Book review: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? The Autobiography of Billy J. Kramer

BY: BILLY J. KRAMER with Alyn Shipton
PUBLISHED BY: Equinox Publishing 2016
ISBN: 978 1 78179 361 9
Review copy sent by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

The British Invasion didn’t just bring The Beatles to our shore. It also brought a great many young British bands eager to follow in their footsteps. Some went on to become big stars, like The Rolling Stones and The Who. Some were one hit wonders who just came and went. But one enduring presence was a lad who befriended the Fab Four when they were all just aspiring young musicians in Liverpool. His name was, and is, Billy J. Kramer.

Now a regular guest at the Fest for Beatles Fans and other nostalgic concerts attended by Baby Boomers (and their descendants), Billy J. Kramer started life as William Howard Ashton in Liverpool, on August 19, 1943. His earliest memory was of standing in the street holding his mother’s hand, watching people rushing down the street shouting because it was VE Day, May 1945. World War II had just ended, and the Liverpudlians were celebrating with dancing and parties in the streets. They had good reason to celebrate; Liverpool and London had both taken the brunt of the Nazi bombing during the war, London because it was the capital of England, and Liverpool because it was England’s most important port. Like most people in post-war England, the Aston family was not well off. The war had left many people homeless and jobless, and it took years for things to return to a state of normalcy. So the people kept their spirits up with music.

Young Billy attended Orrell Primary School, where he was a member of the school choir. When he got older, he began playing the guitar. His older brother Jack got him a new guitar and an amplifier when Billy expressed a serious desire to play Rock n’Roll for a living. When his job as an engineer with British Rail didn’t work out, he chucked it and put together a band from as many of his friends as were interested and had talent. While playing the circuit of clubs in basements, churches, school halls and so forth, he met the Beatles and frequently shared a bill with them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Most of Billy’s memories of the Fab Four are positive ones. The book opens with a description of the first Beatles concert Billy ever saw, at Litherland Town Hall on December 27, 1960. He describes the place as “a gloomy, government-type building…
Spartan, no facilities, no stage lighting, no proper sound system, no monitors” and so forth. But when the Beatles appeared on stage, they lit it up! Kids who usually danced or chatted while the band was onstage would rush forward to see and hear them better, while the girls screamed. Billy was so awed by them that he told his friends afterwards that they were going to be bigger than Elvis. Of course they didn’t believe him and accused him of drinking too much. But it turned out the lad was a prophet.

By 1964, he was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show before the Beatles did. It was Brian Epstein’s idea, bringing over the most promising of the young bands he was managing to give the Americans an idea of what they were in for musically. The American media weren’t too impressed; their attitude seemed to be “So what?” That just meant that Billy and the other lads had to work a little harder at impressing them. The teenage girls who followed them were certainly impressed. Screaming girls followed them everywhere they went. By the time our boys John, Paul, George and Ringo came over the pond, the American public was eager for anything British. Even Paul Revere and the Raiders, an American group, told Billy years later that they used to sneak into his band’s dressing room while they were on stage and steal their soap, their aftershave, and anything else they could find because it was so cool to be British!

The price of fame came in the form of drugs, easily available on tour to susceptible young men, sex, with married women whose husbands were frequently on the same bill as the band as well as with any pretty stranger who made her way backstage, and disdainful treatment from band members who resented the star of the group for getting more attention than they did despite his lack of experience. On the positive side, Billy got to work with some of the premier rock stars of the 60’s, like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, Sonny and Cher, and of course, the Beatles, whose musical style he watched evolve and change with the times (from “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” to “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” among others).

Pills and alcohol eventually took their toll on the talented lad, who lost the Dakotas along the way and became a cabaret performer. There were some lost years when he went through a couple of marriages and a string of gigs in foreign countries that he couldn’t even remember because he was so stoned. Rehab was long and hard, especially when he had to keep on working to pay his medical bills and work was where he was exposed to so many temptations in the form of drugs and alcohol. But time and love eventually led to a comeback for Billy, whose easygoing, Merseybeat style never really left him. After a brief, disastrous reunion with the Dakotas in 1995, he decided to put together his own band of musicians who would be more simpatico and less egotistical.

Today he’s much happier and much healthier, drug and alcohol free, living in New Mexico with his third (?) wife Roni and their Tibetan Terrier Bernadette. His last album, “I Won The Fight” was released in 2014 to great acclaim, commemorating his struggle with substance abuse and how he overcame it. One of the most memorable songs, “To Liverpool with Love”, contained the lyric “Why isn’t Brian Epstein in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame?” Billy had to go back into the studio and re-record that particular song after Peter Asher nominated Brian and Andrew Long Oldham for the Hall of Fame.

I’ll be on my way, but if you’re a Beatles fan or a lover of classic rock in general, be sure to get a copy of Billy J. Kramer’s book for a glimpse of life on the road and backstage with the Beatles, and other cherished icons of the 60’s.