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Sunday, April 10, 2016

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

The music of the 1960s was unique and extraordinary, and typified and accompanied the events of that age - the good and the bad, the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, getting to the Moon, but also the Vietnam War, riots in the streets of America, and the assassinations - and made that music an indelible emblem of that decade, much as Shakespeare's plays did for the Elizabethan era, and Impression for the end of the 19th century.  Hegel termed such spearheads of artistic endeavor the "spirit of an age".

When you're actually living through such times, though, rather than looking back at them in history, it can be tough to say that this or that creative surge is really a spirit of an age.   Possibly we love those creations because we just happened to grow up with them, not because they have enduring relevance. When, in the 1970s, I had characters in a time-travel story listening to the Beatles in the 1990s (the story later became Loose Ends), several editors asked me if was sure that the Beatles would still be on anyone's mind 20 years from then.  I was sure.   But only time could prove that.  As indeed it has.

The Beatles were at the top of that enormous accomplishment, followed by Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and you can debate who follows on that list. But the accomplishment of the Beatles was and continues to be in a class of its own, with the group's recordings still listened to daily by millions of people around the world.

We naturally want to know as much as possible about these geniuses. Autographies are great, but, let's face it, everyone wants to make themselves look good, and the impulse to leave out details that make you look not so good is likely irresistible.   Biographies can help with this, but they suffer from another problem, usually being too removed from the action as it's happening to provide a completely responsive and accurate account of lives and events.

Here is where Billy J. Kramer's autobiography, Do You Want to Know a Secret, comes in, providing not only Billy's own story, but what he witnessed first-hand of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney in particular, who wrote most of Billy's greatest songs.   This makes Billy's account refreshingly original, real, and important.

Billy himself was a singer, somewhere between Elvis and Ricky Nelson, with a joie de vivre all its own, as you can see in this video of him singing my favorite of his recordings, "From a Window," released in October 1964 in the U.S. at the height of the first wave of Beatlemania.   (He's still a fine singer - see my review of his performance at the 50th Anniversary British Invasion Concert in Tarrytown, New York, last year.)

We learn in the book that the song was written by Paul McCartney - news to me, because I'd always thought its lyricism was Lennonesque, and now I have an even more impressed view of the early McCartney and his songwriting skills.   Later in the book, Kramer (born William Howard Ashton in 1943 in Lancashire, England) tells us how he now regrets turning down another song McCartney offered to him a year later - "Yesterday".   Kramer went on to record a Bacharach and David song - "Trains and Boats and Planes" - but Dionne Warwick had the bigger hit a year later, and this was the beginning of the end of Kramer at the top of the charts.

But his memories are as peerless as ever, and are presented in this volume with a fabulous set of photographs, and a keen eye for detail.   We learn yet again, for example, that Lennon could be a bit of a jackass, as when he lashes out at Billy - saying "you're nothing and we're [the Beatles] the greatest" - after Lennon tried to grope the girl Billy was standing with and Billy objected.

And lots of other makers and shakers from that era come to life Kramer's book.  Brian Epstein, who managed Billy as well as the Beatles, staunchly opposed Billy's recording of "Little Children," a non-Beatles song, as a little weird - which it is, but it still became a huge hit for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakatos.   Billy loved Sonny Bono's "Needles and Pins" and Jackie DeShannon's "When You Walk in the Room" - I do, too, especially "Walk in the Room," one of my all-time flat-out favorites - but the Dakatos didn't, and as preposterous as it might seem that a bunch of sidemen, however talented, could have their way in this, they did, and the songs went on to become big hits for the Searchers, much to Billy's expectation and regret.

We're fortunate indeed that Billy has given us such a vibrant, colorful, incisive, and fact-filled book. Grab a copy if you want to be aptly informed for your children or grandchildren - or, hey, just for yourself.

Roy Green interviews Billy J. Kramer and Paul Levinson about George Martin, March 2016

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