He was managed by Brian Epstein. He was produced by George Martin. And John Lennon and Paul McCartney were giving him songs to record. It doesn't get much better than that! We are speaking about Mr. Billy J. Kramer.
Q - Billy, you are considered part of The British Invasion. Did you tour America in 1964 and 1965?
A - Oh, yes. I did tour the States. To me, I never really paid attention to it, the nametags. In England, when they came up with this Merseybeat thing, I was like, "What are they talking about?" It's just young people playing Rock 'n' Roll, you know? (Laughs).
Q - Were you a headliner in the States or part of a package deal?
A - I came over and played all over the place. I was with Gerry And The Pacemakers. I first came over and did Ed Sullivan and then I did a week at The World's Fair in '64. I came back and toured with Gerry and we did like Shindig! and Hulabaloo. We recorded the TAMI Show.
Q - Let me back up for a minute. When you were coming up, you worked five or six nights a week in the clubs?
A - There was a very healthy scene around Liverpool then. There were a lot of places to play.
Q - Did you work alongside of all the popular Liverpool groups of the day?
A - I worked along side of Gerry, The Searchers, The Beatles, around Liverpool, yes.
Q - You played The Cavern Club?
A - I played The Cavern Club. I played The Iron Door, The Litherland Town Hall, The Atrium Institute, The Majestic Ballroom, all of 'em.
Q - What kind of place was The Iron Door?
A - The Iron Door was a cellar club, not like The Cavern. It was in an old warehouse and it was like the downstairs. I actually used to like to play there.
Q - Is it still there?
A - It's still there. I still see things about it on the Internet. I used to play there a lot actually.
Q - Your manager, Ted Knibbs, introduced you to Brian Epstein. Why would he do that?
A - What happened was, I came in third in the Merseybeat popularity poll. The Beatles were first. I was the highest place, non-professional artist. I think Brian approached Ted and then Ted one day said to me, "Do you want to go into Liverpool?" And we went into Liverpool. We went into a restaurant and Brian was sitting there. Ted said, "To tell you the truth, I've done all I can for you. Brian would like to take over your management."
Q - That would have been what year?
A - That would be in about late '62.
Q - Had you heard of Brian Epstein at that time?
A - Of course. I was a training engineer and I'd never thought about doing it professionally. The only person I ever considered being managed by was Brian, because I saw what a great job he was doing for The Beatles.
Q - Brian had a stable of artists, The Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Fourmost, Cilla Black, you. Why did he want to manage so many people? There are only 24 hours in a day. How could he devote enough time to everybody?
A - I don't know. Brian was so meticulous it was amazing. I always tell people I used to get every Saturday, wherever I was in the country, I would get this package from Brian. It would have five envelopes. One for me, one for each of the guys in the band (The Dakotas). The Road Managers also had an envelope each. There was so much petty cash. It was a breakdown of all the expenses, the itinerary of where we were going from there with hotels booked and the whole thing. It was amazing. I always used to think that Brian had his favorite of the month. One month he'd be solely attending to The Beatles and it would be Gerry's turn and it would be my turn. But he always did a great job.
Q - So in your mind, he spent enough time advancing your career?
A - Absolutely.
Q - I heard a story that you and Brian were walking down Madison Avenue in New York and you admired a shirt in a store window and Brian said, "It's not your image." Did that really happen?
A - It wasn't that. It was a sports jacket in a store we went into. I was very flamboyant when I first started. I used to wear flashy clothes. The first thing he said when I signed with him was, "We are gonna put away the Christmas tree." He put me into suits.
Q - He did that with The Beatles too.
A - Sure.
Q - I don't know if he did it with Gerry And The Pacemakers.
A - Oh, he did it with everybody.
Q - That was his way of making his acts acceptable to the people who ran the venues and the people who ran the record companies, TV and radio stations.
A - I guess so. That's obviously what he must've viewed it (as).
Q - He also sent you and The Dakotas over to The Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. What was it that like?
A - I had a band and none of them wanted to turn professional, so Brian put me with The Dakotas and he sent us off to Hamburg to get it together. We played long hours. I always said you came back from Hamburg with something to offer or you packed up. (Laughs). I always noticed that the bands that had been in Hamburg, when they came back they had improved a lot.
Q - What was your schedule like?
A - You started at four in the afternoon 'til six in the morning.
Q - How did you keep going? This was like six days a week?
