Billy J. Kramer on the Beatles, His New Album and Why Brian Epstein Should be in the Hall of Fame
Billy J. Kramer is a Liverpool musical legend. A friend of the Beatles, he was signed to Parlophone in the wake of their initial success. With the backing of Manchester’s the Dakotas, he placed a number of compositions by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the upper range of the charts between 1963 and 1965, including ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?,’ ‘I’ll Keep You Satisfied’ and ‘I’ll Be on My Way.’
Kramer was managed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, whom he believes is on the verge of being forgotten for his role in the Beatles story. He has launched a campaign to try to get Epstein, who died in 1967, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so that Epstein’s legacy will be preserved. Although the Hall has a category for non-performers, to date no manager has been given such an honor.
Despite trying to fight off a case of bronchitis, Kramer, who now lives in New York, is finishing up a new album, 'I Won the Fight,’ and the first single, 'To Liverpool with Love,’ is available on iTunes. He spoke with us about his hopes for Epstein’s induction and his upcoming work.
Let’s begin with this campaign that you've started. Why does Brian Epstein belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Because Brian Epstein brought the biggest band to the world. They're the biggest band that's ever been and ever will be.
He's one of the few managers in rock history who's almost as famous as the group that they managed, so what was it specifically that he did for the Beatles?
How much more special than to discover the biggest band ever and bring them to the world? They brought so much great music -- so much enjoyment -- and he was the one that did it. He was the man that pounded the pavements in London when nobody wanted to know about the Beatles, and he was responsible for making them what they were. I think only for Brian they could have well been overlooked. They could have stayed in Liverpool forever.
Why do you think he’s been ignored for all these years?
You know, that is the thing that baffles me. It's something that I can't explain. I just think it's sad that he's become this kind of forgotten man, and he shouldn't be.
There’s a perception that the voters are this “old-boys network” of cronies, with all the politics that comes with that. So what can we, as Beatles fans, do to alert them to this oversight?
I think that they should write and complain, and stand outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe I'll have to do that myself!
How did you meet Brian Epstein?
I met Brian through appearing on the same circuit as the Beatles. After work in the evenings I was doing a lot of shows with the Beatles. I came third in a popularity poll in a paper called Mersey Beat, and I think that brought his attention to me, because I was not professional.
I’ve always thought it was strange with Brian that he became involved in rock n’ roll because his upbringing was so far removed from that world. We know the story of how he discovered the Beatles at the Cavern, but what was it about them that led him into this path, and later towards you, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Cilla Black to become this kind of Liverpool rock n’ roll impresario?
You know, I obviously think he was interested in pop music, and everybody doesn't find out their role in life immediately, you know? I mean, I never set out to be a pop singer. It just happened. It was a series of events and the next thing I knew...I think Brian had always been interested in the arts, and he wanted to be a designer, actually. He saw the Beatles and saw potential and he went for it. And I think he was a great representative, because coming from Liverpool at the time -- it wasn't the greatest place on Earth. I think it was a disadvantage.
Right, being so far removed from London.
We were just the Northern lads!
I went to Liverpool a while back and I thought it was interesting how everything in England radiates from London outward. But Liverpool was very much about trying to shield itself from that and have its own identity where so many other cities were willing to take whatever London gave them.
I think that in Liverpool, the people are different. London is a mixture of people from all over the place, like New York. Liverpool is mostly people from Liverpool, and I think they're more friendly and outgoing.
The Dakotas were a separate band, right? It wasn't like you were a regular band and your name wound up in front. Am I correct with that?
No, they were a separate band from Manchester. What happened was that I had a band that was just my local friends and they other careers and didn't want to turn professional. I was at a crossroads where I was either leave Liverpool for a while because of my engineering job or turn professional, and then Brian came along.
You recorded a handful of Lennon-McCartney songs. What did it mean to you to have this incredible source of material to draw from?
The funny thing is that I recorded 'Do You Want to Know a Secret?' before the Beatles. A lot of people don't know that, and it was a No.1 hit for me in the U.K. To have people like John Lennon sit down and play me a song like 'Bad to Me' was a great point in my life.
You’ve always been very willing to talk about your history with the Beatles. The first I ever heard of you was when I saw ‘The Compleat Beatles’ documentary in the mid-'80s, and you’ve been a fixture at the Fest for Beatles Fans and are doing their cruise this year. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir about them?
To tell the truth, I've got a CD that's coming out at the end of March that I've been working on for the past eight months. And when I get that out of the way I want to go out and perform the songs. I've got a lot of that already down. I've written a lot of notes. It's just a case of getting focused and doing it.
I'm sure you probably have some stories about them that you've been keeping secret for a while out of discretion.
I think there are people who know more about me than I know about myself. It's a funny thing.
So about this new album. It's been a while since you've recorded anything, hasn't it?
It's been a while. People say to me, "It's the first album in x amount of years," but I consider this my first album, believe it or not. My other albums were just the hits and some filler. I used to go into the studio and sing songs off the music and I never, ever sang them again. There was no creativity in the albums, whereas for this one I've written some of the tunes and picked out what I think are good songs, as well. There's been a lot of thought put into the songs. There's a big difference in making an album in 13 hours and taking six or seven months to do it.
I saw that the first single is out. It's kind of a love letter to Liverpool, isn't it?
Yes, it is. I wanted to write a song about Liverpool and that's why I came up with it. Plus, there was a message about Brian in it.
I saw you’ve got Liberty DeVitto playing drums. I grew up on Long Island during Billy Joel’s heyday, so it’s always great to hear him. He’s a very underrated drummer. What's it like working with him?
It is great. You say he's underrated, but I don't think he's underrated. I think he's one of the best rock drummers ever. He's wonderful to work with, and he's become a real dear friend of mine. He's been very supportive; he's really been behind this project. He's been very inspirational, and when I get on stage, he rocks me. He's something else.
I have to ask this of every Liverpudlian I meet. Are you red or blue (referring to Liverpool's two soccer clubs - Liverpool (red) or Everton (blue))?
You know something, that's a question I don't like to answer, but I will. When I was a kid, I used to go see Liverpool one week and Everton the next. But I was more red than blue. The [iconic Liverpool manager Bill] Shankly Era [1959-74] was absolutely magic.
Billy, thanks for taking the time to speak with us, and good luck with the new record.
Thank you. It's been a pleasure taking to you. I can tell you, the work I did with the Beatles was magical. I could sit here and tell you stories. It was a fantastic part of my life.