Friday, June 19, 2009

Beatle People: Billy J. Kramer

Billy J. Kramer (born William Howard Ashton, 19 August 1943, in Bootle, Liverpool, England) was a British Invasion / Merseybeat singer. In sharing Brian Epstein as a manager with The Beatles he enjoyed access to the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, recording several of their original compositions.

Early career

The performing name Kramer was chosen at random from a telephone directory. It was John Lennon's suggestion that the "J" be added to the name to further distinguish him by adding a "tougher edge." Billy soon came to the attention of Brian Epstein, ever on the look-out for new talent to add to his expanding roster of local artists. Kramer turned professional but his then backing band, The Coasters, were less keen, so Epstein sought out the services of a Manchester based band, The Dakotas, a well-respected combo then backing Pete MacLaine.

Even then, The Dakotas would not join Kramer without a recording deal of their own. Once in place, the deal was set and both acts signed to Parlophone under George Martin. Collectively, they were named Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas to keep their own identities within the act. Once the Beatles broke through, the way was paved for a tide of "Merseybeat" and Kramer was offered the chance to cover "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" first released by the Beatles on their own debut album, Please Please Me. The track had been allegedly turned down by Shane Fenton (later Alvin Stardust) who was looking for a career reviving hit.


With record producer George Martin, the song "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was a number two UK Singles Chart hit in 1963, and was backed by another tune otherwise unreleased by The Beatles, "I'll Be on My Way." After this impressive breakthrough another Lennon/McCartney pairing "Bad to Me" b/w "I Call Your Name" reached number one. "I'll Keep You Satisfied" ended the year with a respectable number four placing.

Billy was given a series of songs specially written for him by John Lennon and Paul McCartney which launched him into stardom. "I'll Keep You Satisfied," "From A Window," "I Call Your Name" and "Bad to Me" all became international million sellers for Billy, and won him appearances on the TV shows Shindig!, Hullabaloo and The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Dakotas, meanwhile, enjoyed Top 20 success in 1963 on their own with Mike Maxfield's composition "The Cruel Sea," an instrumental retitled "The Cruel Surf" in the U.S., which was subsequently covered by The Ventures. This was followed by a George Martin creation, "Magic Carpet," evoking a dreamy atmosphere with a subtle echo laden piano, playing the melody alongside Maxfield's guitar. But it missed out altogether and it was a year before their next release. All four tracks appeared on a highly-collectable EP later that year.

The three big hits penned by Lennon and McCartney suggested that Kramer would always remain the Beatles' shadow, unless he tried something different. Despite being advised against it, he insisted on recording the Stateside chart hit "Little Children" - the lyrics were allegedly about getting his girlfriend's brothers and sisters out of the way so they could make love. It became his second chart topper and biggest hit. It was Kramer's only major hit outside of the UK. In the U.S., this was followed up with "Bad to Me" which reached number nine. Despite this success Kramer went backwards with his second and last UK single of 1964; another Lennon/McCartney cast-off "From A Window," which only just became a Top Ten hit.

After the peak

The year 1965 saw the end for the Merseybeat boom, and the next Kramer single was "It's Gotta Last Forever," which harked back to a ballad approach. In a year where mod-related music from the likes of The Who prevailed, the single missed completely. Kramer's cover of "Trains and Boats and Planes" saw off Anita Harris' cover version only to find itself in direct competition with its composer, Burt Bacharach's effort, which won the day. Kramer's effort still reached a respectable number 12, but was the group's swansong, as all future cuts missed the chart.

The Dakotas ranks were then strengthened by the inclusion of Mick Green, the ex-guitarist with the London band the Pirates who backed Johnny Kidd. This line-up cut a few tracks which were at odds with the balladeer's usual fare. These included a take on "When You Walk in the Room" and "Sneakin' Around." The Dakotas final outing whilst with Kramer was the blues driven "Oyeh!" - but this also flopped.

The final showing

After releasing "We're Doing Fine", it too missed the charts leaving singer and group to part company. Kramer had a brief solo career which took him eventually to live in America.

The Dakotas re-formed in the late 1980s and recruited vocalist Eddie Mooney and session musician Toni Baker. They still tour and record. Other latter-day members are drummer Pete Hilton and guitarist Alan Clare.

In circa 1983 Kramer released a solo single "Shooting The Breeze"/"You Can't Live On Memories" which failed to chart, despite being a modern pop song and not reminiscent of his older work.

In 2005, Kramer recorded the song "Cow Planet" for Sandra Boynton's children's album, Dog Train. A long term fan of Kramer's, Boynton had sought him out for her project: in 1964, at age 11, she had bought Little Children as the first album she ever owned.


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