A - Yeah.
Q - How long was the engagement?
A - Six weeks.
Q - Did Brian ever know the working conditions of the bands he sent over to Hamburg?
A - To me, The Star Club had a great set up, had great equipment. Where we were staying was not shabby. It wasn't like what The Beatles started with.
Q - They had it really rough.
A - Yeah, well you know, everybody has it rough at some time. I had it rough on the road with The Dakotas, staying in grotty places in England. Fortunately when I did The Star Club, I stayed in a place called The President Hotel.
Q - You first saw The Beatles at The Litherland Town Hall. Then you saw them again at The Cavern after they returned from Hamburg. You noticed a difference. What was that difference? What were they like at The Litherland Town Hall?
A - They were fantastic.
Q - And when they returned from Hamburg?
A - They were even better! Lately I talk a lot about this and I say there's two sides of The Beatles. There's The Beatles that came along on Ed Sullivan, suits and were refined, and then there was The Beatles in the leather. I always say if you never saw The Beatles at The Cavern, you never knew what they were really like.
Q - Didn't John Lennon say that exact same thing inLennon Remembers?
A - I've never read that book.
Q - You are a big supporter of Brian Epstein getting into...
A - The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Q - You think his role in Rock 'n' Roll has been ignored.
A - I think it's a disgrace because I used to see Brian in the evenings and he'd been down to London pounding the pavement. You could tell he was down and looked dejected, but he kept going back and knocking on doors. His persistence and his belief in The Beatles... Without that, the world might never have seen them. Do you know what I mean?
Q - I totally agree.
A - Record companies didn't come to Liverpool. Liverpool to me was this place in northern England that had kind of been forgot. Only for Brian, they could of gone on playing the way they were and eventually they would've gotten fed up and packed up. You just don't know. I always say, and I have no problem saying this, The Beatles opened the door for all of us, both in the UK and the United States.
Q - Word has it that The Big Three were as good as The Beatles, if not better. Did you ever see The Big Three?
A - I worked with The Big Three. I thought The Big Three were very good, but as far as I'm concerned they were not in the same league as The Beatles. I always say to people when they ask me questions similar to how do I feel about that, I always say this: I was happy doing what I did. Very contented. But it was like competing with God. That's the difference.
Q - In or during The Beatles' time, money was never emphasized about their career. That's a big difference between then and now.
A - There is a big difference because of one thing. It was the early days. These people today are firstly playing gigantic stadiums, they have ties with T-shirt companies and this company and that company. To me, there was none of that. People say Brian Epstein didn't do his job, a good job for The Beatles. There was no such thing as merchandise back then.
Q - Didn't Elvis have merchandise deals going on?
A - Not in the capacity of today. I think Brian did a great job, but I just think it's a different world today. It's a totally different world.
Q - Sure. Rock 'n' Roll was relatively new in Brian Epstein's day.
A - That's right. The difference is, I'm glad these people are making all this money because they are gonna need it. I don't think they'll be getting their records played 50 years from now.
Q - They won't be standing on stage at 71 like McCartney is.
A - And they won't be doing tours around their homes.
Q - After seeing The Beatles on stage at The Cavern Club, Brian remarked, "These guys are going to be bigger than Elvis." Did he ever tell you why he thought that?
A - He didn't have to because I made the same statement myself. I was with some friends and Bob Wooler had said the week before, "Next week we have a group that's been playing in Hamburg called The Beatles playing here." I don't know why, but the name stuck in my head. I used to go to The Litherland Town (Hall) on a regular basis. I went to hear The Beatles and I remember walking home with my friends and saying, "They are going to be bigger than Elvis." They said, "You are out of your mind!" I said, "No. I'm not." That was the impact they had on me. I believe you had to have been a fool not to see it.
Q - And you saw it!
A - Well, I'm very glad that I had such a wonderful experience. I just know that they were very special. I feel so honored that I had the chance to work with them, to record their songs, to tour with them. It was a magical period of my life.
Q - After you had the hits "Little Children" and "Trains And Boats And Planes", Paul McCartney offered you "Yesterday" to record and you turn that song down. What didn't you like about "Yesterday"?
A - Looking back now, I think it was the fact that I was playing in what's called the Summer Season in England where I was in a seaside town for four months and I was playing to a very adult audience. I just had the hit with "Trains And Boats And Planes" and I wanted to do a Rock 'n' Roll record. It just didn't register.
