Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Forgotten Hits Interviews Billy J. Kramer

I've been trying to interview Billy J. Kramer for a couple of years now thanks to a connection made for me by Forgotten Hits Reader Bob Rush, who has known Billy for quite some time … but for one reason or another, we just were never able to connect … so I was quite pleased to finally have the opportunity to talk with Billy at length a couple of weeks ago as I have been a fan of his music for a long, long time.

Turns out he's been reading Forgotten Hits for years, too ... 
(I don't know how you do it, to tell you the truth! - Billy J. Kramer) ... 
and we both share a very passionate goal of keeping this great music alive so that it can be discovered and enjoyed by many generations to come. As kindred spirits, we hit it off immediately and talked for quite some time.  (My hope was to meet up with him in person at this year's Fest For Beatles Fans, which hit Chicago last weekend, but scheduling conflicts prevented me from being able to attend.  My loss ... I would have LOVED to have spent more time with Billy and caught his performance at the fest.)

Billy's got a new book out ("Do You Want To Know A Secret?", available thru his website (,, and all the usual places) and he's still making new music as well.  (In fact, he sent me a copy of his latest CD, "I Won The Fight", and it's quite enjoyable ... even more so after reading his book because some of the songs are very autobiographical) so the timing couldn't have been better for us to catch up on all things Billy ... and take a look back at the old days, which is my all-time favorite era of music.  

KENT KOTAL / FORGOTTEN HITS:  You just finished up a guest spot on The Happy Together Tour, filling in for Spencer Davis, who had taken ill, so let's start with that.  How did this first come up that you were asked? 

BILLY J. KRAMER:  Funnily enough I was going to take some time off because I had a surgery done on my thumb back in May / beginning of June, and then they called me up to see if I could do it and I thought, "Well, it's only on my hand - so that won't really have any effect - and that was it, I said I'd do it.  I'd see Flo and Eddie years ago … I'd never worked with them but I'd heard such great things about them and the tour and I thought, "Yeah, I've gotta do this".  And it was great … I had a great time and it was a VERY strong package and everybody on this tour was great. 

kk:  Did you know any of these other artists ahead of time?  Had you worked with any of them before?  

BJK:  I knew Mark Lindsay, good old Mark … and Gary Puckett I'd met but just vaguely and the guy from Three Dog Night, Chuck Negron, I'd never met him before.

kk:  It's a GREAT set up because everybody goes up there and just does their five or six greatest hits, which is exactly what every audience wants to hear because everybody knows them and these are the songs that you want to hear so it's a nice little set up.  

BJK:  I just thought it was a great show … it was a lot of fun … and I'll be honest with you, I've done a lot of other shows where people get on and then won't get off … and that's a nice thing but it's also a bad thing because the shows end up so long that I think at some point the audience can lose you … where as this is just bang bang bang bang bang and it's a GREAT finale and a great song to finish it with … so I loved it … I had a great time.     

kk:  I know you've done a lot of the British Invasion Shows … is it kinda like that, where you've got a "house band" that backs up everybody and then each artist comes out and performs with the house band. 

BJK:  It was like that when I did The British Invasion Tour but I still used two or three of my guys … but on this tour I didn't.  And it was great. 

kk:  So how many cities and shows did you end up doing?  

BJK:  I did nineteen

kk:  Oh, wow … I didn't realize it was that long 

BJK:  Yeah, I did Atlanta, I did New York, I did Florida, I did Nashville … I can't even remember all of them. 

kk:  And what songs did you perform as your set? 

BJK:  I did "I Call Your Name", "I'll Keep You Satisfied", "From A Window", "Little Children" and "Bad To Me". 

kk:  Well, I have to tell you, I love the early stuff … The British Invasion was my discovery of music … as a pre-teen, that's the first music I heard.  In fact, I've told this story before but the very first #1 Record I heard growing up in Chicago … I live in Chicago and have lived here my whole life … and I can tell you the week that I first discovered Top 40 Radio because WLS Radio used to do a countdown on the radio, every day, Monday thru Friday, where they would run down the entire Top 40 list of songs, and the VERY first week I ever listened to the radio, "Little Children" was #1 … and it was #1  for two weeks here back in May of 1964 … so I know for a fact that it was one of those two weeks in May that I listened to Top 40 Radio for the very first time in my whole life … so there are some very, very special memories for me in regards to that record and the impact that this music has had on my life ever since. 

