Billy J. Kramer,
The TVD Interview

Billy J. Kramer seemingly came from nowhere (well, Bootle, Lancashire, England, to be precise) to climb the upper reaches of the UK and U.S. pop charts beginning in 1963. Hand-picked to join the NEMS Enterprises artist roster by The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, Kramer was given Lennon/McCartney songs to record and was produced by George Martin. When his original backing musicians quit, professional Manchester combo The Dakotas were hired by Epstein to be Kramer’s band. He rode the wave of Beatlemania worldwide and had several top ten hits in multiple countries.

After the beat music boom crested in 1965, Kramer and The Dakotas parted ways. He launched a new career in cabaret and British television, maintaining a solo career there for the next two decades before relocating to the U.S. He has recently released a new CD, I Won The Fight, and is excited to be a part of the British Invasion 50th Anniversary Tour.

How did you get involved with the tour?

I was approached by the promoters, you know? I’ve been living here for a long time, doing gigs and different things, and when they came up with the idea for this tour, I said, “Yeah.” I’ve been very uplifted by the whole thing. I thought it would be good but it’s been better than I could ever imagine.

After the British Invasion tour ends, I’m going to the UK to do the Solid Silver Sixties 30th Anniversary Tour. It will be with Mike Pender of The Searchers, Chris Farlow, P.P. Arnold, and The Merseybeats. It will be thirty concerts in all and it will the first time I have toured there in eighteen years. I very excited about it.

You toured the U.S. prior to The Beatles’ arrival. Do you still see some of your original fans as you tour?

Yes, definitely. I have a connection with Beatlefest, which I have done on numerous occasions, and the fans always come out.

As you were growing up, what artists caught your attention early on?

Buddy Holly singing “That’ll Be the Day” hit me really hard the first time I heard it on Radio Luxembourg, which I used to listen to on Sunday nights. Also, the bass player in my first band had a brother who would bring records back from America. I remember he had the 78s of Elvis singing “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Both of those records blew me away! I started to collect records myself around that time.

Your records sounded wonderful. I suppose that was down to the producer…

Yes, George Martin. The recording sessions had a very relaxed atmosphere. I was the most unrelaxed! (laughter) To be honest with you, I was very intimidated and overwhelmed by the whole thing in the early days. It was tough coming from Liverpool where there no studios to London, which had everything. Meeting George was like meeting the Duke of Edinburgh!

Did you have any say in the song selection? How what that determined?

Well, the first song was “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” which was given to me by Brian Epstein. He said, “We’ve been offered a record deal and you need an original song.” People ask me about demos (by Lennon/McCartney, writers of Kramer’s biggest hits) but it was just John (Lennon) on an acoustic guitar, playing me the song. We made up our own arrangement and that was it.

I’m proud to say that the Lennon/McCartney songs that I did record never came in demo form. The guys always came to the studio and played the songs for me. For “Bad to Me,” John called and said, “It must be your birthday, I’ve got a great song for you!” I met him at EMI and he sat at the piano and played it for me. When he finished “Bad to Me,” he said, “I want to play you something else and get your honest opinion.” It was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which I flipped about!

They always came to the sessions. When I did “From a Window,” “Satisfied,” they were always there. We heard them on the day and recorded them on the day.

On that inaugural U.S. tour, what were your impressions of the country?

I’d never been to America before. I got off the plane in New York and Brian Epstein said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think we should get the next plane back!” (laughter) It was so enormous to me, coming from Liverpool. On that trip I did radio, T.V., things like that.

How were the interviews? Were they insightful, inane, or somewhere in between?

I think people were interested because I had this funny accent. (chuckles) Quite frankly, at the time it felt like I was a spokesman for The Beatles. “You know, we have this unbelievable band in England that you’ve never heard of, but they’re hoping to come over here soon,” you know, that kind of stuff.

You are forever linked with The Beatles. Is that ever a burden for you?

I enjoy talking about them, they are part of wonderful memories. I think they gave me the greatest start an artist could wish for. It was John who came up with “Billy J.” for a stage name. There came a time in my life when they were doing things and I was doing things, we were both going off in our own directions and that was it.

