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Billy J. Kramer, Mersey star and Beatle buddy, headlines at The Fest for Beatles Fans

Billy J. Kramer, Mersey star and Beatle buddy, headlines at The Fest for Beatles Fans

Billy J. Kramer, Mersey star and Beatle buddy, headlines at The Fest for Beatles Fans
March 07
12:16 2018

It was the first rock album with printed lyrics, the first with a fold-out cover, the first to win a “Best Album” Grammy. It may be the most influential record in pop history, and the best-loved. It changed the direction of The Beatles, and rock-and-roll, forever. It’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released 50 years ago June 2. And it was. . .a Game Changer. Jim Beckerman/

Kramer, a contemporary of the Fab Four, performs at Fest for Beatles Fans, which will draw thousands of Beatles fanatics to Jersey City this weekend.


A rising tide floats all boats, as the saying goes. But when, in the history of music, was there  a tide like the one on Liverpool’s river Mersey? The Beatles were the monster wave, 54 years ago, that launched dozens of bands toward America, in the armada that came to be known as the British Invasion.

“I do feel very indebted to both John and Paul,” says Billy J. Kramer, one of an army of British pop stars who crossed the pond in the Beatles’ wake in the mid-1960s. The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Animals, the Searchers, the Hollies, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Chad and Jeremy and the Rolling Stones were just some of them.

But few were as closely linked to The Beatles as Kramer, a.k.a. William Howard Ashton (his given name).

That’s why it’s fitting that he will be a guest star at the 44th annual Fest For Beatles Fans, Friday through Sunday March 9 to 11 at the Hyatt Regency Jersey City on the Hudson.

“I’ve done the fest from time to time over the years,” Kramer says. “It’s great. I’ll be honest with you, it’s like family.”

Randy Bachman (the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive), Neil Innes (The Rutles, Bonzo Dog Band), Peter Asher (of Peter & Gordon), and Jeremy Clyde (of Chad & Jeremy) are among the many other performers who will be part of the three-day event, which is expected to attract up to 4,000 Beatles fanatics to various concerts, vendor rooms, poetry events and jam sessions.

All these artists have at last a tangential connection to the Beatles, or their era. But Kramer’s connection is closer than many.

He himself was a Liverpudlian, a contemporary of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and knew them before they were superstars. They had the same manager: the legendary Brian Epstein. And some of his earliest hits were actually Lennon-McCartney songs that were either written expressly for him or that the Beatles, for whatever reason, gave away. Among them: “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” “From a Window,” “I Call Your Name” and “Bad to Me.”

“He got to see the music scene develop alongside the Beatles,” says Mark Lapidos, a Montvale resident and the founder and director of the festival. “His perspective is very interesting. He was there at the Cavern [club], he was there at the key moments. How many people are in that situation?”

More: A Celebration of the Music of the Beatles

More: Review: McCartney digs deep into Beatles, solo material in marathon Newark concert

More: Game Changers: ‘Sgt. Pepper’ turns 50

Kramer had considerable success in the 1960s. He had a slew of top 10 hits, appeared on “Shindig!” “Hullabaloo,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and had his own mobs of screaming girls.

But despite his good looks, perfect teeth, righteous pompadour and wicked dance moves, he’d be the first to say that he owed a large part of his success to the Beatles and the craze they created for all things British. The Beatles were as much a part of Billy J. Kramer as his middle initial. As a matter of fact, it was Lennon who put the “J” in his name. Up until the time of his first single, he had been known around Liverpool simply as Billy Kramer.

“Brian called me in the office and John was there, and he said, ‘John has a suggestion.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘I think you should call yourself Billy J. It will give it more of a ring. People will be able to latch onto it more easily.’ And I thought it was a great idea.”

The Liverpool scene

Why do some places, some cities, become the incubators of a music scene? Asbury Park, Minneapolis, Memphis, Detroit, Seattle: is it something in the water?

