Billy J. Kramer (born William Howard Ashton, on August 19, 1943, in Bootle, Liverpool, England) was a British Invasion merseybeat singer. He is known today primarily as the singer of various John Lennon-Paul McCartney compositions that The Beatles did not use.
The performing name Kramer was chosen at random from a telephone directory. It was John Lennon's suggestion that the "J" be added to the name to further distinguish him by adding a tougher edge. Billy soon came to the attention of Brian Epstein, ever on the look-out for new talent to add to his expanding roster of local artists. Billy turned professional but his backing band the Coasters were less keen so Epstein sought out the services of Manchester band the Dakotas, a well-respected combom then backing Pete MacLaine.
Even then, the Dakotas wouldn't join Kramer wihout a recording deal of their own. Once in place, the deal was set and both acts signed to Parlophone under George Martin. Collectively, they were named Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas to keep their own identities within the act.
Once the Beatles broke through, the way was paved for a tide of "Merseybeat" and Kramer was offered the chance to cover a song first released by the Beatles on their own debut album, Please Please Me and had been allegedly turned down by Shane Fenton (nee Alvin Stardust) and the Fentones who were looking for a reviving hit.
With record producer George Martin, the song "Do You Want to Know a Secret" was a #2 British smash in mid-1963, and was backed by another tune otherwise unreleased by the moptops, "I'll Be on My Way". After this impressive breakthrough another Lennon/McCartney pairing "Bad To Me" c/w "I'll Call Your Name" did one better to hit the top spot. "I'll Keep You Satisfied" ended the year with a respectable number 4 placing.
The Dakotas, meanwhile, enjoyed top twenty success in 1963 of their own with Mike Maxfield's own composition "The Cruel Sea", a instrumental retitled "The Cruel Surf" in the US and covered by the Ventures, no less.
This was followed by a George Martin creation, "Magic Carpet" evoked a dreamy atmosphere with a subtle echoey-laden piano playing the melody alongside Maxfield's guitar. Perhaps just a little too subtle form 1964 it missed altogether and it was a year before their next 'solo' release. All four tracks appeared on a highly-collectable EP later that year.
Three big hits from messrs Lennon and McCartney meant Kramer was always in the Beatles shadow unless he did something different. Despite being advised against it, he insisted on recording stateside chart hit "Little Children" - the lyrics were about getting his girlfriends' brothers and sisters out of the way so they could make love perhaps in the traditional sense, perhap not? Even so, it became his second #1 and biggest hit by far. It was his only major hit ourside of the UK. In the US, this was followed up with "Bad to Me" which hit #9 the same year. Despite this massive success constant Kramer went backwards with his second and last UK single of 1964; yet another Lennon/McCartney cast-off "From A Window" barely earned a top ten hit.
1965 saw the end for the Merseybeat boom so it was make-or-break time for the group. The first single was the interesting "It's Gotta Last Forever" which harked back to the ballad approach in a year where Mod music from the lokes of the Who smashed the airwaves. The single missed completely.
With alarm bells ringing Kramer's cover of "Trains And Boats And Planes" saw off Anita Harris' version only to find himself in direct competition with its composer, Burt Bacharach who won the day. Kramer's effort still reached a respectable #12 but was his swansong as all cuts issued from here on missed the charts.
This was a shame as some good cuts came out of the combo especially after the Dakotas ranks were strengthened by the talents of Mick Green, ex-guitarist with London band the Pirates who backed the legendary Johnny Kidd. This line-up cut a few great tracks which were at odds with the balladeer's usual chart-attempt fare. Two that remained in the can were an intruiging take on "When You Walk In The Room" with a stomping beat and "Sneakin' Around" where Green truly let rip. The Dakotas third and final outing while with Kramer was the bluesy-but-fun "Oyeh!" (original title "Rat Fink") - this also flopped but showed off their collective talents as musicians.
The last great single was "We're Doing Fine", which had a nod to the future - Kramer's vocals were subtly "flanged" from the second verse on using ADT, or Artificial Double Tracking" as it was called then, an invention of the Abbey Road boffins when John Lennon found recording his vocal twice on a track too laborious. It too missed the charts leaving singer and group to part company as so many did then. Kramer had a solo career which took him eventually to live in America, a long-held dream and whom still performs today.
The Dakotas recorded a few singles of their own (including one devastating b-side, "The Spider And The Fly") before becoming Cliff Bennet's trim backing band, replacing the Rebel Rouser's who had gone off to be the Roy Young Band. They re-formed in the late 1980's and recruited talented vocalist Eddie Mooney and TV session musician Toni Baker, still touring and recording today and even charting in the UK as recently as 2006. Other latter-day members are drummer Pete Hilton and guitarist Richard Benson.
The Dakotas, had success on their own, with initially instrumental tracks.
Recruiting vocalist Eddie Mooney and TV session musician Toni Baker, The Dakotas are still touring and recording today and charted in the UK as recently as 2006. Later members are drummer Pete Hilton and guitarist Richard Benson. Kramer's last hit was "Trains and Boats and Planes" (from 1965, written by Burt Bacharach-Hal David).