BJK:  Wow … wow … thank you SO much … it was such a special time … and I saw on my Facebook that "Little Children" was #1 in England last week [It was issued there a few months before it came out here in The States-kk]  

[Dex Card used to count down The WLS Silver Dollar Survey every week day on WLS and I got home from school just in time to listen.  I would faithfully jot down the list of every song and keep track of what progress it had made from the week before … and if he played what WLS called "a two-sided winner" … or TSW … he would rotate playing the A-Side and the B-Side each day because he could do that because virtually the exact same program aired every single day, five times a week, until the new list came out on Friday.  When I discovered that WLS also PRINTED a copy of this weekly survey … and you could go down to your local record store and pick up a copy … it started a hobby / obsession that is still with me to this very day!] 

kk:  The fact that this music has now been with us for over fifty years is incredible … but the music just doesn't get old … it still sounds as fresh today as it did back then … and new people are discovering it all the time.  And I know you feel the same way … the fact that we're both committed to keeping this great music alive is why this is a really, really good fit for Forgotten Hits to partner up with Billy J. Kramer and sing the praises of this great music of the '60's … because it truly is timeless.  The music you were making back then … there's just never been anything better for me.  

BJK:  Well, I'll be honest with you … I had a great time making that music and the stuff on my last album, "I Won The Fight", was all very good pop songs and rock songs and I think you're right … we can't let this stuff die … I really can't get this rap stuff … I can't see it being played in fifty years … and when I hear records with obscene lyrics and swear words … I mean, I'm not a prude, but it all comes to a full stop for me when it comes to that.  

kk:  I agree with you … I can't imagine that forty years from now any of the kids listening to this music today is going to be saying "Oh, I've got that song stuck in my head … there's no SONG, there's no melody … most of the time it's just a bunch of angry lyrics over a repetitive beat and it's not like the kind of stuff that we grew up listening to.  I mean we had some GREAT pop songs … some great melodies … there just aren't great melodies anymore …   

BJK:  And it was FUN …  

kk:  Exactly … it was FEEL GOOD MUSIC  

BJK:  And that was the great thing about it, really … and I think that's the thing that has kept this thing going is that it has always been fun to me … it's something that I love to do … it's something that I loved to do when I was 20 … and it's something that I still love to do now … and I still get a great kick out of it … and that's what it's all about.

kk:  And, of course, you worked with a couple of the greatest song writers that have ever lived, too … at a very exciting time.  

BJK:  I always say that I will always be indebted to Lennon and McCartney … it was just great that I worked with them before they were successful and when they became successful, they came up with great material for me.  The first was "Do You Want To Know A Secret", which was #1 in England before they released it on an album.  And "Bad To Me" was a song that John Lennon wrote and he said to me, "I've got a song for you" and it was "Bad To Me".  I know I read on your site the other day that somebody had a demo of John Lennon singing "Bad To Me" and I never ever heard a demo … I never heard a demo of ANY of the Beatles songs that I ever recorded … I did "I Call Your Name" like a year and a half before they did … there was no demo for "I'll Keep You Satisfied" … there was no demo for "From A Window" … so I'm amazed that these tracks are turning up now because John would just sit at the piano and play it for me and that's how I learnt it.  I had heard a demo, a little flash of a Dakotas track with John Lennon singing it … and I don't know how anybody got ahold of that.  

kk:  Well we ran one a couple of weeks ago that somebody had sent in and it was the whole song of "Bad To Me" … I've NEVER heard John Lennon sing the whole song … I've heard little snippets of maybe a minute or so … a minute and ten seconds sort of thing … but never the whole song.  

