In the annals of rock and roll history, the British Invasion caused a seismic disturbance in the pop culture zeitgeist thanks to myriad British groups that invaded the United States fueled by the inspiration of American rock and roll, blues and soul. With The Beatles leading the charge, numerous other acts followed in their wake, including The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits and The Animals.
Among the artists who rode that wave were Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, who were lumped into a subgenre called Merseybeat. It featured groups from Liverpool, led by the Fab Four and including Gerry and the Pacemakers. All three groups were handled by Beatles manager Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin. Kramer had the unique fortune of having hits with a number of Lennon/McCartney compositions, including “Do You Want To Know a Secret?,” “Bad to Me,” “From a Window” and “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.”
Born William Howard Ashton, Kramer came from humble beginnings and started out playing music with some schoolmates, only becoming a vocalist after his guitar was stolen before a gig and he was nudged into becoming the frontman. Being part of a vibrant Liverpool music scene, he caught the eye of Epstein, whose own fortunes were on the upswing thanks to his fledgling clients, The Beatles.
“What actually happened was that I was trying to be an engineer, and I was having to go away for a year to work at Rolls Royce. There was a popularity poll in a paper called Merseybeat, which all the young kids used to buy. I came in second behind The Beatles. Brian approached me and said he’d like to manage me. I obviously took up the offer,” he said. “I remember going to a dance hall with friends the first time I saw The Beatles. I remember walking home with my friends afterwards saying that they were going to be bigger than Elvis. My friends said I was crazy. Funny enough, I met them when we were playing at this Legion Hall having a pint of beer. Getting nowhere, we decided we were going to audition for this promoter named Brian Kelly and we didn’t even have a vehicle. We threw all of our equipment onto the stairs of this double-decker bus and went to this place called the Aintree Institute. It was a place where Kelly would book young bands and they would go on early. That night, The Beatles happened to be playing and that was the first time we spoke. I thought they were really cool and were very interesting people.”
Before long, Kramer and the Dakotas were swept up in the whirlwind that was Beatlemania and everything that came with it. One of the highlights from that part of Kramer’s career was being part of the T.A.M.I. Show, a concert that was held on Oct. 28 and 29, 1964, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and later released as a storied concert film. Hosted by surf music duo Jan and Dean, the event featured a bill chock-full of superstar performers, including Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, The Barbarians and Leslie Gore. For the British teen idol, it was a dream come true, although he had special empathy for The Rolling Stones, who wound up going on after James Brown and The Famous Flames.
“My memories of the T.A.M.I. Show was that it was just unbelievable to do a show with all these people that you admired so much and never dreamt of performing [alongside on the same bill]. I hate to say it, but my memory is of James Brown at the top of his game, blowing the place apart, and the Rolling Stones having to follow,” he recalled. “I really, quite frankly, felt sorry for them. James Brown was unbelievable and to me, it was all over [once he performed]. How the hell do you follow that? You can’t. It was an hour and a half before the Stones came on. I was glad that I went on early.”
The novelty of all this popularity waned quickly and by the early 1980s, Kramer moved to Long Island looking for a change of pace while still working on his craft as a performer.
“I moved to the States because I went through a period where I was doing these tours and felt like a hamster on a treadmill at a pet shop. I was singing the same five songs every night on tour after tour. I felt like I wanted to do more and extend my repertoire,” he said. “It’s so funny because when I came here, my wife drove me out to Long Island, and I walked through Glen Cove. It was a quiet little town and that was it. I was able to live an anonymous life, especially after I went through all the craziness of the 1960s—touring with The Beatles and all that sort of stuff.”
Within the last few years, Kramer has released a memoir (2016’s Do You Want To Know a Secret?), a CD (I Won the Fight) and is set to release another album (Hankey Drive) by year’s end, despite having a rough recovery from hand surgery that found him battling a staph infection. Having fully recovered, the septuagenarian rocker will be singing a mix of old and new backed up by a band that includes former Billy Joel drummer Liberty DeVito. Through all the obstacles fame may have presented, Kramer always clung to the idea of never taking anything for granted.
“One of the things I learned as years went by was that I had to be more focused and I really had to commit to what I was doing,” he said. “In my early years, things came very easy. But as time went by, I worked at it. I didn’t just sit back. I worked on trying to be a better entertainer. Of course, I went through the whole bit of drinking and drugs. But I’m very fortunate and very blessed that I got out of all of that.”
Billy J. Kramer will be appearing on Aug. 18 at My Father’s Place at the Roslyn Hotel, 1221 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn. For more information, visit www.myfathersplace.com or call 516-625-2700.