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Sixties legend Billy J. Kramer returns to the North East

He emerged from the Sixties music scene that also gave us The Beatles but Billy J. Kramer is still going strong and has a new album

Steven Gardner Billy J. Kramer
Billy J. Kramer

Back on these shores and coming our way is a man who recorded and released a Lennon and McCartney song even before The Beatles.

The story goes that John Lennon wrote Bad To Me (later credited to him and Paul McCartney) for fellow Liverpudlian Billy J. Kramer while on holiday in Spain.

Recorded by Billy with The Dakotas, his backing band at the time, it went to number one here in 1963 and also reached the top 10 in the United States.

That alone would have been enough to make Billy J. Kramer a bit of a pop legend. But more than 50 years later, he is still going strong – as you will see when he appears at Sage Gateshead in April with The Solid Silver Sixties Show.

Billy calls me from New York ahead of the tour, whose line-up of legends also includes Mike Pender of The Searchers, Chris Farlowe, who had a big Sixties hit in Out of Time, and soul pioneer PP Arnold.

Billy J. Kramer in his Mersey Beat heyday
Billy J. Kramer in his Mersey Beat heyday

“I’ve lived in America for a long time now,” says Billy in a voice with only a trace of a Scouse twang. “I also have a place in Santa Fe.”

That’s a line the young William Howard Ashton wouldn’t have dreamt of ever saying. He was born in Bootle during the Second World War – he’s 71 now – and grew up at an exhilarating time for a good-looking young musician.

The story goes that he was gigging in his spare time as Billy Kramer – the stage surname taken from the telephone directory – when John Lennon suggested he add a middle ‘J’ to make it more distinctive. He took to vocals when his guitar was stolen.

“Those early days were fantastic,” says Billy. “It was tremendous, very exciting, what happened in the 1960s. I’ve had a great life but there’s never been anything like it, before or since.”

Billy was a regular at the old Cavern Club and knew The Beatles and all the other musicians who featured in the magazine Mersey Beat and contributed to the swinging decade’s soundtrack.

“I thought The Beatles were fabulous but I never thought things would turn out like they did,” he says.

“I feel very lucky to have been around at the right time.”

Billy wasn’t looking for stardom because he had landed a decent apprenticeship with a job at the end of it. “I was an engineer. I took steam engines apart and then put them back together.

Steven Gardner Singer Billy J. Kramer who is coming to Sage Gateshead
Singer Billy J. Kramer who is coming to Sage Gateshead

“I thought I was very lucky to have an apprenticeship and I had a couple of years to go. I could have had some form of steady employment for the rest of my life.

“I wouldn’t have turned professional for any other manager than Brian.”

This was Brian Epstein, the young man who ‘discovered’ The Beatles and also Billy J. Kramer, helping to smooth their paths to the top before dying of a drugs overdose, aged just 32, in 1967.

“Brian saw The Beatles at The Cavern when there was water running down the walls and he had this vision for them. It was the same with me.

“To me, he was a class act. I think it was very difficult for him to come from Liverpool and go to London and be accepted in the way that he was.

“But I think Brian was unique. He was very well-spoken and he came across very well. His appearance was immaculate and that emboldened him to go through doors that others wouldn’t have done.

“He was the kind of manager who would come back stage afterwards with an analysis of the show and the songs you’d sung.

“It was because of him that I took a chance and came into showbusiness where there’s no pension at the end and no medical benefits or gold watch.”

For a long time Billy added his voice to the campaign to have Epstein, who was vilified during his lifetime for his homosexuality, admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That finally happened a little over a year ago, making Billy and a lot of other people very happy.

While Billy is happy to dwell on the old times, he is keen to make clear that he is not just a blast from the past.

While he hasn’t toured in the UK for 18 years, he says he’s done a lot of shows in America. “I just finished a tour the other night in Seattle with Mike Pender, The Moody Blues and The Hollies.

“The response to the whole tour was brilliant although it’s not screaming kids trying to pull your hair out any more.

“The great thing about The Solid Silver Sixties Show is you get all the original singers. I find a lot of the old bands are touring without any of the original musicians.

“And then you get copy bands doing The Beatles and even calling themselves John, Paul, George and Ringo. I think they’re watering down The Beatles’ legacy because they’re nothing like The Beatles even though the music might sound OK.”

Billy might no longer be the boyish, be-suited young star of the Sixties but he is not resting on his laurels. He has recently bought a new album out – his first in 30 years, marking his 50 years in the business – with the feisty title I Won The Fight.

The title track, delivered with a spirited growl, harks back to his engineering days with lines like: “I started at the bottom. I never forgot what it’s like.”

There’s a reference in this autobiographical number to Brian Epstein, who changed his life by giving him “a call”, and also in the two versions of the song To Liverpool With Love, one calling for Epstein to be installed in the Hall of Fame and the other celebrating the fact that he has been.

Billy, despite his voluntary exile, looks back fondly on his visits back home to Merseyside to see his brother and sister. There, he says, he is still William Ashton, free to wander around and be an ordinary Scouser again.

At Sage Gateshead, though, he will be Billy J. Kramer, Sixties icon.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “I have very fond memories of playing around Newcastle, South Shields, Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees. I spent a lot of time there and I thought the people were wonderful.”

  • The Solid Silver Sixties Show is in Hall One, Sage Gateshead, on April 19. Book tickets on 0191 443 4661 or www.sagegateshead.com

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