BJK:  Really?!?!   

kk:  But like you even said in your book, these weren't very high quality recordings … it was usually just John with a guitar.

BJK:  With John, he just came to Abbey Road and just sat at the piano … and that's how I heard them.  

kk:   And that brings up another good point … John always seemed to kind of favor you when it came to specific material whereas Paul seemed to favor people Peter and Gordon (for obvious reasons … he was, after all, dating Jane Asher, Peter's sister) and Cilla Black.  What do you think the connection was with you and John at that time?  They were writing an abundance of songs at that time and gave quite a few of them away that maybe didn't fit their style.  

BJK:  I just think I have a lot to thank him for because John was the one who came up with the idea of Billy "J" Kramer, which Brian called me into the office one day and told me "John's got an idea he wants to talk to you about" and I said "What is it?"  I was just about to put out my first record and John said "What do you think of Billy "J." Kramer?" And I said, "Thank you, that's a great idea!" and I just think that it was John who first said to Brian, when he was putting his organization together, "You should go see that kid, Billy Kramer", he's a good singer.  (Of course I've also read a quote that I wasn't!, ya know! But hey, you've gotta live with that, ya know.)  

[John Lennon gave Billy the "J" in his name ... he just thought it sounded cooler than Billy Kramer and the Dakotas.  Billy once asked John what he should say if someone asks him what the "J" stands for and Lennon replied "Julian".  Billy didn't like that name ... but then again he had absolutely no idea that John was married and had just named his son Julian as well.  Billy says that he has joked several times over the year that the "J" stood for "Jesus".  All show-biz, I guess.  (But then again, Billy's last name isn't really Kramer either ... it's Ashton!)-kk] 

[John gave Billy "Do You Want To Know A Secret" and "Bad To Me" to record. (In fact, Billy J. Kramer recorded "Do You Want To Know A Secret" before The Beatles did!  He had the same honors with "I Call Your Name", which showed up on a Beatles EP but was another hit single for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas in 1963.)  He made crude demos of each give Billy an idea as to what each should sound like ... pretty amazing since at the time The Beatles were just first starting to achieve chart success on their own. (John was also there in the studio when Billy recorded these tracks to offer some guidance.)  For the demo to "Do You Want To Know A Secret", Billy says it was a pretty rough tape with lots of noise in the background ... almost as if he'd recorded it in a club with a crowd of people there.  John ended the recording, however, with the comment that he'd recorded it in the quietest spot he could find ... and then flushed the toilet!  (More of that great John Lennon humor on display here!)  Billy had a cold when he recorded "I'll Be On My Way", another Lennon - McCartney song given to the young singer, and he couldn't hit the high note at the end.  No problem ... enter Paul McCartney, who just happened to be in the studio that day ... and sang the note with Billy to give it the desired effect it needed.  Listen closely and see if you can hear it.-kk]

More with Billy tomorrow in Forgotten Hits ...

Meanwhile, check out the UK / US Billy J. Kramer Hit List!


Do You Want To Know A Secret?  (UK - #2, 1963 / US - xx)

Bad To Me  (UK - #1, 1963 / US - #9, 1964)

I'll Keep You Satisfied  (UK - #4, 1963 / US - #30, 1964)

I Know  (UK - xx / US - #122, 1964)

Little Children  (UK - #1, 1964 / US - #7, 1964)

From A Window  (UK - #10, 1964 / US - #23, 1964) 

It's Gotta Last Forever (UK - xx / US - #67, 1965)

Trains And Boats And Planes  (UK - #12, 1965 / US - #47, 1965)

Twilight Time  (UK - xx / US - #119, 1965) 

Billy reached #1 with his two-sided hit "Little Children" / "Bad To Me" here in Chicago.  He also made The Top 20 with "I'll Keep You Satisfied" (#16) and "From A Window" (#4), both of which outperformed their national showings.  (kk)