Plucked from the same incubator as the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers, and others, Billy J. Kramer, along with his Dakotas, quickly became a household name in England and, later, America during the first wave of the British Invasion. His hits largely drew from songs provided to him by arguably the most famous and successful British songwriting team of the day — Lennon and McCartney –including 1963’s “Bad to Me,” which reached #1 in the UK. More recognition followed in the form of songs like “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” “From a Window,” and “Little Children” (which, interestingly, was not a Lennon-McCartney composition).
After the British Invasion peaked, Kramer turned to cabaret and television, even hosting a variety show in Manchester, England. Though he’s recorded sporadically throughout the years, he returned to the studio in 2012 to record I Won the Fight, his first proper album in 30 years. Starting next week, he’ll also appear on the 50th anniversary British Invasion tour, alongside Chad & Jeremy, Denny Laine, Mike Pender, and new-addition Terry Sylvester of the Hollies. (Sadly, Gerry Marsden dropped out last week due to illness. We wish him all the best for a speedy recovery!)
Kramer and I chatted during a photo shoot in August (which produced the gorgeous cover photo you see above!) in Long Island, NY — his home for over 25 years.
Do you ever miss living in England or Liverpool?
Obviously, I miss that from time to time. I was there a couple years ago; I played Liverpool for a week, which was great. I’ve still got a brother and sister there and we keep very close contact — they come here, I go there.
I’m sure when you play there, it’s like a homecoming for you.
Yes it is. They treat me real good.
Growing up, you were actually planning to become a railroad engineer. Is that correct?
Let’s put it this way, that’s what I was doing but I wasn’t really thinking about it as a lifetime job. I had always thought of doing other things.
Like music. I often thought if nothing came of the music, I would go to sea and see the world. I always wanted to travel
Well, you ended up getting to do that anyway!
Yeah, I did quite a bit of traveling, and still do every once in awhile. So, that was a dream come true, in a way.
When did you start to get into music, then? When did you start to sing and play?
I first started to sing in the school choir, and then I started to get interested in rock ‘n’ roll like most other kids. I had a guitar, and me and another kid who lived on the same street in Liverpool, we used to get together and do whatever was popular at the time — the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and stuff like that. As we got older, we got better guitars and we pulled in my cousin, who became the lead guitar player.
We used to play at this legion hall with like, half-a-dozen people in it, and they said, “We’ve got to pay for the rent of the hall and the electricity, so you gotta start playing on Saturday night.” That’s how it all started; we started playing there for a pint of beer and then we became popular and started to branch out and do the local circuit like everybody was doing.
Do you remember being first approached by Brian Epstein?
Yes. What happened was, I was at the point of moving from Liverpool for a year as part of my training. They wanted me to go in a Rolls-Royce, which I think would’ve been a waste of money (laughs). I was going to pack the whole thing up, and then, one day, my manager at the time, a man called Ted Knibbs, said, “You want to go to Liverpool?” I said, “Sure.” We went to this restaurant and Brian was sat there and [Ted] says, “Brian would like to manage you.” Brian had seen me do shows and open for the Beatles.
So you had already known his name?
I knew his name very well, yes. And I’ll be honest with you, I always felt he was the only person that, if he ever came up with an offer, I’d go with. And he did, thank God.
You probably would’ve hung the whole thing up, had he not.
Yeah, possibly. Strong possibility of that.
Brian was very much known for his organized, theatrical style of management. When he started to manage you, were you flung into this whole atmosphere that you weren’t used to?
To be honest with you, the first thing he did was put me with a band from Manchester called the Dakotas, and he said we had to get some sort of a repertoire together. We did the Star-Club for six weeks. I used to be very flashy onstage, and wear a lot of glitter and stuff, and he said, “We’re going to put away the Christmas tree.” He took me to a tailor and dressed me up.
He used to come to shows unannounced, and he would come backstage afterwards and critique. He would say what was good, and what was bad, and what songs he liked, and what he didn’t like. We used to get a letter from him once a week with all our checks, and full itineraries of where we were going, and what hotels we were staying at — exactly what we were doing. It was a very organized thing — the most organized I’ve ever been in my life, actually.
When the Beatles finally broke through and the first wave of the British Invasion started, did you realize that it was your time to gear up and follow that?
You know, I never even thought about it. Things were just happening so fast. Years later, I came to America on some other tour, and people started talking about the British Invasion and I was like, “You mean we came over in these sailing ships or something?” (laughs) I never saw it that way. I just saw that British music, or British bands, had caught the eye of the American public.
What was your first experience of coming to the United States like?
