Interview: Billy J Kramer
We catch up with a genuine Merseybeat legend who, at nearly 70, is about to release his ‘first proper album’
t’s not every day you find yourself on the phone to a man who used to knock about with The Beatles… a singer and guitarist who was touring the US and appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show before you were born. But that’s what’s happened to Songwriting a few weeks ago, after an email landed in our inbox informing us that, at the age of 69, Merseybeat legend Billy J Kramer was about to release his first-ever album of his own material.
For the benefit of younger readers, or those whose knowledge of music history is a little patchy, we should probably do a potted biog thing here. So here goes. A friend of the pre-fame Fab Four, William Ashton was a young Liverpudlian working on the railways in the early 60s when rock n’ roll beckoned. He changed his name to Kramer (a name chosen at random from the phone book), added the ‘J’ at John Lennon’s suggestion, hooked up with a Manchester band called The Dakotas and was signed by Brian Epstein to Parlophone Records. A string of hits followed between 1963 and 1965 – mostly with songs written for him by Lennon/McCartney, but also including covers of The Beatles’ Do You Want To Know A Secret? and the Mort Shuman [songwriter of A Teenager In Love, Viva Las Vegas and many more] composition Little Children.
But as Merseybeat’s star faded, so did Billy’s… from 1965 the hits dried up and Billy spent the next 15 years on the cabaret and TV light entertainment circuit. He developed an alcohol problem, overcame it and moved to America, where he works as an alcohol counsellor, helping others to conquer their addictions. And that should have been that… just one more sorry tale of a young talent sucked in, chewed up and spat out by the rock and roll machine, albeit one with a less tragic ending than some.
But then out of nowhere came a new album, and the email mentioned above, asking if we wanted a chat with Billy? Well of course we did… so read on for what’s without a doubt the most inspiring story it’s yet been our privilege to tell.
Let’s start with the obvious question… this is your first album of your own songs. So why now, after all these years?
“Well… back in the 60s I was a pop star, singing other people’s songs. And okay I had the fame and everything, but all I ever really wanted to be was a proper artist, someone who can go on and on. The problem was, I’d write songs but I was always very uptight about actually playing them to people! Also, I always saw myself as a guitarist first and foremost, but because I was surrounded by such high-profile musicians, I kind of felt pushed into being more of a singer. So that’s why this album didn’t happen 50 years ago.
“As for why it’s happening now… a couple of years ago I decided to buy myself a guitar again, and I started playing every day. And then there was a guy I knew from walking my dogs at the local dog park… he’s called Robert Poe and he goes round schools doing shows for kids, The Broccoli Rob Show it’s called! Well, when he found out who I was he nearly fell over, and he said, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t got some songs in there’. So it was really Rob who encouraged me to start writing again.
“And I did, I started writing about some of the… darker times in my life, shall we say. And Rob and I wrote a song called I Can’t Keep The Dog Outside Tonight together, and we went into a studio to do some recording. And then the musicians we were working with liked my song The Sunsets Of Sante Fe so we recorded that one as well. And then once I’d gotten over my nerves in the studio the songs started coming thick and fast, and pretty soon we had an album’s worth of material! It was all something of a happy accident, really.”
So what can we expect from the album?
It’s called I Won The Fight, and a lot of the songs are very autobiographical. Liverpool With Love, for instance, is about people I used to know when I was younger and never saw again. And the title track is a song I wrote about my early days, working on the railways for a man in pinstripe trousers and a bowler hat, and how when I wanted to leave to become a musician he gave me a hard time about it, because I was on an apprenticeship, and my Dad had to go down and have a word with him! So that song’s about that but of course the alcohol thing is in there too, because getting sober has been such a big part of me no longer feeling intimidated about songwriting, or thinking I wasn’t good enough. Sober, I can say, ‘I’m going to do this whatever it takes,’ which I was never able to before.
“As for the style of the album… put it this way, I’ve played it to music industry friends and they all say they don’t know what genre pigeonhole you’d put it in, they just know it’s got a true vibe about it, it’s music from the heart.”
How did you find being in a modern studio… was it very different from making records back in the day?
“Oh, completely… you wouldn’t believe how different, so much so that I feel this is really the first album I’ve made. Back then, singles were all that mattered. So I can look back on [60s hits] Bad To Me or Little Children and think, yeah, those were good records, but as for the albums we did… some of the album tracks back then I never even rehearsed, I’d go in the studio, be given a song, we’d record it in two or three hours and that was that, I never sang it again! We’d do an album in 12 hours or something ridiculous.”
