Liverpool, due to the Port of Liverpool (1751 to the early seventies) was a major dock for commodities bound for the UK, including US rock ‘n’ roll records and the kids from Liverpool couldn’t get enough of it. Not just content to listening they wanted to create their own sound. With no musical training, other than learning to play by ear, very soon Liverpool and her boundaries had a collection of bands who were playing at places like The Casbah Coffee Club (homage to Soho’s The 2i's Coffee Bar, labelled the birth place of British rock ‘n’ roll) and The Cavern Club, both legendary venues; The Merseybeat was born, it was that simple.
Billy J Kramer was one of the teenagers who had been caught up in Rock ‘n’ Roll fever and now, like fellow Merseysiders Silent Generation ( people born between 1925 to 1945) Gerry Marsden (Gerry and The Pacemakers) Rory Storm (Rory Storm and The Hurricanes) Ray Ennis (The Swinging Blue Jeans) and, of course, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (The Beatles) he too was performing around Liverpool as Billy J Kramer and The Coasters and again, like his peers, he would also eventually be singing in front of the whole world.
Born William Howard Ashton 19th August 1943 Bootle, Liverpool to a working class family. Prior to discovering music, Kramer (according to rock ‘n’ roll legend, randomly chose the surname from a telephone directory) seemed happy to have a career with British Rail. Yet with the success of The Beatles, and Kramer knowing them before they were famous, their manager Brian Epstein (due to John Lennon’s suggestion) agreed to look after him under his management company NEMS. This move helped Kramer to turn professional, and was given a new backing band, The Dakotas. Furthermore The Beatles association didn’t just end there; Kramer’s first three singles starting in 1963 Do You Want to Know a Secret, Bad to Me and I’ll Keep You Satisfied were all Lennon-McCartney compositions written especially for him and released on Parlophone (The Beatles’ label) and produced by the legendary George Martin.
Top ten chart success loomed, and wishing to break away from perhaps being an understudy to The Beatles, Kramer looked elsewhere for his next single Little Children (February 1964) written by Mort Shuman and John Leslie McFarland. Shuman had written several hits for Elvis Presley. Little Children has become one of his signature tunes, a ballad delivered with Kramer’s trademark, warm and harmonious vocals. For his next single, he did return to Lennon – McCartney, From a Window, (November 1964) and Kramer continued releasing singles up until 1967. Yet after Little Children, Kramer’s success didn’t reach the dizzy heights of his contemporaries such as The Beatles, which could be down to a variety of reasons, from self belief to musical style.
Kramer’s recording career path from the late sixties until 2013 has been rather sketchy, with the odd release here and there, but with no real success. Yet it seems that his popularity is still hardened amongst his fans, as he has continued performing across the world, and in 2012 he felt the time was right to go back into the studio.
At ZANI, we have always been keen fans of the sixties, The Merseybeat and such like, and when we received an email from his press officer asking if we were interested in interviewing Billy J Kramer, without any hesitation, we said yes. So it was arranged that we spoke to Kramer via the phone at his New York home, where we chatted about his life, career, The Beatles, Liverpool FC, Everton and much more...
ZANI – You have made your first album in 30 years, am I right in asking that ?
Billy J Kramer - You are right in asking that, it is my first album in thirty years.
ZANI - What can your fans expect from the album ?
Billy J Kramer - It’s not the Billy J Kramer of the sixties, which was a long time ago. I am very proud of my past and what I achieved in the sixties, but there are a lot of different things on the album, that is all I can say. There are some rock tracks, some ballads, some country songs and there also is a remake.
ZANI – It is a pastiche of music then?
Billy J Kramer – Yes it is, and some of the songs are personal to me. For example, in the sixties I was in the studio; John Lennon came in and said you had better record this song. We had fifteen minutes left and we recorded a song called I’m in Love, but it was never finished. EMI put it on an album some years later, but for this album, I decided I would record the song the way I felt John would have liked me to have done it.
ZANI – That’s nice. Going back into the studio after a long period was it a bit like riding a bike, or have you been in and out of a studio in the last thirty years?
Billy J Kramer - I had a song out in the eighties, but I haven’t done any real studio stuff since then.
ZANI – Did you find it hard work, or did you enjoy it?
Billy J Kramer - I think I found it the most enjoyable experience I have had since I have been in show business.
ZANI – Well that is saying something, and any plans to come to the UK this year to promote the album ?
Billy J Kramer - I am hoping so.
ZANI – Play it by ear, no pun intended, but I see you are doing a cruise tour for Beatles fans in March, tell us a little a bit about that.
Billy J Kramer - It’s just going to be me with my acoustic guitar, playing some of my old songs, talking to the audience about how I got the songs, how I recorded the songs, the history of the songs.
ZANI – We will talk about your history in a bit. Am I right in saying you have been living in New York since the early 80’s?
