‘I Won The Fight’. It goes back to the time when I was working for British Railways, and I got the offer from Brian Epstein to turn professional, and they gave me a hard time. It applies to me as well, because when I was younger I had a lot of issues, which is what I think they call them today. We called them hang-
“I spend a lot of time in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a neighbour talked to me about the sunsets of Santa Fe, and I thought that was a good title for a song, so I wrote that one down; ‘The Sunsets of Santa Fe’. I sent the song to Billy Kinsley (from the Merseybeats) in Liverpool for the background vocals (who did an amazing job), then to Chicago for some added guitar and back to New York for the strings. I’ve never done anything like that before over the internet.
“I’d had one song in my head for many years, which was a kind of rockabilly song called, ‘You’re Right, I’m Wrong’.
“I have put together a selection of songs that are different, and maybe not all typical Billy J. Kramer songs. But I also revisited some of the great songs that I remembered from years ago. I sat down in the studio with the guys and played them “The Story of My Life” on my guitar, and they said that they thought it was such a cool song, and asked where I got it from? I remember Michael Holliday having a hit with it in 1950 when I was a kid, and I thought it would be nice to pay a tribute to him, because I felt he never got the recognition he deserved.
“There was one time, back in the sixties, when I was in a studio in London with about 30 minutes to go, and John Lennon walked in with a song called ‘I’m in Love’, and we did two quick takes, but I never went back to it. The Fourmost then brought out a version of it, and I thought no more about it. I was sitting in a café in New York when I heard my version. EMI had put it on my box-
With so many of the tracks being written by Billy, I asked him how he felt about putting an album out of his material and being judged on it. “I feel very good about it,” he said. “All I can say is that I’ve had more enjoyment doing this CD now, than at any time in my life.” That took me aback slightly. That is a big statement, considering the level of success that he achieved. Why was this so different?
“I always felt that recording, because of the way I was when I was younger, made me very intimidated, especially by George Martin. The big-
When you compare this to Billy’s time with Epstein, he was handed a finished song for which he had to learn the vocals and perform it. Now, he is seeing the genesis of the song from his imagination, through to the finished track.
We then looked back to his career in the sixties, and the time that Lennon first came to him with a song. “I was appearing in Bournemouth, and it was my 20th birthday,” recalled Billy, “and I was backstage. He was reading the Melody Maker, and he said to me, ‘we’ve got into the charts for the first time in the United States’. I told him I was so happy for him, but he then turned the conversation around with the offer. ‘I’ve got this great song for you’, so I asked if he was going to play it for me, and he said ‘No!’ but told me not to worry, and that next time I was at Abbey Road, he would be there with the song for me.
“I just assumed he would never show, but I couldn’t believe it, because one day John turned up, took me into a room with him, and he played ‘Bad To Me’; It was a wonderful experience. I thanked him and was very grateful. But then he said to me; ‘I want your opinion on this one. Tell me what you think of it?’ and he played me ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, so I said, ‘Can I have that one?’ He quickly laughed and replied that they were keeping that one for themselves. We had to learn ‘Bad To Me’ there and then in the studio, and we only had three hours. To be honest, ‘Bad To Me’ didn’t come very easily to me, so I suggested to George Martin that we do the B-
“In comparison, ‘The Sunsets of Santa Fe’ took weeks to complete, because I didn’t want to do a ‘moon, spoon’ type of song. I have discovered how long it can take for a song to get through to the finished version. However, ‘I Won The Fight’ was an afternoon jam, and we recorded it the next day. It has been a fun process.”
From the album, I wanted to take Billy back to growing up in Liverpool, and how he got started in the music business, which he was obviously happy to do. “Nobody knows what is going to happen, but when I was a lad, my mother used to take me on the bus into Liverpool, and I would walk into Rushworth & Draper music store, and look at all of these beautiful Gibson guitars behind the glass cases. I had this feeling that one day I would do something musically.
In the 60’s, the pressure on me was incredible. You’re just this overweight, chubby kid, and then two days later after appearing on television, you become good looking overnight. How do you become good looking overnight? One day you can’t get the girls, and then two weeks later they are screaming for you! I always found it to be very strange.”
This idea of the pressure brought up a question for me. Did having Lennon and McCartney writing songs which he recorded and The Beatles’ manager looking after him, did that put extra pressure on him? “Believe it or not, it didn’t,” stated Kramer. “I think in a way, because I knew them before they made it, they were just fellow Liverpudlians that I happened to be working with.
‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ was the only Lennon/ McCartney song that I actually learned before I recorded it. Brian gave me a tape of John singing it with just his guitar, and we learned it. “We put it in our show, and when we were in Hamburg we did it every night, and, truthfully, we had not gotten the greatest response from it live.” George Martin still wanted to release it as a single. However, when I returned to the UK, I went to Manchester to do the television show People and Places, and the breaking news story was the infamous Profumo scandal which was rocking the government in Britain, and everyone was talking about secrets. The song just took off from there. I was amazed by it. Nobody else at that time had had a hit with a Lennon/ McCartney song, and I remember when we did the Lennon and McCartney TV Show, John and Paul thanked me for believing in them as songwriters, before anybody else.”
