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Billy J. Kramer (born William Howard Ashton, 19 August 1943, Bootle, Lancashire, England) is a British Invasion/Merseybeat singer. In the 1960s he was managed by Brian Epstein, who also managed the Beatles, and he recorded several original Lennon and McCartney compositions.
He grew up as the youngest of seven siblings and attended the St George of England Secondary School, Bootle. He then took up an engineering apprenticeship with British Railways and in his spare time played rhythm guitar in a group he had formed himself, before switching to become a vocalist. The performing name Kramer was chosen at random from a telephone directory. It was John Lennon's suggestion that the "J" be added to the name to further distinguish him by adding a "tougher edge". Kramer soon came to the attention of Brian Epstein, ever on the look-out for new talent to add to his expanding roster of local artists. Kramer turned professional but his then backing group, the Coasters, were less keen, so Epstein sought out the services of a Manchester-based group, the Dakotas, a combo then backing Pete MacLaine.
Even then, the Dakotas would not join Kramer without a recording contract of their own. Once in place, the deal was set and both acts signed to Parlophone under George Martin. Collectively, they were named Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas to keep their own identities within the act. Once the Beatles broke through, the way was paved for a tide of Merseybeat and Kramer was offered the chance to cover "Do You Want to Know a Secret?", first released by the Beatles on their own debut album, Please Please Me. The track had been turned down by Shane Fenton (later known as Alvin Stardust) who was looking for a career-reviving hit.
With record producer George Martin, the song "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" was a number two UK Singles Chart hit in 1963, and was backed by another tune otherwise unreleased by the Beatles, "I'll Be on My Way". After this impressive breakthrough another Lennon–McCartney pairing, "Bad to Me" c/w "I Call Your Name", reached number one. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. "I'll Keep You Satisfied" ended the year with a respectable number four placing.
Kramer was given a series of songs specially written for him by John Lennon and Paul McCartney which launched him into stardom. "I'll Keep You Satisfied", "From a Window", "I Call Your Name" and "Bad to Me" earned him appearances on the television programmes, Shindig!, Hullabaloo and The Ed Sullivan Show. (Kramer had also been offered Lennon–McCartney's "I'm In Love", and recorded a version in October 1963. In the end, it was shelved and the song was instead given to the Fourmost. In the 1990s, a Kramer CD compilation album included Kramer's version, as well as some recording studio banter on which John Lennon's voice could be heard).
The Dakotas, meanwhile, enjoyed Top 20 success in 1963 on their own with Mike Maxfield's composition "The Cruel Sea", an instrumental retitled "The Cruel Surf" in the U.S., which was subsequently covered by the Ventures. This was followed by a George Martin creation, "Magic Carpet", in which an echo-laden piano played the melody alongside Maxfield's guitar. But it missed out altogether and it was a year before their next release. All four tracks appeared on an EP later that year.
The three hits penned by Lennon and McCartney suggested that Kramer would always remain in the Beatles' shadow, unless he tried something different. Despite being advised against it, he turned down the offer of another Lennon–McCartney song, "One and One Is Two", and insisted on recording the Stateside chart hit "Little Children". It became his second chart topper and biggest hit. In the United States this was followed up with "Bad to Me". "Little Children" b/w "Bad To Me" is the only debut single of an act on the Hot 100, each of whose sides separately reached that chart's top 10 (No. 7 and No. 9, respectively). Despite this success Kramer went backwards with his second and last UK single of 1964, the Lennon–McCartney composition "From a Window", which only just became a Top Ten hit.
The year 1965 saw the end for the beat music boom, and the next Kramer single was "It's Gotta Last Forever", which harked back to a ballad approach. In a year where mod-related music from the likes of the Who prevailed, the single missed completely. Kramer's cover version of Bacharach and David's "Trains and Boats and Planes" saw off Anita Harris' version in the UK, reaching a respectable number 12, but was trounced by that of Dionne Warwick in the US, and turned out to be the group's swansong, as all subsequent releases failed to chart.
The Dakotas' ranks were then strengthened by the inclusion of Mick Green, formerly a guitarist with the London band the Pirates who backed Johnny Kidd. This line-up cut a few tracks which were at odds with the balladeer's usual fare. These included a take on "When You Walk in the Room" and "Sneakin' Around". The Dakotas' final outing whilst with Kramer was the blues-driven "Oyeh!", but this also flopped.
After releasing "We're Doing Fine", which also missed the charts, the singer and group parted company. Kramer, then living in Rugby, Warwickshire, had a solo career over the next ten to fifteen years or so working in cabaret and television with his new band, again from the Manchester area, consisting of Pete Heaton (bass), John Miller (drums) and Tim Randles (guitar), after which he eventually went to live in the United States.
The Dakotas re-formed in the late 1980s and recruited vocalist Eddie Mooney and session musician Toni Baker. They still tour and record. Other latter-day members are drummer Pete Hilton and guitarist Alan Clare.
In about 1983 Kramer released a solo single called "You Can't Live on Memories"/"Shooting the Breeze" which failed to chart.
In 2005, Kramer recorded the song "Cow Planet" for Sandra Boynton's children's album, Dog Train. A long-term fan of Kramer's, Boynton had sought him out for her project: in 1964, at age 11, she had bought "Little Children" as the first album she owned.
In late 2012, Kramer went back into the studio for the first time in years to record a new CD, I Won the Fight, which was released in 2013. The CD features some new songs written by Kramer as well as some covers.