Thursday, August 18, 2016

More With Billy J. Kramer Today In Forgotten Hits

Our conversation with Billy J. Kramer continues today in Forgotten Hits ...

kk:  Some of the things in your book really struck home with me, especially growing up in that era … I really enjoyed the book, by the way … 

BJK:  Oh didja?  Well, thank you.  

kk:  But I guess I never really thought about what it would be like, knowing that you were THERE at the time, to see some of these Beatles tribute bands that are out there performing today, some fifty years later … that dress up like The Beatles and go out and do their songs and everything else … and I never thought about what that must be like from your perspective to have been there at the time, seeing it all happen. 

BJK:  Well, my perspective is, I think that there's not a bigger compliment than somebody copying you.  But I think if people are going to do it, they should do it well … and a lot of them don't.  And the thing is, the idea of how big and magic that era was, it's hard to get it down.  I mean people will say, "Well, I never saw the real Beatles so I'll go see these."  And I always tell people, "If you didn't see The Beatles at The Cavern, you never saw them.  People just saw them on Ed Sullivan in suits and all the rest of it, but seeing them on a local scene in Liverpool was totally different, ya know.  It was very exciting working with them and touring with them but the most exciting time for me was before I really started myself and I used to just go and see them.  

[Since there is no way to see and experience The Beatles and Beatlemania other than vintage film footage, I've never really had a problem with a "Beatles band" doing a respectful tribute to the music ... let's face it, every generation since has grown up falling in love with the music again ... so billions and billions of people never got to see and experience the real thing in a live concert setting ... so I don't have a problem with going to see an act go up and perform it ... and perform it well ... and cover their whole career, changing from the collarless suits to the Sgt.Pepper uniforms, right up to the rooftop concert, which is something The Beatles themselves couldn't recreate in a live concert environment at the time.  The thing that kills me is that some of these acts then sell CD's at their shows ... why would ANYONE buy an American English CD or a Liverpool CD when you can buy the exact same music the way it was originally created by The Beatles themselves?!?! -kk]  

kk:  I know that George Harrison has said in the past that the best that The Beatles ever sounded, the best they ever were, was in Hamburg because they just hammered it out every night for eight hours on the stage and honed their craft. 

BJK:  Well, you know, it's one of those things … they played in Hamburg so much and bands just get tighter and tighter the more they play together.  And I've seen it myself sometimes.  Before I do a tour, I usually use the same players and I usually rehearse a lot but I still feel like half way through the tour it just starts to get better and better … like in England for the first time in a long time I did 45 shows and it we just got tighter and tighter the more we got into it.  We did like 45 shows in fifty days, ya know, which is quite a haul … but I loved it! 

kk:  It's great that there's still this much affection for that music and quite honestly I think that England favors rock and roll far more than we do here in The States … they have a much deeper appreciation for a lot of these songs and these artists and they have stayed very loyal to it all.  

BJK:  Yeah, they've stayed very loyal but they're also into soul stuff a lot more and a lot of variation … they're supportive of the '60's, obviously, but I think the audiences here are amazing, too.  I'm amazed by the fact that I've been living here as long as I have and doing these tours for as long as I have, and these Beatlefest sort of things,  and I see these people come back to see you again and again … and to see the same people come and see you year after year is a great compliment.  I've had a wonderful career doing this. 

kk:  Well, the Beatlefests, now that's a pretty loyal audience … but I'm sure you've noticed, too, that it's a younger and younger generation that's discovering this music every single time it comes around … so this music is crossing over and being enjoyed by several different multiple generations now … because it's just such good music. 

BJK:  Yes, because it's obviously being handed down from their parents and I'll be honest with you … I remember that I used to feel that my two sons, I wasn't always doing what they were into and then suddenly I remember I took them to see The Fab Faux in New York and at the end of the night, my oldest son said to me "You know The Beatles were the greatest, dad", which he'd never complimented The Beatles before but at the end of the evening, that's what he said to me.   

kk:  The Fab Faux are great, you know ... they don't try and BE The Beatles ... they just go up and recreate the music, and they do a great job of doing it, so it is more of a tribute to the music than an imitation.  They don't look like The Beatles ... they don't even TRY to look like The Beatles ... but they're incredible musicians who perform amazing versions of their music ... nearly perfect reproductions.  If any of our readers have never seen them, go over to YouTube and check them out ... the musicianship is just astounding.  