Billy J Kramer - Since 1984.
ZANI – Was it a book, a film, or a song about or set in New York, which made you choose the Big Apple?
Billy J Kramer - No, I met a girl from New York, and decided it was the best place to be.
ZANI - Obviously is because you have been there for many years now.
Billy J Kramer – I also have a home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I spend a lot of time.
ZANI – Two great places to live, but I bet living in New York can be sad for you. As the 8th December is the anniversary of the murder of your close friend John Lennon at The Dakota building opposite Central Park.
Billy J Kramer - It’s very sad for me. I think back to the memories that I have of John, like recording and being on tour with him. I have certain regrets that towards the end of his life, I never kept in contact as I should have done, and I feel bad about that.
ZANI – Unfortunately as we both know, that happens in life as you grow older, you drift apart. You say to yourself, I will call that person tomorrow, and before you know it, you don’t and they are gone.
Billy J Kramer - But with John it was special, he was the person who added the J to Billy J Kramer. The first demo I got to record Do You Want To Know A Secret is just John singing on the guitar. I remember doing a show in Bournemouth on my 20th birthday. John was watching back stage. After the show, he said to me, I have got a great song for you, and it was Bad To Me, but he wouldn’t tell me what song it was at the time.
I remember going to EMI and thinking will John show or not, he did show up and played Bad to Me, and at the same time he said he wanted to run a song by me and see what I thought of it. It was I Want To Hold Your Hand. It was just me and John in the studio, with John playing the song on the piano. I asked if I could have that one, but he laughed and said no, we are doing that one ourselves.
ZANI – Wow, I bet that was cool.
Billy J Kramer - That was awesome.
ZANI – I understand you turned down Paul McCartney’s Yesterday?
Billy J Kramer - I was in Blackpool during the summer season, playing to a very adult audience, and I had a hit with Trains & Boats & Planes. The Beatles were doing a TV show at the ABC studios at Blackpool. I went to see them, and Paul played me Yesterday, but I wanted to do some rock ‘n’ roll songs and move away from ballads. I have never been known to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer, but people will be quite surprised on the new album, as I do quite bit of rock ‘n’ roll.
ZANI – Fair enough. Didn’t Lennon stop you from releasing a song, which he and Paul had written and said if you release that your career is over?
Billy J Kramer - That’s not what actually happened. I think what happened, there were three songs, I remember one was called 1 and 1 is 2. Somewhere I read that John had said Kramer wasn’t crazy for not recording those songs because nothing happened with them.
ZANI – OK. The world knows it was Brian Epstein and The Beatles, and other acts that introduced the world to the Merseybeat, but wasn’t the real godfather of The Merseybeat an elderly gentleman called Ted Knibbs (Jack O' Clubs,)?
Billy J Kramer - Ted was just a retired man, who got us gigs, but he wasn’t a big influence in the musical content.
ZANI – You wanted to stay with your day job, which was with British Rail?
Billy J Kramer - No, at the time, I had no choice but to have a day job. I started off as a guitar player but my guitar was stolen which forced me to take over the singing, but I was very reluctant.
ZANI – So you were forced into it, not a career choice. Were you in a skiffle band, like John and Paul?
Billy J Kramer - Yes I was.
ZANI – Do you remember the name of your skiffle band?
Billy J Kramer - No I don’t, we were just kids from the same neighbourhood.
ZANI – For those reading this who don’t know what a skiffle band is, could you please explain what skiffle is?
Billy J Kramer - We covered acts like Lonnie Donegan and The Vipers Skiffle Group. Very simplistic, just strumming a few chords on acoustic guitar, with a washboard, and a bass made out of a tea chest with a broom handle and with a piece of string for a rhythm section.
ZANI – Where did you play pubs, social clubs, summer fetes?
Billy J Kramer - We just played on street corners.
ZANI – Did you get money from passers-by?
Billy J Kramer - (Loud laugh) No we were terrible.
ZANI - I admire your honesty Billy. With the birth of the Merseybeat, which does have its roots in the skiffle bands, and obviously some were better than others, did you believe what you were doing would conquer the world in terms of music or did you just take it in your stride?
Billy J Kramer - I never thought I was changing the world in any way at all. I just thought I was a lucky guy, who loved rock ‘n’ roll like a lot of other kids, I still do and I will to my dying day.
ZANI – I can imagine.
Billy J Kramer - It’s always been my number one thing, I thought I was lucky and I was given some great songs. The Dakotas were good musicians. But I don’t think we were creative or adventurous enough like The Beatles.
ZANI – John and Paul did give you some great songs, but wasn’t it Brian Epstein that gave you your focus and desire to succeed?
Billy J Kramer - Do you know what, when I got my first acetate of Do You Want To Know A Secret I gave it away, I never thought it was going to be a hit. I had been singing it on stage for quite a while to very little response. It totally took me by surprise when it became a hit.
