Billy J. Kramer
Billy J. Kramer, 1965
|William Howard Ashton|
|Born||19 August 1943|
Bootle, Lancashire, England
|Origin||Liverpool, Lancashire, England|
|Genres||Pop, Merseybeat, British rock and roll|
William Howard Ashton (born 19 August 1943), known professionally as Billy J. Kramer, is an English pop singer. In the 1960s he was managed by Brian Epstein, who also managed The Beatles, and he recorded several original Lennon-McCartney compositions.
Kramer grew up as the youngest of seven siblings and attended the St George of England Secondary School, Bootle. He then took up an engineering apprenticeship with British Railways and in his spare time played rhythm guitar in a group he had formed himself, before switching to become a vocalist. The performing name Kramer was chosen at random from a telephone directory. John Lennon suggested that the "J" be added to the name to further distinguish him by adding a "tougher edge". Kramer 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 group, the Coasters, were less keen, so Epstein sought out the services of a Manchester-based group, the Dakotas, a combo then backing Pete MacLaine.
Even then, the Dakotas would not join Kramer without a recording contract 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 turned down by Shane Fenton (later known as 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, (but number one in some charts), 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" c/w "I Call Your Name", reached number one. It sold over a million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. "I'll Keep You Satisfied" ended the year with a respectable number four placing.
Kramer was given a series of songs specially written for him by Lennon and McCartney which launched him into stardom. "I'll Keep You Satisfied", "From a Window", "I Call Your Name" (recorded by The Beatles themselves) and "Bad to Me" earned him appearances on the television programmes, Shindig!, Hullabaloo (hosted by Beatles manager Epstein) and The Ed Sullivan Show. (Kramer had also been offered Lennon/McCartney's "I'm in Love", and recorded a version in October 1963. In the end, it was shelved and the song was instead given to the Fourmost. In the 1990s, a Kramer compilation album included his version, as well as some recording studio banter on which Lennon's voice could be heard).
The Dakotas enjoyed Top 20 success in 1963 on their own with the Mike Maxfield composition "The Cruel Sea", an instrumental retitled "The Cruel Surf" in the US, which was subsequently covered by The Ventures. This was followed by a George Martin creation, "Magic Carpet", in which an echo-laden piano played 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 an EP later that year.
The three hits penned by Lennon and McCartney suggested that Kramer would always remain in the Beatles' shadow, unless he tried something different. Despite being advised against it, he turned down the offer of another Lennon/McCartney song, "One and One Is Two", and insisted on recording the Stateside chart hit "Little Children". It became his second chart topper and biggest hit. In the United States, "Little Children" was backed with "Bad to Me". This was the only debut single of an act on the Hot 100, each of whose sides separately reached that chart's The Top 10 (No. 7 and No. 9, respectively). Despite this success, Kramer went backwards with his second and last UK single of 1964, the Lennon/McCartney composition "From A Window", which only just became a Top Ten hit.
The year 1965 saw the end for the beat music 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 version of Bacharach and David's "Trains and Boats and Planes" saw off Anita Harris' version in the UK, reaching a respectable number 12, but was trounced by that of Dionne Warwick in the US, and turned out to be the group's swansong, as all subsequent releases failed to chart.
The Dakotas' ranks were then strengthened by the inclusion of Mick Green, formerly a 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.
After releasing "We're Doing Fine", which also missed the charts, the singer and group parted company. Kramer, then living in Rugby, Warwickshire, had a solo career over the next ten to fifteen years or so, working in cabaret and television with his new band, again from the Manchester area, consisting of Pete Heaton (bass), John Miller (drums) and Tim Randles (guitar) - this later saw changes with Bob Price now on bass, and Roger Bell on guitar. In the late 1970s, Kramer teamed up with Bedford musicians Mike Austin (bass), Max Milligan (guitar) and John Dillon (percussion), and the one constant member throughout the changes in musicians at this time was his sound engineer Stewart Oakes, performing cabaret in the UK and Europe, whilst also recording "San Diego" and "Ships that Pass in the Night" - after which Kramer eventually went to live in the United States.