I got off the plane, and Brian said to me, “What do you think?” And I said, “I think we should get on the next plane back.” (laughs) I’d never seen anywhere as big, and it was very overwhelming to me. I’d never been anywhere like it in my life you. Obviously, it was very exciting for me. In a very short space of time, I had so many records, and I’d done things like [play] the London Palladium in England, and I toured with the Beatles, and then, to top that, I was doing Ed Sullivan. Everything was going at the speed of sound.
I’m sure it was difficult to balance touring and recording because everything was moving so quickly.
Right. It was, you know. Before, I was just a rhythm guitar player in a band, and I hadn’t really adjusted to singing without a guitar. It takes time to know how to present yourself, and what to do with your hands. It was a lot of stuff in a very short space of time.
Was it difficult to work with the Dakotas? Because they had their own contract and their own surf sound going on.
I never even thought of it; they were just good musicians who did a good job. They played on all the records and they learned stuff very quickly. I always said that they weren’t a creative band, and at times it was very difficult to introduce new material. If they didn’t like it, they’d say, “We’re not going to play it.” I just went along with it. It wasn’t the greatest experience. I wouldn’t say we were the greatest of friends. It was a good experience, anyway.
What is your favorite song from your ’60s catalog?
I think either “Bad to Me” or “Little Children.” John Lennon came along and gave me “Bad to Me,” which was a great thing for him to
do. Then, “Little Children” was not a Beatles[-penned] song, and it still was very successful. I had a lot of problems getting [“Little Children”] to Brian. That was the first time I said, “Well, this is what I want to do.”
What inspired you to do that? Because until then you really had only been recording Lennon/McCartney songs.
I’ll be very honest with you — I was presented with three songs that I didn’t think were good enough.
Yeah. They were recorded by other people, and even John said if I’d have done them, it would’ve been the ruination of my career. I think he was very aware that they weren’t up to the quality of the other songs.
What did they think of “Little Children”?
I never asked them, to tell you the truth. The next record was “From a Window.” It was just what was there at the time. I thought
that that was the strongest song.
Well, they’re all great songs. All very superior quality.
Yeah, I was fortunate.
So, after the British Invasion really peaked and the initial hit-making part of your career ended, was it hard coming off that go-go-go all the time schedule and the crazy life?
In some ways, it was a relief. In other ways, I still always kept a very active career. I was always doing things like, I hosted a program called Discotheque in Manchester, and the night club scene became very big. There was a big circuit where you would do, like, a week in different towns all over the UK. So, I did stuff like that. I did a lot of one-nighters. I came to a point where I departed from the Dakotas, and got another band together and went on my way.
And while you performed I read that you also became an alcohol counselor, is that true?
No, I don’t know where people got that from. Let’s put it this way: I’ve been in recovery for 28 years, but I’ve never been an alcohol counselor. I’m not qualified.
I’ll make sure to put the record straight in this.
I’m glad. (laughs) I’m glad of that.
Your new album is really fantastic. What made you want to go in the studio again after 30 years?
You know, I don’t know. I can’t answer you. I just wrote the song “To Liverpool with Love,” and just one thing after another would fall into a whole thing. I was also thinking it was up to 50 years; it’d be nice to do something for that.
You wrote all these songs, correct?
Quite a few of them. I’m very pleased with the way people have reacted to the CD because you never know. You start introducing new songs into the set and you don’t know how its gonna go, but people have been great. It’s very fulfilling.
Speaking of 50 years, how does it feel to be about to go back on the road with a lot of the British Invasion artists, some of which are pals from Liverpool?
Yeah, I think it’s going to be very interesting, actually. I’m looking forward to it.
Is that a good interesting or a bad interesting?
Good. I know Mike Pender very well; I’ve worked with Mike a lot. I always liked his voice and I also liked Gerry Marsden, who’s a nice guy, and Denny Laine, who I’ve worked with a lot. I’ve also worked with Gerry a lot at different times in my career. And Chad & Jeremy are old friends of mine. I think it’s going to be a very good show.
What can we expect? Is it going to be each individual artist getting his own set, or are you guys going to collaborate a little bit or anything special?
I’ll be honest with you — I don’t really know. I’ve suggested we do that kind of thing. Whether it’ll come off or not, I don’t really know. I’d love to do something like that.
You perform pretty often. What does it feel like when you get up there and sing these songs that you recorded so long ago?
It’s like when I had the #1 hit with “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” George Harrison said to me, “Do you know you’re going to be singing that for the rest of your life?” Which is quite true, but people bought the record and I think it’s what you have to do; people expect it. It brings them enjoyment, and that’s what it’s all about.
Does it bring you enjoyment?
Yes, it does. To be able to get up and perform after all these years, I get a lot of pleasure. In fact, I get a lot more pleasure now than when I did back then. I don’t worry as much. What you see is what you get.
(Cover photo by Steven Gardner/Digital Leaf Photographics.)