ZANI – Oh I see, but that must have given you the foundation and the confidence to keep moving forward?
Billy J Kramer - I was a very shy, overweight kid, I felt very strange that after a few appearances on television I was reading in teen magazines about this good looking guy. My whole thing was how you do get good looking overnight? I always felt where do I fit in? Then suddenly I was getting all this attention, and I did have a problem dealing with it.
ZANI – I can imagine that.
Billy J Kramer - You didn’t get any training or advice in the sixties on how to deal with fame. There is no school for that kind of thing. I was afraid of the press; I wasn’t very open to them which I think was a big mistake. I always thought I went on stage, did a job and what I did outside of that was nothing to do with anybody. I tried to protect my private life, very much so, and I don’t think it did me any favours.
ZANI – You are still part of musical history of the sixties.
Billy J Kramer – Yes I am and I am very proud of it.
ZANI – John Lennon added the J to your name, as we discussed earlier, did Lennon think it would give your name more of a rock ‘n’ roll edge?
Billy J Kramer – Yes. I was at home one day, Brian called me up and said come into the office, I want to see you. I went to his office and John Lennon was there, he said he had a suggestion, I asked what it was and he said why don’t you call yourself Billy J Kramer instead of Billy Kramer, it would have more of a ring to it, and people will be able to catch onto it easier.
ZANI – A simple but effective idea, and at that the time you were working for British Rail were you a train driver or a ticket collector?
Billy J Kramer - No, I worked on the steam and diesel engines, took them apart, repaired them and put them back together again.
ZANI – You then got the opportunity to turn professional but your first band, The Coasters, didn’t want to turn professional. I bet that annoyed you, you had got so far, and your associates or friends didn’t want to go the extra mile?
Billy J Kramer - I did have mixed feelings. I was working at British Rail, up at six in the morning, came home, washed, loaded the van with equipment, did a show, then back to work the next day and I thought to myself if I ever get a break I am going to take it. If they had wanted to turn professional I would have been thrilled, but Brian put me in touch with The Dakotas from Manchester, they were more experienced than me. It wasn’t the greatest of relationships.
ZANI – Wasn’t the famous guitarist Mick Green (who inspired WIlko Johnson) from Johnny Kidd and the Pirates in The Dakotas for a while?
Billy J Kramer - Yes he was, he was a fantastic guitarist and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. When I heard him play, I thought if I ever get the chance I want to work with him and I did, which was great. In a way I thought Mick Green was wasted.
ZANI – With The Dakotas?
Billy J Kramer - Yea, no one was putting the effort in to do creative things, and Mick was all there for that. In The Dakotas I was up for rehearsing and getting into different things and come up with songs but the band weren’t into it. It was very frustrating for me, to see songs get into the charts that I could have done, but which The Dakotas didn’t want to play.
ZANI – The Dakotas are still touring. I take it you weren’t inclined to join them?
Billy J Kramer - No, and there are no original members. I tried to do a tour about 12 years ago with them but to me you never remarry your ex-wife.
ZANI – Wise words. As we know Brian Epstein was your manager, isn’t there a film in development about Brian?
Billy J Kramer - There are two films in the offing at the moment, one of those film companies is asking me to be a consultant for the film.
ZANI – It would be nice to see a film that shows Brian Epstein in a positive light. The media makes out he was a bad manager but no one, apart from Colonel Parker and Elvis, and Elvis didn’t make a tour outside of the US, had handled a band of that magnitude before. Epstein paved the way for Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Grant, Bernie Rhodes and such like.
Billy J Kramer - Let’s face it, Shea Stadium was the start of bands playing big arena shows. Before then no band had played in a place like that before. They say he made bad merchandising deals, but no one had done merchandising deals before.
ZANI – I know. Again, bands like KISS who have made millions from their merchandising, learnt from Brian Epstein, and he negotiated a brilliant TV deal with the Ed Sullivan Show and, as we know, that was the day The Beatles truly conquered the US and the world.
Billy J Kramer - He got The Beatles the best ever known TV deal. I have been campaigning to get Brian Epstein inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It disgusts me that this was a man who pounded the streets of London and put up with a lot of rejection, yet still kept believing in The Beatles. I used to see him coming back in the evenings being very down about it, and fifty years later The Beatles are still the biggest band ever.
ZANI – I love the deal Epstein made with Vox, to give them their Amps for nothing, on the promise that The Beatles will make it. Vox took a gamble because when The Beatles broke into the big time Vox had the biggest endorsement going.
Billy J Kramer - That is what Brian did and people forget about that.
ZANI – I fully support Brian Epstein being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Weren’t you down at The Cavern when Ringo played his first gig for The Beatles, replacing Pete Best, which I understand didn’t go down too well with the fans. And didn’t you think The Beatles rocked more when Pete Best was their drummer.