BJK:  There's been a lot of great bands, a lot of great '60's bands, but I also think we owe a lot to The Beatles … I think they all owe a lot because they brought a lot of joy for all of us.  It's very difficult to break in America … ya know, Cliff tried it and never really succeeded but I don't think I could have had hit records here in The States and done the stuff that I've done had it not been for The Beatles.  

kk:  You know, I didn't realize it until I read your book that you actually came over here to America first, before The Beatles did, with Brian, just to kinda test the waters and see what was going on out there and see what kind of reception they might receive if they came over here to The States.  

BJK:  Well, I think they had the kind of image that would sell in America and catch on at the time and I felt that Brian and I met up with a lot of people and I had a lot of Beatle records and photographs and things, newspaper clippings sort of things, and I always felt like the reception was kinda lukewarm but I did warn them … I warned a lot of people that they were about to come over and break the place apart.  

kk:  I interviewed Tommy Roe a couple of months ago and he toured England with The Beatles as the opening act, right as they were really starting to make it, about a year before they hit it big over here and he knew … he said that it was so obvious … he knew how big they were going to be and even tried to get his label to listen to them and sign them up, and they weren't interested ... they just didn't hear it.  But even that being said, I don't think that ANYONE could have EVER predicted how big they actually became.  I think everybody understood there was something special about them, they were outstanding, but I don't think anybody could have ever predicted just how big it would actually get.  

BJK:  I said it in my book that I knew that they'd be big.  Funnily enough my first national tour in England was with Tommy Roe.  

kk:  Oh is that right?  

BJK:  Yeah, yeah … he's a GREAT guy 

kk:  Oh yeah, he's a REALLY good guy  

BJK:  And I remember I came over and I did The Ed Sullivan Show and I did a week at The World's Fair and then I went to San Antonio and Tommy had just been inducted into The Army and he came to see me … so he was great to work with.  I also loved to work with Gene Pitney when he came over.  I was a big fan and got along very well with him … most of the guys, there's not a lot of people I didn't enjoy touring with … if you're into the music thing, you've gotta be good.  

kk:  And that was the day of the big package tours when you'd get on the bus with seven or eight other performers and spend a few weeks out on the road with these guys and from I hear, some of these guys were doing two or three shows a day sometimes.  

BJK:  Well the package tours I did with Tommy Roe and Gene Pitney, we did two shows a night and the tour I did with The Beatles, we did two shows a night.  But they were GREAT days, you know.  With The Beatles, actually, I also did WEEKS at some theaters in certain towns and cities in England, which is pretty amazing.  I don't know how I got out of there alive!  It was SO crazy! 

kk:  Going back to the early Hamburg days for a moment, it struck me as kinda funny that back in the early '60's, before they'd made it or signed with Brian Epstein, John Lennon asked you one time after a performance "Where's the show? Where's the show?"  And so after that little bit of nudging, it prompted you to go out and get the gold lame' suit and the country and western bow tie ... and it made me laugh because at that time Lennon and the rest of The Beatles (which back then still included Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe) were dressed in black leather and jeans, smoking and drinking and eating on stage!  

BJK:  Yeah, but they were still into rock and roll … I mean, I don't know if they did it for a laugh or they did it for my hygiene but it all worked out, ya know, which I thought was a hoot.  

kk:  We talked earlier about some of the demos … and in your book you mention how you wished you would have hung on to some of these truly one-of-a-kind items that were given to you by John Lennon and such - and then a couple of weeks ago we covered a story about Cilla Black's family finding a pressing of Paul McCartney's demo of "It's For You" when cleaning up her belongings after her death … something he had made for her with just Paul at the piano and a handwritten label, and it turns out that for all these years she just had it sitting in a drawer in an envelope in her desk at home!  Of course, it's now up for auction (and is sure to bring in big bucks) - but these are truly priceless heirlooms that are now gone forever.  You lived in an era that will never be duplicated and hung out side by side with people who forever changed the course of music ... are you ever just blown away by the full scope of what all this means?  (I mean, you're there in the moment and it's just life happening ... but in hindsight it was the most electric moment in music history!)  