Q - You didn't even think to yourself, "That is a nice song"?
A - No. I just thought, "That's okay. Paul, I want a Rock 'n' Roll song."
Q - You just have to wonder what would've happened had you recorded "Yesterday".
A - I don't know. I think it would've been a hit. (Laughs). You don't have it right all the time. When I recorded "Little Children", I had three Lennon / McCartney songs offered to me then that I turned down. I thought "Little Children" was a stronger song and the three songs they offered me didn't do anything for other people.
Q - You had Brian Epstein as your manager, George Martin as your record producer and John and Paul pitching you songs. What a great combination you had!
A - How big a star could I have had? John came over suggesting I call myself Billy J. What an honor for him to give me the song "Bad To Me" on my 20th birthday.
Q - You didn't really add that J in your name, did you?
A - Brian called me one day and I went into the office and John was there. He said, "John has a suggestion." I was just about to release "Do You Want To Know A Secret", which was number one in England. John said, "Why don't you call yourself Billy J?" I said, "It's a cool idea." He said, "I think people will catch on to it quicker then Billy Kramer." I said, "Thank you so much." I thought it was a great idea.
Q - It's certainly catchy and adding the J made a difference.
A - It made a hell of a difference.
Q - Did anyone ever ask you what the J stands for?
A - At the time I said, "What if anybody asks me what does it stand for" and John said, "Julian." I said, "I don't really like that name." I didn't know that John was married at the time with a son. But that's what I said. (Laughs).
Q - You never had The Beatle style haircut.
A - No, I didn't.
Q - Was that something that Brian pushed on his other groups?
A - Not at all. I just wanted to be me.
Q - Would people in the clubs you were performing in notice musicians with long hair or was it not such a big deal?
A - It was just one of those things. It was no big deal. When you look at The Beatles' pictures, their hair wasn't that long. Mine is much longer than that now. (Laughs).
Q - It is. But understand, in America back then, people were wearing their hair in the brush cut or crew cut style.
A - Oh, I know. I was always one of these people who was into being neat and tidy. I wasn't as comfortable with myself as I am now.
Q - Ringo told you that he's hated in Liverpool with no explanation as to why. Maybe because he replaced Pete Best? Did he tell you that way back when?
A - No. This is only recently. A couple of years ago I went to see Ringo when he was doing a show and he said, "You know, they hate me in Liverpool." (Laughs). I said, "Why?" Apparently someone had asked him a question if he'd like to come back and live there and he was negative about Liverpool and it pissed people off. I thought it was all kind of dumb to tell you the truth.
Q - Dumb that he would say that?
A - No. Dumb that people took it that way.
Q - He could live anywhere in the world.
A - So why ask him that question?
Q - The interviewer probably couldn't think of another question to ask. Are you working on your autobiography?
A - I've done a lot of outlines to it. I've made a lot of notes. Eventually... I've got a new CD and when I finish with all of that, I'm going to get down and write it, yes.
Q - That's one book I'd like to read! I really don't believe there's much information out there about your life.
A - A lot of people don't know a lot about me. I've always been a sort of modest person. I've never been controversial. I've never been the sort of guy who was busted for drugs or made outlandish statements. Maybe if I would've been that kind of person, people would know a lot more about me, but I felt you do your thing, you come offstage and it's a different world then. I partied is much as anybody, but I did it my own way and with discretion. I'm old school. I wanted to be a role model even though I was drinking more than anybody.
Q - Were you ever mobbed by fans?
A - I remember going to Liverpool one night and there was a big crowd at the top of the street. I thought, "What the hell is going on?" When I got there, outside my house was all screaming kids. I had to get the police to get me in and the police to get me out. For a while it was very difficult. Wherever you went, you'd get recognized. Some people were very nice and some people were not nice. It was just something you learned to live with.
Q - What did those screaming girls want to do with you if they got close enough?
A - Pull your hair out, rip your clothes off. (Laughs). It was like that when we were on tour. It was like that every night of the week.
Q - Why did you choose to live in Long Island?
A - I live in Long Island and I have a home in Santa Fe. I met somebody from New York and got married to them and decided it was the best place to be.
Q - Okay. What's in Santa Fe?
A - To me it's just a place that I go for serenity. I really like the place. I love the place. It's the land of enchantment, as they say. It's a long story, but I discovered it by accident. I like to spend any down time I have there.