Billy J. Kramer
Do You Want To Know A Secret
published: 21 /
British recording artist Billy J .Kramer, an integral player of the British Invasion, recounts the highs and lows of his career in 'Do You Want to Know a Secret?',his recent autobiography
William Ashton endured grueling hours as a Liverpool rail worker before his life took a 360 degree turn. The handsome singer suddenly found himself surrounded by screaming girls. He became an integral member of the famous British Invasion, a hard-working teen idol groomed by Brian Epstein, whose client list also included The Beatles and Cilla Black.
Billy remembers those early days, starting with a date at Litherland Town Hall, amazingly well: Paul McCartney’s Rosetti guitar, George Harrison’s drainpipe trousers and Stu Sutcliffe’s shades. He knew well John Lennon’s historically rooted stance- booted feet apart, guitar held high. They were scruffy, but charismatic. Seventeen-year-old Ashton, whose middle initial “J” would be christened by Lennon, wanted in.
“From that point on, even though I was just a guitar player at the time, I started to analyze music more and to seek out real individuality, it was the beginning.”
In his new memoir, Kramer recounts many similar and fascinating accounts of his peers, their roads to fame as well as his own and his successful dealings with Brian Epstein. Kramer is a frank, astute writer whose powers of observation are accompanied with true emotion. He is a loyal friend, citing many examples of folks who pulled him through hard times but he is also quick to point out those who he believes left him at bay.
Born “in the middle of World War Two”, he and his family endured nights in an air-raid shelter, “made of corrugated metal, sunk halfway into the ground in the back garden". Cockroaches and precious bits of coal underscored those primal years. There was no electricity; only a big fire to warm the seven children. Surprisingly, Billy’s mother managed to put nutritious meals on the table, night after night but with no refrigeration, it was crucial that the children came down on time. Despite their trials, Billy speaks lovingly about his family and his early upbringing. He developed a value system early on and remembers feeling confused about the “bigotry” between the Protestants and the Catholics in his community. Years later, when he observes Lennon taunt Brian Epstein about his Jewish religion and homosexuality, his sense of fairness also kicked in; throughout the book, Kramer demonstrates disdain for intolerance many times over. Singing in Soweto, South Africa, years later, he also begins to understand what it’s like being an outsider.
Kramer’s father roots for his son when they are at a crossroads. Kramer is up for an apprenticeship, which seems like a reliable choice for the future but his father pointedly talks to the boss about his son’s future, “Will his son end up on the dole?”
Of course, this is where Kramer makes a break for show business and changes his course. That his father showed such early support was never taken for granted.
He was originally inspired by Cliff Roberts and The Rockers and remembers Gerry and The Pacemakers appearing at the Cavern. He swooned over Elvis and Buddy Holly. With his early band, Billy Kramer with The Coasters, he is envied by popular singer Rory Storm. In those days, musicians were responsible for transporting all equipment. The day-to-day logistics and interpersonal dynamics between players are fascinating.
As his career takes off, he is paired with backing group, The Dakotas. Unfortunately, Kramer finds the members largely unsupportive, “They were 'white collar' and he was 'blue'. They refuse to support him during rehearsals but as he is at the start of his career, he is reluctant to bring this to Epstein’s attention. Kramer puts up with the lack of loyalty and enjoys watching his tunes rise to the top of the charts. He appears on British TV show, ‘Top of the Pops’. “You became virtually a prisoner in the hotel", he recalls about sudden fame.
Kramer develops strong impressions of British producer George Martin and Abbey Road Studios. 1963-64 were the years ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ and ‘Bad To Me’ soared the charts. ‘Little Children’ ultimately pushes Cilla Black and Dave Clark Five off the top spots.
The stories of chart-climbing and crowds are riveting but soon the pressures build. Kramer succumbs to alcohol and drugs and his marriage suffers. Times change. He struggles to find the right material and to keep his health and mental facilities intact. He bounces back, however, rebuilding and developing a flair for cabaret and songwriting.
Billy J. Kramer’s ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ is heart-warming and expressive. It is full of historical and cultural chestnuts and includes lovely, black and white photos that bring the reader back to a simpler time. Hooray for Billy J. Kramer for gifting his fans this frank and descriptive tome.