BJK:  Yeah, it's amazing how these things happen … when I did "Do You Want To Know A Secret" it was just John sat at the piano he played it thru and we rehearsed it and then we went thru it with George Martin and I never thought of picking up the lyrics or, of course back then there wasn't a tape yet, but I mean I never even thought about it, you know.  But like Robin MacDonald [one of the guitarists for The Dakotas - kk], I think he kept a demo of like "Little Children" … at the time I thought it wasn't a very good demo so what did I want it for?  The writer, who sang pretty awful … and played piano pretty lousy … but we never thought of things like that.  

kk:  You know, that's one of the things that I wanted to ask you … A record like "Little Children" … here in The States that came out on a single with "Bad To Me" on the B-Side … and these were both #1-worthy hits … but they got paired on the same record here in America.  
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  I know a similar thing happened to Peter Noone with Herman's Hermits when "No Milk Today", a sure fire hit in its own right, was scaled back to become the B-Side of "There's A Kind Of Hush", thus cheating itself out of a much higher chart position.  Peter told us that this was the record label's fear in America that some young boy band out of Ohio might get the jump on them by releasing a competing version of "There's A Kind Of Hush".  They needn't have worried … the version recorded by Gary and the Hornets never even made The Top 100! - kk) 
What was it like to see hits you'd had a year earlier in England climbing the charts again here in America a full year later once we finally caught up to what we'd been missing.  That had to be a little weird in that by then you'd already moved on to new songs and styles.  

BJK:  I know … and I think "Little Children" might have gone to #1 … but then people started playing both sides and I can't complain because it was a Double A-Side that both made The Top Ten. 
(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Nationally "Little Children" stopped at #7 in all three major trade publications … and then "Bad To Me" followed it right up the charts, peaking at #9.)

kk:  Well it's a good record … a GREAT record … and both sides performed very well here … a true "Double A-Side" Hit … and I believe to this day that "Bad To Me" is probably your most recognized and best loved hit here in America.  But "Little Children" is a great record in its own right … and I told you the story earlier about how it was the first #1 Record I heard growing up here in Chicago.  And actually, this was a case of being the one time you did exercise your own judgment about feeling that this could be a hit record, which proved problematic with Brian Epstein, your manager - yet in the end you were proven right when "Little Children" became a huge worldwide hit.  (I’m really glad that you stuck your ground on this one because I think it's a great record … and I still listen to it all the time.)   

BJK:  It came out because I just wanted to get away from the Lennon and McCartney thing at a time.  I think it was due to the fact that I had just did the Palladium very badly and my record sales went down the drain and I really wanted something special and I always wanted a career doing my own things … I mean, one of the first things Brian Epstein ever said to me when I first took him on as a manager was he said "Well, what do you want to do?" and I said "I wanna become an artist that can perform and do well without having to rely on having hit records or maybe carry on performing and then if the right song comes along and it turns into a hit, it's very nice, but that's a bonus, you know, because in the meantime you've built a career in trying to become a good entertainer … and that's what I've tried to do.  

kk:  And he kinda tried to push you into movies and into tv a little bit, too, right?  'Cause you kinda had that movie star look about you.   

BJK:  Yeah, at one point, and I don't think I wrote this in the book, he wanted me to go to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but they're not like my kind of people that go there.  There were people like Albert Finney, people like that that went there, you know, and I didn't think that was "me".  I just wanted to be out on the road.  And I actually wanted to do more rock than I did but I didn't get the chance.  Rock songs are hard to come up with, I think.  

kk:  How would you describe Brian Epstein as a manager?  In your book, he comes across as somewhat forceful but in hindsight his reputation as a manger implies he didn't know a lot about the business, didn't have a lot of experience and often left a lot of money on the table.  (Of course managing the biggest phenomenon in the entire world would be difficult for just about ANYBODY I guess!)  

BJK:  Well, I'll be honest with you, I think at times he gets a bad rap.  People have had a go at him saying that he made bad deals for The Beatles and all the merchandise and stuff like that … but the bottom line is he wasn't much older than any of us … and he had no barometer … because nobody had ever done merchandise, you know what I mean?  It was a whole new business.  And as a manager, Brian was like a man who would come to my gigs unannounced and he would come backstage after the show and go over the whole set list with us … say what was good and what was bad and what he thought about the lighting … very, very conscientious in that regard.   

kk:  You speak very highly of him in the book and you seem to have a lot of respect for him as a manager.  

BJK:  Yeah, I respected that because I learned from it, you know?  Something else … when I first met Brian and The Dakotas, there was one thing that The Dakotas insisted upon before they agreed to work with me, funnily enough, because I don't think they really wanted to work with me … but they said "We don't want him wearing all the outrageous stuff that he wears.  And we think he should put away the Christmas Tree" … which I thought was funny, you know, but it was Brian who took me to a tailor and dressed me the way I did and it worked.  That's all I can say.  I was amazed when I did The London Palladium because to me, that was on a par with doing The Ed Sullivan Show in America and I had this suit made for The Palladium and an hour before the show Brian walked in the dressing room and he said, "No … THIS is what you wear at The Palladium."  And he had a different suit made altogether.  Let's face it, I was a young kid, and he made me successful so I wasn't gonna argue with it!  

kk:  But it sounds like it was kind of a mutual respect as well, from the way I read it in your book … you trusted him by placing your career in his hands and he came through for you and he wanted you to succeed.  