Jumping forward to today, I’ve heard your recent songs and two of them, “I Won the Fight” and “To Liverpool With Love” are very autobiographical. Tell me about writing those songs and making this record.

Well, I was at home, I hadn’t played guitar for many years and I said to my wife, “I’d like to do something special for the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion.” I wrote “To Liverpool With Love” because it was autobiographical and it expressed my feelings about Brian Epstein being slighted by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then I wrote “Sunsets of Santa Fe” because I have a house there and one thing lead to another (with the songwriting). “I Won the Fight” came toward the end of the writing sessions.

As you got the guitar back out, playing new songs and, I assume, old songs as well, how did those old songs sound to you now on the 50th anniversary?

Honestly, I did a gig in California quite recently at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a real hip place, and they gave me a recording of the set after the show. I took it home, played it, and I was amazed at how good the old ones sounded. They didn’t sound exactly the same, because that’s impossible, but I thought they still had a great feel to them.

I spoke with Peter Asher earlier about the pre-Beatles British rock scene and how the U.S. viewed much of it as pale copies of American artists. What was your take on that period?

By then, I was listening to Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I always tell people this story: I used to go to a dance hall and people would hang out around the perimeter, paying some attention to the bands but not much. Litherland Town Hall and the name “The Beatles” is chalk on board. I went in and Paul McCartney was shouting (Little Richard’s) “Long Tall Sally” and I thought, “Fuckin’ hell!” They were doing “Slow Down,” “Money,” songs nobody else was doing. I walked home that night and said to my friends, “They’re going to be bigger than Elvis!” Most people saw The Beatles after they had been well groomed but to see them live at The Cavern or the gigs before that was seeing the REAL Beatles. All these copy bands I’ve seen are just watering down the legacy of The Beatles.

When the British Invasion was in full swing, with wave after wave of British artists coming to the U.S., was there a sense of national pride in the UK?

I was doing things all over the world at the time so I wasn’t that aware of the British invasion in the U.S. I look back sometimes and think “If I’d stayed in America, I could’ve done more things.” But really, I didn’t focus on “I’ve got to do this for America” because I was touring England, Australia, Sweden, and many other countries. When I first came back to America in the early ‘70s and they asked me about “The British Invasion,” I wondered what they were talking about (laughter).

Do you still listen to vinyl?

Yes! There are certain albums that I have to buy on vinyl, you know? There are records of my own that I didn’t have and I’ve found them on eBay and other places. Understand that back in the day, we would go to EMI, hear a rough mix and then George Martin and Norman Smith, the engineer, would mix the final record another day. With this new CD I’ve made, it’s the first thing I’ve ever done that I’ve been “on it” from Day One. From starting a thing with an acoustic guitar to the completed recording, it’s the most artistic input I’ve ever had on an album.

Again, those records George Martin made with you and others were so sonically superior. Is their anyone making records now who you think approaches that benchmark?

No, it’s a totally different thing. When I listen to The Beatles’ records on a great stereo, on vinyl, I think to myself, “How the hell did he do it?” I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Sgt. Pepper where they’ve taken all the instruments out and it’s just the vocals. The vocals are so fucking perfect—how did the do it? No Autotune, no nothing, just talent.

I’m honored to still be doing what I do. I still have the same passion for as when I was a kid and I love to talk to anyone who wants to ask about the ‘60s or today. All I know is, the records we made were for real. There was no editing or whatever else they do now. For me, it was music that hit you right in the face.

Billy J. Kramer Official | Facebook
The British Invasion Tour Official | Facebook | Twitter

The British Invasion 50th Anniversary Tour Dates:
March 4 – Kent, OH – The Kent Stage
March 6 – Milwaukee, WI – Pabst Theater
March 7 – Chicago, IL – City Winery
March 8 – Minneapolis, MN – Pantages Theater

PHOTO: STEVEN GARDNER

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  • Don Celenza

    Great interview. Billy has such an interesting history.

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