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 1983, Kramer released a solo single on the RAK label, "You Can't Live on Memories" / "Stood Up", which failed to chart. The following year, 1984, he released "Shootin' the Breeze" / "Doris Day Movie" on 'Mean Records'. Again, this failed to chart.
In 2005, Kramer recorded the song "Cow Planet" for Dog Train, the children's album by Sandra Boynton. A long-term fan of Kramer, Boynton had sought him out for her project: in 1964, at the age of 11, Little Children became the first album she ever bought.
In late 2012, Kramer went back into the studio for the first time in years to record a new CD, I Won the Fight, which was released in 2013. The CD features some new songs written by Kramer, as well as some covers.
In 2013, Kramer provided the introduction to the graphic novel The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary. The book was released in November and spent several weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, reaching No. 1 in its third week of release. He also released a new album, entitled I Won the Fight.
In 2015, Kramer was part of the British Invasion 50th Anniversary tour, performing in the US and the UK. The following year saw the publication of his autobiography Do You Want to Know A Secret, co-written with Alyn Shipton.
|Year||Single||Chart Positions||UK album||US album|
|1963||"Do You Want to Know a Secret?"
b/w "I'll Be on My Way"
|2||-||The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas||A: Little Children|
B: I'll Keep You Satisfied
|"Bad to Me"
b/w "I Call Your Name"
|1||-||A: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas|
|"I'll Keep You Satisfied"
b/w "I Know"
|1964||"Bad to Me"
b/w "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"
Second US release of both sides
|-||-||The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas|
UK B: "They Remind Me of You"
|1||7||The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas|
|"Bad to Me"
Third US release
|-||9||The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas|
|"I'll Keep You Satisfied"
b/w "I Know"
|-||30||A: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotass|
|"From a Window"
UK B: "Second to None"
US B: "I'll Be on My Way"
|10||23||A & UK B: The Hits of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas
US B: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas
|I'll Keep You Satisfield|
|1965||"It's Gotta Last Forever"
UK B: "Don't You Do It No More"
US B: "They Remind Me of You"
|-||67||The Hits of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas||A: Non-album track|
UK B: Trains and Boats and Planes
US B: Little Children
|"Trains and Boats and Planes"
Original US B: "I'll Be on My Way"
UK & later US B: "That's the Way I Feel"
|12||47||A & UK B: The Hits of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas
Original US B: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas
|A: Trains and Boats and Planes|
Original US B: I'll Keep You Satisfied
UK & later US B: Non-album track
b/w "Irresistible You"
|-||-||Non-album tracks||Trains and Boats and Planes|
b/w "I'll Be Doggone"
|1966||"We're Doing Fine"
b/w "Forgive Me"
|-||-||A: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas|
B: Non-album track
|"You Make Me Feel Like Someone"
b/w "Take My Hand"
|-||-||A: Non-album track|
B: The Best of Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas
|1967||"Town of Tuxley Toy Maker" - Part 1 (Billy J. Kramer solo)
b/w "Chinese Girl"
|Billy J. Kramer solo singles|
b/w "His Love Is Just A Lie"
|"A World Without Love"
b/w "Going Through It"
|1969||"Colour of My Love"
b/w "I'm Running Away"
|1971||"The Grass Won't Pay No Mind"
b/w "There's No Time"
Shown as by William Howard Ashton
|1973||"A Fool Like You"
b/w "I'll Keep You Satisfied"
|"Darling Come to Me"
b/w "Blue Jean Queen"
b/w "Warm Summer Rain"
|1978||"Ships That Pass in the Night"
b/w "Is There Any More at Home Like You"
b/w "Little Love"
b/w "Lonely Lady"
b/w "Gone Away"
b/w "Dum Dum"
|"You're Right, I'm Wrong"
b/w "The Fugitive"
|1983||"You Can't Live on Memories"
b/w "Stood Up"
|1984||"Shootin' the Breeze"
b/w "Doris Day Movie"