I remember when I was in the process of getting my first band together, I went to Litherland Hall, and BobWooler told us that this band called The Beatles were coming from Hamburg, so I really wanted to see them. I was just totally blown away by them. They were rock ‘n’ roll! I remember walking home with my friends and saying that they were really going to make it: they could be bigger than Elvis! My friends just thought I had drunk too much.
The impact of Lennon and McCartney onto Billy’s career cannot be underestimated, so I asked him how they first met. “I first came across John and Paul at an audition at the Aintree Institute, and I was living in nearby Bootle. We put all of our equipment on the pavement and took it up there by bus. We got six bookings from that audition with promoter Brian Kelly, and it was that night that I first met The Beatles backstage. I remember commenting to John that I’d seen them at several places, and that he had a cool guitar, the Rickenbacker. He was very friendly, and asked me if I wanted to play it.
“We started doing a lot of gigs with them, like the Majestic Ballroom, Blair Hall and others. The wonderful thing was that they were just regular people, but interesting and so talented. We always had a great time together. “Firstly, the other bands wore suits and ties, handkerchiefs in the pockets, and just covered the Top 40 songs. I was the same, but they were doing songs that I had never heard before, and they knocked me out. I knew there were some good bands about, but nothing like them.”
I took Billy back to the start of his career, and discussed how he went from guitarist to reluctant vocalist. “I started playing guitar, and was quite content to stand at the back and play, have a pint of beer, and watch someone else cavort around. Our band was playing one of our first gigs at the Conservative Club in Green Lane, and the guys in the band said they thought that my guitar playing was ok, but maybe I should just sing. So, I did some songs at the front in the first set, and it went well, so I left my guitar in the dressing room, concentrating only on singing for the second set, which went better, as I’d had a couple of beers. When we had finished, I went back to the dressing room, and the guitar had been stolen! I thought singing would just be a novelty, as I didn’t think I was that good.
“As I had borrowed the money from my brother and had to pay him bak, I couldn’t afford another guitar, and that was that. It is funny the way life goes, as I was working for British Railways who were about to send me off for training at Crewe. This meant moving away from Liverpool for a year. I went to the boss, and told him I didn’t want to leave Liverpool and he just stepped in and told me that I had to grow up because one day I would have to leave Liverpool, and face the world. I assumed my singing days were over, but the Mersey Beat polls came out with me in third place, which resulted in Brian offering to manage me. I would not have had anybody else apart from him looking after me. I could see what a good job he was doing with The Beatles, and wanted the same for me.”
This brought us nicely onto the subject of Brian Epstein. “Brian has become this forgotten man,” proclaimed Billy, “and I have been pushing for him to get in to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I saw Brian when he came back from London, brow beaten, unsuccessfully trying to get a record deal for The Beatles and he believed in them and hung in there. As far as I’m concerned, The Beatles are the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band the world has ever seen, or will ever see, and they are still the biggest 50 years later. The fact that Brian, who brought The Beatles to the world, has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame I think is disgraceful. There is a place for him, an award for non-
“To me, the fans who have bought the records, are the ones who should decide who goes into the Hall of Fame. It disappoints me that the fans don’t have a say in it. “Without Brian doing what he did, they might well have been missed! They won’t be playing Justin Bieber songs in 50 years. The bands that have happened since The Beatles owe something to Brian and The Beatles. They opened the doors for all of these bands and artists. To me, I look at The Beatles at being the gods, and we followed in their path, and I’m very grateful for that.
Brian wasn’t the typical sleazy rock ‘n’ roll manager. He was a very impressive person when you met him. He was immaculately dressed, and was unlike anyone I have ever come across. When he died, well I can just say that it is something that I still struggle with. I have never found anybody who was fit to lace his shoes! He was a class act, and when he met people, he left an impression. Some people make comments that he didn’t do this, and he did that wrong, and he made the wrong deals with merchandise, but there was nothing like it in place to follow: nothing like that had ever been done before. He had to learn as he went along, and make it up as he encountered each new problem.
“Brian used to come to my shows, and would be there unannounced. He would come backstage after the show with his notebook, and talk through the songs I was singing, how I introduced the songs, what I said on stage, what I wore and every aspect of the performance. He looked at every detail of my performance to make me better. I remember when he offered to become my manager: I was well known for wearing bright suits and gold lame jackets. ‘The first thing I’m going to do Billy’ Epstein said, ‘is to put away the Christmas tree!’ He took me to a tailor and dressed me how he thought I should dress on stage. He taught me to bow on stage, and every aspect of presentation.”
One of the most controversial topics that still raises its head is the decision Brian made to put The Beatles into suits. How did Billy think this affected their chance of fame? “I don’t think The Beatles would have been accepted if they were still in their leathers,” he said. “A lot of people questioned it at the time, but it is history and what he did must have been right.”