Liverpool was the most famous of all.The Beatles were just the most famous of a whole host of bands that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, played venues like the Cavern Club, the Iron Door, the Rialto, the Grafton, Blair Hall, the Majestic Ballroom and Holyoake Hall. Making the same scene with the the Fab Four, in the early days, were such “Merseyside” acts as Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (whose drummer, Starr, eventually defected), Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, the Big Three, Cilla Black, and the Dakotas, who became Billy J. Kramer’s backing band.

“I always felt the people in Liverpool were special, and that something great would happen,” says Kramer, who was born in the suburb of Bootle, about a mile and a half from the city center, and now divides his time between Long Island and Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I didn’t know what: maybe a soccer team. It was the spirit, the attitude.”

Many theories have been floated for why the rock-and-roll craze hit, and hit so hard, in that particular tough, working-class seaport town in the late 1950s.

Some credited the American sailors who came in and out, bearing the latest Little Richard and Elvis records from the States. Some credit wartime austerity, still lingering 15 years after VE day, that led bored, money-strapped kids to form “skiffle” bands, a kind of jug-band jazz that could be played with improvised instruments. Lennon and McCartney were just two of the Liverpool rockers who began as skifflers.

“Suddenly 30,000 acoustic guitars got sold in England, and England wasn’t known for guitars, you know what I mean?” Kramer says. “Kids could form a skiffle band very cheaply: a tea chest [bass], a washboard and an acoustic guitar. There wasn’t a lot to do, let’s face it. At that time, everything was rationed in England. The guys who kept playing eventually got into rock-and-roll, when the skiffle phase passed.”

One thing about Liverpool, not often remarked on, that may be key to the Beatles’ worldwide success: humor.

“Liverpool was known for comedians,” Kramer says. Tommy Handley. Ted Ray, Tom O’Connor and others, playing the music hall circuit, radio and television, were Liverpool’s main entertainment export before rock-and-roll. The Beatles, among others, inherited that wit.

“I remember one night I was on tour with the Beatles, and there was a comedian [on the bill],” Kramer says. “And the comic comes off and says to John Lennon, ‘I feel funny.’ And he says, ‘You better get back on before it wears off.’ “

Part of the reason the Beatles were initially such a hit with all ages is that they were seen as comics as well as musicians. Fogeys who dismissed the music as “noise” could still love the Fab Four as a kind of reincarnated Marx Brothers in movies like “A Hard Day’s Night.” “I think the Liverpool people have the greatest sense of humor in the world,” Kramer says.

But neither the Beatles, Kramer nor Liverpool itself might have gotten on the map, without one pivotal figure. Brian Epstein, Kramer says, deserves huge credit for making the whole scene happen.

“I really believe if Brian hadn’t done it, it would have just gone on the way it was,” he says.

Snobbishness was more pervasive in England back then than it is now. Londoners, Kramer remembers, were not inclined to take Liverpudlians seriously.

“Me being a kid from Liverpool, when I used to go down to London, people would be very polite and say, ‘Where’d you come from?’ I’d say ‘Liverpool.’ And they’d step back. It was strange. There was definitely a thing between the North and the South. I don’t know why, but it was a mark against you.”

Epstein, a polished, urbane dandy, was a kind of liaison between the rough Liverpool world and the London elite who were key to the Beatles’ breakout success.

“Brian was refined, he was well dressed, he got in doors other people couldn’t,” Kramer says. “He got the Beatles a record deal, at a time when that was very difficult. He opened doors — eventually, doors to the world, to America.”

WHAT: Fest for Beatles Fans

WHEN: March 9 to 11.

WHERE: Hyatt Regency Jersey City on the Hudson, 2 Exchange Place, Jersey City. 201 666-5450 or

HOW MUCH: $54 Friday, $79 daily Saturday and Sunday at the door; $199 for all three days in advance (must purchase by Thursday). Half price for children 16 and under; free for children 5 and under.

Source: Billy J. Kramer, Mersey star and Beatle buddy, headlines at The Fest for Beatles Fans

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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