BJK:  He did come through for me … the only thing that I do have regrets about is that I wanted to  make changes and I wanted to do more uptempo songs and I wanted the people to see that I wasn't just a one-trick pony or a one-hit wonder … I wanted to do other things … and George Martin and Brian were always saying to me, "You've got a winning formula … stick to it" and my opinion was that the time to change was when it's hot … everybody has a few records that don't make it … and I really think that had time gone on, and if Brian would have lived, I think people would have seen that happen more than what did happen.  I mean there are SO many hit records that sold well in England that never even hit the shores of America … I mean, I released "1941", which was a Harry Nilsson song, before Harry was known at all … but unfortunately Brian wasn't around then … Brian had just died … so it got lost and I must have been one of the first persons who ever did a Bee Gees song, "Town Of Tuxley Toymaker" … so I was getting into different things and I always put singles out in England because I wanted people who were interested to hear what I was doing. 

kk:  Now, were you still associated with him at the time that he died?  

BJK:  Yes, I was. 

kk:  So what was your initial reaction to that … when you first heard that Brian Epstein had died?  

BJK: I was devastated, for a number of reasons.  And I will say that I was drinking and partying and I wasn't really doing the right thing regarding my career at the time … and it made Brian feel sort of negative toward me … maybe not negative, but I don't think he showed the same interest toward me … and shortly before he died, he came to see me actually, and I was in Liverpool, doing a Shakespeare Theatre, and I was there for a week and he came to see me on the first night and he said, "You've really got yourself together … I'm very proud of you" because I had stopped drinking and stopped smoking cigarettes and he said "I'm going to America. When I get back, let's start working on a new project."  And I got a letter from him on that Saturday and he apologized, saying he wasn't coming back because his father had just died recently and he would see me when he got back from America … and then, unfortunately he died, and that was it, you know. It was a very, very hard time for me because Brian had been very protective and I was open to all the rogues in the gallery.  And it takes time to learn how to deal with it.  It took me a long time.  

kk:  Well, even The Beatles had a rough time and this was when they had first gone off to India to study with The Maharishi when this happened … and obviously they had grown into this whole different direction ... they had stopped touring ... and maybe on the surface it looked maybe they didn't have much need for Brian's services anymore but if you watch those clips you can see that they were devastated.  

BJK:  Let me tell you something, and I'll be honest with you, but at that time … and I hate to say it … but I thought The Beatles were going crazy!  When they went off with The Maharishi and all that, I thought I've got to find my own road, sort of thing, you know.  But you know, I also think that my relationship with The Beatles was that I never held on to this coattail … if I saw them, I saw them.  Like Paul, when he got the Key to the City in Liverpool, he invited me along.  And when they brought out albums, I'd get invited to the parties that they'd have.  But I never ever pushed it.  Even like I remember when Paul bought The Buddy Holly Catalog, he called me up on the phone and he said "You can do anything you want" and I thought that … you know, I was such a prude at the time … I thought that was sacrilegious, you know … I've always been a person who feels that way about records … certain songs ... you shouldn't try to do "River Deep, Mountain High" and you shouldn't do "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and how can you better these songs?  How can you better Buddy Holly?  That was my feeling. 

kk:  You speak very highly of Brian Epstein … but you don't seem to be a very big fan of George Martin, at least as he related to your own personal experiences in the studio … or at least that's how it comes across in the book.  Was he difficult to work with?  He seemed to be very set in his ways, knowing exactly what he wanted … which wasn't always necessarily what YOU wanted as an artist.  