Billy then returned to the subject of his new song, “To Liverpool With Love”, and quoted some of the lyrics
that he was inspired to write, remembering his friends.
“The place that I grew up in, was hidden from my view
It took four lads and rock ‘n’ roll to make the world come new
I always loved The Beatles, especially John and Paul,
The songs I got took me to the top
Screaming fans, I had it all.
Things were going so fast I had trouble with fame
But if you asked me to I’d do it all again”
“I always love to come back to Liverpool, and when I came back two years ago, I brought my band from America and other friends from over here, and they just fell in love with the place, and want to come back. They had such a good time. I used to come back and get recognised easily, but now I’m not as recognisable and I love to go and walk the place and soak it in: it’s home.”
A conversation with Billy has to include how he went from being William Ashton to Billy J. Kramer. I started by asking whether he thinks of himself as Billy J or William Ashton? “Oh, as William Howard Ashton, as it’s not such a bad name. The ‘Kramer’ was from a suggestion by the band. The guys said I had to have a stage name. Well I said it had to be Billy, so we wrote a load of names on a piece of paper and rang up a telephone operator and said, ‘Which name do you like the best?’ She said ‘Kramer’, so that was it.”
It was John who suggested I call myself Billy J. Brian called me into the office, as there was something he wanted to talk to me about. When I got there, John was already in the room, and he suggested calling myself Billy J. Kramer, as it will make it more sellable, so I’m very grateful for what he did for me. When talking about The Beatles, Billy is always keen to give credit to the help that he received from them. “They helped so many people, and I’ve always regarded myself as a pretty good singer and entertainer, but it wouldn’t have happened without them. I was there at the right time, and the amazing thing is that I never asked for the songs. When I did ‘Little Children’, Brian wasn’t very happy about that, because he thought that I’d insulted the biggest songwriters in the world, but I thought I’d got a really good song and wanted to record it. They did come to me with three Lennon/ McCartney songs, but I didn’t think were of the same calibre as the others, which John admitted years later, when he said ‘Billy J wasn’t stupid in turning down the songs’. The only one I can remember was ‘One and One is Two’.
“I also remember when we were doing a summer season in Blackpool, and The Beatles were there too. Paul came into the dressing room with his guitar and played me ‘Yesterday’, so I told him it was a lovely song, but I wanted to do a rock ‘n’ roll song. That’s where my head was at the time. I don’t regret that decision, because I felt we should be playing pop songs to a younger audience, and here we were stuck in Blackpool for four months playing to a very adult audience. I had just had a hit with ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ and I was thinking that I should be doing more upbeat rock ‘n’ roll songs.
“What not a lot of people realise is that I had ‘Needles and Pins’ and ‘When You Walk In The Room’ before anybody else. When I came to New York with Brian in 1963, before The Beatles came over, I was given the songs, but I couldn’t get the band to play them. That is possibly the one thing that really annoyed me, because I knew they were great songs.
“I actually came to New York with Brian before the Beatles. When I came to New York, I did some radio and tv work. People always go on about the holiday that John took with Brian, and go on about the gay thing, but nobody has ever asked me if Brian hit on me. The truth is no, he didn’t. Brian went and did his thing, and I went and did my thing. Brian thought at the time that I had the right clean-
As a twenty year old young man, leaving Liverpool for the first time, New York must have been daunting for him. I asked Billy what he felt like when he first arrived. “I wanted to get on the first plane back to Liverpool. I was intimidated and overwhelmed, and it was a very scary experience. I was like that for many years after it too. New York people are very much like Liverpool people: they tell it how it is, to your face. It is obviously on a much bigger scale, but there are a lot of similarities. I can understand why John Lennon fell in love with it.
“I think I would come back to Liverpool one day, because my family is there and I have friends there too. As I’m getting older, you naturally get nostalgic for your hometown. After all, you can’t take the scouse out of a scouser. I used to love to go to New Brighton Baths, on the ferry, and would love to do it again. I’m so glad to hear that New Brighton is on the up again, which I think is great. I had some happy days there. I also miss Norris Green Swimming Baths, and Balliol Road Swimming Baths. I used to love swimming, but I was never good at football (soccer). I played for the school cricket team, but we were rubbish anyway.”
As we finished our chat, Billy made an interesting comment. “I think that I am enjoying my career more now than at any other time in my life. I think I’m more comfortable with myself, and when people ask why I’ve chosen to do this now, I tell them it is because now it feels alright. I feel good about life.”
The New CD
Billy J Kramer’s new CD, I Won The Fight, is available to pre-
To order the signed limited edition Cd, of which only 1000 are being released, go to his website. You will also get a signed photo with it.
Billy should be playing a number of shows in 2013, so stay tuned for more details.
To support the campaign, go to the home page and vote to back Billy’s call to have Brian Epstein inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We need Beatles fans from around the world to back this campaign.
Copyright David Bedford www.thebeatleswebsite.com 4th December 2012 Please do not reprint in full on any other site without my express permission. Headlines can be used, or a summary, with links, including to Twitter and Facebook.
For more information contact David Bedford