Billy J. Kramer Goes Cyberbusking
A friend sent me a link to a GoFundMe page, with the subject line “This seems weird.”
It is and it isn’t.
The page seeks $100,000 for the man who posted it, William Ashton. Since there is no breakdown on specific need, presumably it would pay bills and expenses.
What makes this page stand out from others seeking help for a kaleidoscope of financial situations is that William Ashton is better known as Billy J. Kramer, who almost 60 years ago was one of the first musical artists to arrive in the Beatles-led British Invasion.
“Bad To Me,” “From a Window,” “Little Children,” “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.” That was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and they were right there on the wave.
“Bad To Me,” in particular, was and remains a first-rate pop radio record, one of those tunes that amped up the whole top-40 game around 1964. Fun fact: Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote it.
Billy, who took the stage name Kramer from the phone book and added the middle initial on the suggestion of the puckish Lennon, may well have been the handsomest lad of the whole Invasion bunch. If McCartney was “the cute one,” Billy just looked sculpted.
He was a post-war Liverpool lad headed for a career on British Rail when his band caught the ear of Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles and was hoping to corral a stable of Brit bands.
Brian dumped Billy’s original band, the Coasters (no, not the “Yakety Yak” Coasters), to mix-and-match him with a Manchester band, the Dakotas. Like many arranged marriages it didn’t ultimately work out, but in 1963 it produced №1 UK hits in 1963 with “Bad to Me” and “Little Children.”
The teen mania that engulfed the Beatles extended to handsome fellows like Kramer. In his autobiography, Do You Want To Know a Secret?, he recalls how at times he couldn’t return to his own house because it was surrounded by fans waiting for him to do just that.
Needless to say, every British lad who could pick up a guitar around 1963 dreamed of becoming the next Beatles, and Kramer had a head start through the Epstein connection, which got him a fistful of those early Lennon and McCartney songs.
Besides “Bad To Me,” “I’ll Keep You Satisfied” and “From a Window,” he also recorded Lennon and McCartney’s “Do You Want To Know a Secret?,” “I’ll be On My Way,” “I Call Your Name” and “I’m In Love.”
That got him into the British Invasion pack. Unfortunately, he didn’t rise to the top of it.
He was perfect for the first phase of the Invasion, which was built on basic irresistible melodic pop songs. He was less prepared for the second phase, which rolled in fast and rewarded a harder sound.
Where the early sound was defined by the Beatles and the likes of the Dave Clark Five, bands like the Rolling Stones, the Who, Kinks and Yardbirds soon advanced to the foreground with killer guitars and songs that were more intense, more driving.
It’s not that the pop sound died. Plenty of bands still made it work, from the Hollies to Americans with faux-British names like the Cyrkle and the Beau Brummels. But Kramer wasn’t a songwriter, and when Lennon and McCartney started keeping their songs, the top-line material just wasn’t there.
Kramer’s story doesn’t get totally unhappy at this point. He stayed in the music business and made a living, playing package tours and clubs and other places where fans remembered.
He kept recording for more than a decade, albeit with limited success, and his autobiography recounts how he increasingly slid into drinking and drugs and all the dominos those problems topple, personal and marital.
In some ways it’s a “stop me if you’ve heard this story before” narrative, since far too many musicians whose music we love start falling into tough times while we’re still humming their tunes.
Music isn’t a career where, unless you’re at or near the top, you get much security. No pension plans or 401K matches in this business. Unless you’re smart or lucky enough to put most of your money away at your peak — and the music highway isn’t a place where that’s easy or routine — you’re going to run low or run out at some point.
The history of music is saturated with stories like Big Joe Turner, one of the great singers in R&B and rock ’n’ roll history, pulling himself onto stages with crutches when he was in his 70s, because he needed the money for rent, food and doctors.
A lot of musicians will tell you they see no reason to stop as long as they can still perform and someone wants to hear them. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, who do not need the money, are on the road right now as they approach or pass 80.
But for artists on the level of Billy J. Kramer, love of the music, while genuine, is only one reason they continue to hit the road.
In Kramer’s case, he’s been touring since forever. He was booked for another round of club dates in 2019 when he fell off a ladder at his home and broke his shoulder. His doctors told him he shouldn’t perform until it healed. Okay, he said, and the dates were postponed.
Except that brought us into 2020, when the live music biz shut down. There was no work at all, which wasn’t a big deal for Dylan or the Stones, but was a very big deal for Billy J. Kramer.
Things are starting to reopen now, which is good, and he says he’s ready to play as soon as there’s a place.
In the meantime, though, a worse thing happened. His wife Roni, who was also his manager, died several weeks ago of a heart attack.
Beyond the core tragedy of losing his partner, this eliminated the family’s remaining income.
Thus the Gofundme page, the kind of step no one ever wants to take.
But musicians have been putting out a basket for donations ever since the beginning of music. In a weird way, this is not totally different. Call it cyberbusking.
Way too often, in the late innings, this is where the game goes.