BJK:  Firstly, you've got to look at it from the eyes of a kid from Liverpool, being 19 years of age and going to London where people from London at that time were not acting favorablely toward people coming from Liverpool … there was just this reputation associated with it.  And people would say "Where are you from" and you'd say "Liverpool" and they'd jump back at you … to me, the Liverpool people are the salt of the earth. So you go into the studio … and it's the first time, really, and somebody who's very sophisticated … and talks very sophisticated … and his this tremendous knowledge of music and you're soft-taught, you're bound to feel a little intimidated. 

kk:  Sure   

BJK:  And that's what I felt like … I felt like I never really performed to the top of my game because of that, in the beginning.  And he made a comment about me not being the greatest singer, and over the years, I would have liked to have worked with him again because, as time went by, you get more experience.  And by the time I was doing "Little Children" and "From A Window" and "I'll Keep You Satisfied", I was more confident … then with "Bad To Me" … we started recording "Bad To Me" in the morning and we knocked off at lunch time and he said to me "We're going to put it into the key of E" and I was saying to him the whole time "Well, I think it should be in D" and he said, "Well, I know what your vocal abilities are … you can do it in E".  And I had a different view of the song … because I thought that if I did it in the key of E, I'd be shouting the song … but if I did it in the key of D, it would give it a softer and more gentle, charismatic approach to it. That was how I saw it, even as an untrained singer. 
So what happened is that after lunch, I sort of said to George … well, I'll tell you what did happen … we recorded "I Call Your Name" … I said "Let's give it a break … we'll come back to it" and we recorded "I Call Your Name" in about twenty minutes and we went back to "Bad To Me" and I said, "George, just let us try it in D" and we had it in like three or four takes.  I'm not a wise guy, you know, or anything like that, but that was "Bad To Me".  

kk:  And I think hands down today most people would agree that that's their very favorite record by you.  I think that if you took a poll today most people would agree that their very favorite record by you is "Bad To Me".  

BJK:  Yeah, well, I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I did it the way I did it. 

kk:  And I'm glad you did it and that you stood your ground ... because what a GREAT record that turned out to be.

BJK:  Well, being this kid from Liverpool, making your second record, it's very difficult, you know, or well it was back then.  The business is … when you think about it, back then we were making an A-Side and a B-Side in an hour sometimes.  It's not like people who spent two years making an album … it wasn't like that then.  

kk:  And we can thank The Beatles for that, too!  (lol)  

BJK:  It's weird but I think that The Beatles became great because of that.  They had the time … I always say it's like you see these documentaries on Muscle Shoals and the guys from California [The Wrecking Crew] and they were great … but they were playing in the studio together every day.  And you've got to get better if you do that.  And I think The Beatles became … they were always great performers … but I think they became an even better band through playing in the studio all that time together.  

kk: I got the sense from your book that you never really seemed to get along well with The Dakotas, the new band Brian picked out for you ... you never never really had the support from them that you should have had ... meanwhile, you had to let The Coasters, who were more of your "mates", go.  These were the guys that you came up with.  And it seemed to be more of Brian's decision to replace them with The Dakotas ... kind of at his urging that you needed a better back up band.  Did any of them stay in music for any length of time?  How hard was that to let your mates go after getting you to the point where you could catch the eye of a savvy business manager like Brian Epstein?  It's like you kinda had a whole band of Pete Bests that you had to let go when all was said and done!  This had to be a difficult time.   

BJK:  There was more to it than that ... it was kind of heading that direction anyway.  My cousin Arthur now lives in Florida and he was saying to me at the time about how he was trained to be a printer because he wanted a trade and then two years later he turned professional and hit the whole of his life.  George Braithwaite, the bass player, he was a carpenter and he got into a carpenter business and Ray Dougherty was a motor mechanic and he didn't want to pack it in … and that was really the reason … and a lot of people have said that some of the experiences I've had, I wouldn't have had had I turned professional with them. 

kk:  It just seems like you never really clicked with The Dakotas, right from the beginning ... like they couldn't accept you as the lead singer fronting the band ... and yet certainly The Dakotas must have enjoyed the success they were having with you fronting the band!  Why didn't you seek out new musicians more to your liking that would have given you the support you needed on stage and in the studios?  Wouldn't that have made you happier as a performer ... and perhaps extended your career by having more input into the song selection and arrangements. Ultimately … and it took a long time before you'd finally had enough and fired The Dakotas ... I honestly don't know why you didn't do it sooner … but when you did, you picked up The Remo Four at that time as your backing group.  

BJK:  I started to work with The Remo Four … and really it was no big deal … I mean, they'd been in Hamburg and when they came back to England and they'd not been working much and so I started working with them.  I'd done a lot of work with them and then Tony Ashton and Roy Dyke, they formed Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and had a hit with "Resurrection Shuffle".  

kk:  I was surprised to read that in your book … that was a big song here in Chicago ... Top Five!


We'll wrap things up with Billy J. Kramer tomorrow in Forgotten Hits ... don't miss it!

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