Billy J Kramer - They rocked more at the time. But the story about Ringo and Best, there is no answer to it, or maybe nobody has been really honest. My recollection of the whole thing is this. When I saw The Beatles at The Cavern and Bob Wooler came on stage and said let’s hear one more time for John, Paul, George and Pete, and when Pete walked back on the stage, the girls went crazy.
How do you work with somebody for three years, and then two weeks before you make a record you drop him. But I am not having a go at Ringo because I think he did a fantastic job.
ZANI – I got into The Beatles well after they had broken up with Best, and always loved Ringo, but when you look at early photos of Pete Best he was a very good looking boy.
Billy J Kramer - He certainly was. I think Ringo fitted in better and did a great job, but that was my feeling at the time.
ZANI – And like you said, there is not an end to this story. Outside of music, I understand you do voluntary work for people with drink problems? You act as a Counsellor.
Billy J Kramer – I have been in recovery for 27 years. I sponsor people in my 12 step programme and I try and help young people from different groups. If I say five words to a young kid and can make him not do the things that I did then I have accomplished something. I am proud of what I have achieved for 27 years, there is no life without sobriety.
ZANI – And you have done well for 27 years. Didn’t Little Children peak again in the 70’s ?
Billy J Kramer - EMI picked it up, it wasn’t me saying I want to re-record it or re –release it.
ZANI – Fair enough. You seem to be very upbeat and happy, what is your typical day in New York ?
Billy J Kramer - For the last six months, got up early in the morning, taken my dogs for a walk then go into the studio.
ZANI – Prior to that?
Billy J Kramer - Normal things, hang out with friends, go into Manhattan , go to the movies or the theatre
ZANI – You like the theatre?
Billy J Kramer - I like the theatre. I also go to Santa Fe every four to six weeks, and I am also into the Native American culture.
ZANI – Interesting. And that made you get a second home in Santa Fe ?
Billy J Kramer - It was about 12 years ago. I was doing a gig at a place called Roswell, New Mexico, where aliens are said to have landed in a spaceship and the government did a big cover up.
ZANI – Oh yes, I know about that.
Billy J Kramer - Anyway, I was flying back home from England, reading about Roswell and the UFO’s, said to my wife I am going to be doing a gig there in a few weeks. When I went to Roswell I found it was full of science fiction freaks. Anyway the gig got rained off, so my wife and I decided to go to Santa Fe for a look around, we fell in love with it, and after going there so often we decided to buy a house there.
ZANI – So that is where you go to get away from The Big Apple?
Billy J Kramer – Yes.
ZANI – Sounds an ideal spot for something like writing, ever thought about writing ?
Billy J Kramer - I have been working on an autobiography for a couple of years but eventually I would like to write a sixties stage play. Because as far as I am concerned I don’t think it has ever been done. There is no production that captures the magic of the decade, to me it was the greatest period in rock and roll history and I would really like to do something about it.
ZANI - Sounds interesting, and I wish you the best luck with it. Coming from Liverpool, do you support Liverpool FC or Everton ?
Billy J Kramer - That is something I never divulge. I don’t want get into that it’s like getting into religion or politics.
ZANI – I wasn’t trying to provoke any bad feelings, just curious to know, as football is a big passion of mine.
Billy J Kramer - OK I do support Liverpool, but I will also support Everton, because they are both home teams. I hate it when people get into arguments or fights over it.
ZANI – Well the City of Liverpool were united when the charity single for Hillsborough got to number one for Christmas, do you miss Liverpool ?
Billy J Kramer - I miss Liverpool a lot. I took my band over there two years ago and we did two shows at The Cavern Club. The members of my band were blown away by the whole Liverpool experience.
ZANI - Nice one. Final question, what is your favourite song that you have recorded?
Billy J Kramer - My current one, To Liverpool With Love.
Appropriate choice, as Billy J Kramer is grateful and proud of how Liverpool gave him an opportunity to make it in the world of music and seems to have the enthusiasm he had when he was strumming and singing on the street corners of Liverpool as a teenager.
Billy J Kramer is outgoing, receptive and easy to talk to. Yes, he talks about the past but who wouldn’t, if you had been alone in a studio with a young Lennon playing on the piano a new song he has just penned called I Want to Hold Your Hand or you also appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, yet the only way he is facing is forward. Life seems good for Kramer, back making music, a loving wife, close friends, a loyal fan base, homes in New York and Santa Fe and an active social life. It isn’t a secret anymore.
© - Words Matteo Sedazzari / ZANI Media
Photo of Billy J Kramer and The Beatles by Harry Taylor, copyright Dave Robinson – Used by Kind Permission. From the book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth by Nick Churchill available from www.beatlesandbournemouth.com