One of the most popular Merseybeat singers, Billy J. Kramer (born Billy Ashton) was one of the most mild-mannered rockers of the entire British Invasion. He wasn't that noteworthy a singer, either, and more likely than not would have never been heard outside of northern England if he hadn't been fortunate enough to become a client of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Even more crucially, he was gifted with several Lennon-McCartney songs in 1963 and 1964, several of which the Beatles never ended up recording. That gave him his entrance into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but Kramer couldn't sustain his success after the supply of Lennon-McCartney tunes dried up. Significant? No. Enjoyable? Yes. Even tossing aside the considerable value of hearing otherwise unavailable Lennon-McCartney compositions, his best singles were enjoyably wimpy, melodic pop/rock, offering a guilty pleasure comparable to taking a break from Faulkner and diving into some superhero comics.
It's been reported that George Martin was reluctant to produce Kramer because of the latter's vocal deficiencies, making sure to hide the cracks in his upper register with loud piano notes in Billy's cover of "Do You Want to Know a Secret." No matter -- the song made it to number two in the U.K. in mid-1963, followed by another Lennon-McCartney effort, "Bad to Me." "I'll Keep You Satisfied" and "From a Window" were other gifts from the Beatles camp that gave Kramer solid hits; one Beatles reject, "I'll Be on My Way," was even relegated to a B-side (the Beatles' own BBC version was finally released in 1994). All these tunes, it should be noted, represented Lennon-McCartney at their lightest and most facile, which to a large degree explains why they didn't record the numbers for their own releases, deeming them more suitable for Kramer's fairly bland approach.
Billy J. actually landed his biggest hit, the corny pop ballad "Little Children," without assistance from his benefactors; the single also broke him, briefly, as a star in the United States, where it and its flip side ("Bad to Me") both made the Top Ten. He appeared in the legendary 1964 The T.A.M.I. Show rockumentary film, and the Dakotas recorded some instrumental rock on their own, getting a Top 20 British hit with the Ventures-ish "The Cruel Sea." Early British guitar hero Mick Green, formerly with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, was even a Dakota briefly. But after 1965's cover of Bacharach-David's "Trains and Boats and Planes," the hits ceased, as the Beatles and Epstein's attention was lost. Kramer continued recording throughout the '60s, even briefly venturing into hard psychedelic-tinged rock, without much success, and subsequently toured often on the oldies circuit. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
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