“Whereas today, to go in a studio for a couple of months, and be able to work and work and work on things till they’re right, with all today’s production tools… I was like a kid in a sweetshop, let me tell you! Though that said, there’s not too much studio trickery on there – I’ve deliberately kept it to songs we can actually go out and perform live with real musicians.”
Did you do much writing in the studio, or do you prefer to write at home, or how does that work?
“I did some writing in the studio, I Won The Fight for instance, but mostly I write at home, at my house in Santa Fe. That song came from my neighbour always banging on about the sunsets! I have notepads all around the house, where I’m always scribbling down ideas – sometimes I’ll wake up at 3am and start writing lyrics.
“With the music it’s a bit more structured – I have a loft with my guitars and I’ll go up there during the day and work on the music. But lyrics can come at any time. One thing that’s helped as well is having an iPhone – if I’m out walking the dogs and a melody comes into my head, I can hum it into my phone, whereas in the old days I’d think of a great tune and by the time I got home I’d have forgotten it!”
And are all the songs on the album yours, or are any of them co-written?
“It’s a real mixture: there’s some co-writes, some covers and some that are just me. Liverpool With Love is purely me, so is The Sunsets Of Santa Fe. Can’t Live On Memories, which is a re-recording of a record I did in the 80s, that’s co-written, I Won The Fight I wrote with a guy called Don Celenza, and then there are some covers on there – there’s a Bacharach song, a Lennon song. There’s a duet as well, with a girl called Christine Ohlman who I saw on Saturday Night Live and just knew I had to work with her. She’s this amazing character with a beehive haircut and all the 1950s clothes, and we’ve become close friends.
“I certainly don’t have any aversion to co-writing. I’m that way where, once I start something, I have to work on it until it’s right, and sometimes that means working with someone else who can bring that missing piece of the puzzle. Or sometimes it just means you keep on plugging away at it! For instance, in Liverpool With Love there’s a line about ‘John and Paul’, and the next line is, ‘Screaming fans, I had it all’. But before that there were a couple of words I didn’t like and I tried everything in there before I found something I was happy with.
“So some songs come quickly, some take a little while, some you need a little help with. It varies. It’d be great if you could just sit down and write songs in an hour, and sometimes that happens, but more often you’ve got to just stay focused and keep working on it.”
Interesting that you mention “John and Paul”. You’ve already said that you felt reticent about writing songs in the early days… was being sat alongside two of the greatest songwriters of all time part of that reticence, do you think?
“Actually, I’d say no. Because I knew them, you see. On my 20th birthday, for instance, I was doing a week in Bournemouth alongside The Beatles, and John said he had a song for me, but he wouldn’t play it till we got to the studio. And when we did, that song was Bad To Me… and the other song he played me that day was I Want To Hold Your Hand, but he wanted that one for himself! We were mates, it really wasn’t as big a deal at the time as you might think. So no, I don’t feel being around The Beatles held me back in any way at all… quite the opposite.
“I guess you could say that… well, with George Martin and Brian Epstein, they were very keen for me to be in a particular box, where I might have wanted to change things around a bit more. But when you’re young and inexperienced you go along with things, don’t you?”
So no regrets about the past… what about the future? What might that hold?
“I just hope that the album’s received well, and that I can get the chance to go out there and play these songs to people. I’m playing at The Fest For Beatles Fans in April, where I’ll do the old hits but I’ll be doing some of the new stuff as well. It’s not… it’s not important to me to be a huge success or anything, what will be will be. But yeah, I’d like to get out there again. I’m up for touring, doing TV, whatever. I’m in good shape, I can still sing and perform well, so why not?
“But even if that doesn’t happen, this whole process has been fantastic. I feel so invigorated… I’ve had a great time, doing this album has just been one long wonderful experience.”
And with that, we had to reluctantly bid Billy farewell. At the time of our interview, we hadn’t yet heard the album. We have since, and while we’re not here today to do a review, let’s just say that if you draw lines between Elvis, Johnny Cash and Neil Sedaka, somewhere around where those lines intersect you’ll find I Won The Fight. It’s good.
So Billy’s words above, we feel, carry an important message for a lot of aspiring musicians out there. If you’re a young songwriter who’s a little bashful, as Billy once was, then don’t be shy… you might be better at this songwriting lark than you’re giving yourself credit for. And if you’re an older songwriter… here’s proof that it’s never too late to start.
Interview: Russell Deeks