DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET? THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BILLY J. KRAMER
Billy J. Kramer with Alyn Shipton
Equinox Publishing ISBN 978-1-78179-361-9 £19.99
Reviewed by Geoff Wills
The music known as Merseybeat has come to be acknowledged as a key British cultural and social phenomenon of the 20th century. When its presence made an impact nationally in 1963, it was the first time in Britain that a music and a city had been spoken of in the same breath. Prior to this, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was no authentic British popular music; simply a series of British artists like Cliff Richard imitating Americans like Elvis Presley.
Why did Liverpool provide this focus? It would seem that industrial decline, social deprivation and a feeling of solidarity in the local community acted in concert with the fact that Liverpool was a major port with access to American records and instruments. By the early 1960s over 300 groups were playing in Liverpool ballrooms, clubs and concert halls. Of course, The Beatles quickly came to epitomize the Liverpool sound, but many other groups, including The Fourmost, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, The Merseybeats, The Mojos and The Swinging Blue Jeans all enjoyed chart success in the early and mid–1960s.
There are now dozens of books about the Beatles, along with autobiographies of individual Liverpool artists such as Mike Pender of The Searchers, Gerry Marsden of The Pacemakers and Cilla Black. We now have an interesting addition to this list, namely Do You Want To Know A Secret? The Autobiography of Billy J. Kramer, which is included in the Equinox Studies in Popular Music series. The book is co-authored by series editor Alyn Shipton.
Billy J. Kramer, or plain Bill Ashton, as he was originally known, was born in 1943 in the middle of World War Two, when Liverpool was subjected to severe bombing by the Germans due to its importance as a port. He describes his humble origins in a two-up, two-down in Bootle, as one of seven children and the son of a timber yard worker, and makes an interesting observation about the ever-present religious bigotry between Protestants and Catholics in Liverpool, the Ashton family being Protestant. At school, young Bill’s musical ability was noted when he was asked to join the school choir, and he impressed the music teacher by singing and playing any song he was asked to on guitar. On leaving school he became an apprentice engineer with British Rail and soon found himself drawn to the burgeoning Liverpool music scene, playing in a skiffle group like many other teenagers in the late 1950s.
His musical progress in Liverpool was rapid: he sang with a group called The Coasters, changed his name to Billy Kramer, and became very friendly with The Beatles, whose “raw organic power” made a life-changing impact. Soon he became part of Brian Epstein’s stable of artists: Epstein is quoted as saying “I found it impossible to resist the temptation to help Billy towards the fame I believed he deserved.”
Kramer was at the heart of the 1963–1966 British pop explosion and became the first singer in the world to have a number one hit with a Beatles song. A series of further hits occurred during this period. We are provided with a number of interesting insights: Brian Epstein recruited Manchester group The Dakotas to back Kramer, and they played on all his hits during this period, but there was an ongoing mutual dislike between them and Kramer, suggesting a fundamentally different mindset in Mancunians and Liverpudlians. Also, Kramer’s relationship with producer George Martin was less than cordial: Kramer observes that “working with George Martin was a bit like going to work with the Duke of Edinburgh. He had a remote Patrician attitude.” On the other hand, he had the utmost respect for Brian Epstein, and felt that “he was always the consummate professional.”
After Epstein’s death, Kramer’s career moved out of the limelight. We are given views of what it was like to be a beat group musician after the Merseybeat boom subsided and progressive rock, spearheaded by groups like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Traffic, entered the ascendant. Kramer kept working, but it was a constant slog on the nightclub, ballroom and theatre scene, plus weekly appearances on a Granada TV children’s programme. Backing groups regularly changed, and Kramer fought an ongoing battle with amphetamines and alcohol.
It is a testament to his strength of character that, from the early 1980s, he has been able to forge a new career based in America, and has overcome his substance abuse problems. Now in his early seventies, he continues to tour with a band that features Billy Joel’s eminent ex-drummer Liberty DeVitto. Kramer impresses as a likeable character who recounts his story in a straightforward, honest way, while providing further insights into the varied paths that a popular musician’s life can take.