Billy J. Kramer

By Bill Harry  

"At one gig in Widnes, when they were appearing with Freddie Garrity, just before 'Love Me Do' was released, I heard them playing 'Twist And Shout' in the dressing room. I said, 'What are you going to record?' and they said 'Our own songs', I said 'Have you got some good songwriters in mind?'

"You see, at the time, everyone seemed ignorant of the Beatles' songwriting, or at least unaware of what they could do. Later on, at the Mersey Beat Awards night I remember hearing them play 'Please Please Me' live for the first time."

Billy was actually about to leave the Coasters and take up a full time post with British Rail at Rugby. He'd been down to Rugby to discuss his new job and his parents had agreed that he should take it up.

Ted Knibbs called him and arranged to meet him in Liverpool. He was very mysterious about it.

Billy with a J"I had no idea what Ted had in mind. I was about to tell him I was packing it all in. He took me to NEMS, introduced me to Brian Epstein and Brian said he wanted to manage me. I was so knocked out, I completely lost my appetite for remaining with British Rail. Shortly afterwards I was called into a meeting with Brian at his office and John Lennon was there. Brian said to me: "John's come up with an idea. He thinks your name would sound much better if we added the initial 'J' to it. How does Billy J. Kramer sound?"

"I said: 'That's okay by me, but what do I say to the press if they ask me what the 'J' stands for?"

"John said 'You can tell them it stands for Julian.'

"To tell you the truth, I thought Julian sounded like a puff's name and I refused to use it. I didn't know at the time that John had a son and had named him Julian in memory of his mother."

Billy also remembers Paul's 21st birthday party.

"I wasn't present at the incident in which John attacked Bob Wooler," said Billy, "I just knew that Bob was a mild mannered, inoffensive person who had done a lot for the Beatles career in Liverpool. I was outside the house with Billy Hatton of the Fourmost talking to a girl when John came out. He'd had a skinful and he grabbed the girl. She shoved him away and he swore at her so Billy and I persuaded him to calm down. Cynthia came out and she was in tears and she asked us if we could put John in a taxi. So we did."

Editor's note: A slight mistake in Billy's memory. Stu Sutcliffe wasn't with the Beatles at Litherland Town Hall when they returned from Hamburg. Chas. Newby deputized as the bass player.

Billy, whose real name is William Howard Ashton was born in Bootle, Liverpool on August 19 1943. His original band in 1960 was the Sandstorers, who became Billy Forde & the Phantoms, then Billy Kramer & the Coasters. The line-up was Billy on guitar and vocals, Arthur Ashton on lead, Ray Dougherty on rhythm, Tony Sanders on drums and George Braithwaite on bass.

When Ted Knibbs approached Epstein, it was to manage Billy Kramer & the Coasters, but the Coasters refused to turn professional. Brian had to find another backing group for Billy.

The Remo Four turned him down, so he made an offer to the Manchester band the Dakotas, who were backing singer Pete MacLaine at the time. They initially refused, but finally agreed when Epstein arranged for them to make records in their own right.

Considering that Billy only teamed up with the Dakotas in 1963, their American press release in 1964 read:

'Billy and the Dakotas chose their name when they were called to audition in England four years ago. They were told to return dressed as Indians. Unable to afford the $100 apiece for buckskins, the group skipped the audition but kept the name.'

In the meantime, Knibbs continued to manage the Coasters and found them a new singer, Chick Graham. Ted was later killed when he was run over by a bus.

Billy topped the British charts with his first release, the Lennon & McCartney number 'Do You Want To Know A Secret?' His other Lennon & McCartney hits included 'Bad To Me', 'I'll Keep You Satisfied' and 'From A Window.'

It was Kramer himself who found the number 'Little Children' and had to talk Brian Epstein into letting him record it. The song became his biggest hit. Epstein seemed to have lost interest in Billy's career by this time, so the singer approached Paul McCartney to ask him if he could provide him with a song. Paul offered him 'Yesterday', but Billy didn't consider it suitable.

One Lennon & McCartney number which Billy recorded has never been released. It's called 'One And One Is Two.' It was mainly written by Paul. Paul and John worked together on the number in their suite at the George V Hotel in Paris after a show at the Olympia Theatre. They had to send a tape off the next day to Dick James for Billy J. to record. Paul sat at the piano while John sat at a table playing guitar. They had a microphone leading from the tape recorder strapped to a floor lamp. As they were singing 'One and one is two...' George Harrison popped his head round the door and suggested, 'Can't you take one of the 'one and one is two's' out?" At another time he interjected, "Can't you do something with 'do' or 'Jew'?" John said, "I'm a lonely Jew. How's that?"

Bootle's balladeerThe song was duly sent to James and recorded by Billy, but John wasn't happy with the number and is said to have advised Billy, "Release that and your career is over." So it was never released, although a version by the Strangers with Mike Shannon was released in 1964 and flopped.

He embarked on a solo career in 1967.

Billy left England in 1984 to make his home in America. His marriage had broken up, he had a drink problem and he felt he needed a fresh start.

He conquered his addiction, worked as an alcohol counselor and remarried. He now holds dual nationality.

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