Back in the day, Billy J. Kramer was a central figure of the British Invasion. His manager was Brian Epstein, George Martin was his producer, and many of his hits were given to him courtesy of Liverpool buds, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In fact, it was Lennon who suggested the “J” for the stage name for William Howard Ashton after Billy chose “Kramer” out of a phone book listing.
According to Kramer himself, he and the Dakotas recorded Lennon/McCartney’s “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” before the Beatles recorded their own version. Then Lennon and McCartney gave him “I’ll Be on My Way,” “Bad to Me,” “I Call Your Name,” “From a Window,” and “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.” In order to move away from being seen as a mere Beatles protégée, Kramer turned down other Lennon/McCartney compositions in favor of other material, such as the J. Leslie McFarland and Mort Shuman’s “Little Children” (a U.K. number one and U.S. top ten hit), Bacharach and David’s “Trains and Boats and Planes,” and Harry Nilsson’s “1941.” By that time, however, the ballads of Kramer and his backup band, The Dakotas, were no longer in vogue. So Kramer moved on to other things, but was never again top of the pops.
Flash forward to 2012, and Kramer decided it was time to record what he considers his first solo album. “Back then,” Kramer told me, “we knocked out the songs in very short order. We didn’t take the time to really develop those albums.” For the very autobiographical I Won the Fight, however, Kramer invested time in a collection of songs that demonstrate that some Liverpool legends still have it, especially when backed with a very fine supporting band.
In the first lines of the opener, “I Won the Fight,” two things are obvious. First, Kramer’s youthful tones of the ’60s are long gone. Now, Kramer’s warm vocals sound more like a seasoned Nashville sage and not a Merseybeat balladeer. Second, as reiterated in the second number, “You Can’t Live on Memories” (originally recorded in the early ’80s), I Won the Fight is all about Kramer remembering his glory days and how he’s come to terms with the fame of those times. Then again, “Story of My Life” points to more recent memories as Billy J. Kramer also has 40 years of life lived after The Beatles to sing about.
In many ways, I Won the Fight is a tribute to Brian Epstein. The album is dedicated to him, and the liner notes discuss Kramer’s support of Epstein being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three songs refer to Epstein, well, four if you count both versions of “To Liverpool With Love.” The first, recorded in 2012, decried the fact the Hall of Fame hadn’t yet inducted Epstein; the second version changed those lines to acknowledge his mentor had finally been given his due there. (In 2013, Kramer wrote the introduction to the best-selling Vivek Tiwary graphic novel, The Fifth Beatle, which was the story of Epstein.)
Ironically, the least convincing song on the album is “I’m in Love,” a Lennon/McCartney song he originally recorded in 1963 but shelved. Sadly, his more mature voice just doesn’t suit a jingle-jangle poppy love song anymore. But it works very well for songs like “Sunsets of Santa Fe.” That number is about Kramer’s move to the American West with an appropriately Western musical setting. “You’re Right, I’m Wrong” is pure rockabilly, and “Falling and Flying,” which Kramer duets with Christine Ohlman, is as Nashville as you can ask for with its pedal-steel guitar lines. In short, Kramer remembers Liverpool with love alright, but he no longer sounds like he’s anywhere near the Mersey.
By no means should any of this be interpreted as a complaint. While not every song is a nugget, I Won the Fight has more than its fair share of very listenable, very engaging stories. The band, which includes Billy Joel’s drummer Liberty DeVitto, is top notch. Altogether, I Won the Fight should interest Beatles and British Invasion fans to hear all the lyrical slices of what went on back then. More importantly, Billy J. Kramer’s “adult” vocals are well worth enjoying, whether or not the listener has ever heard “Bad to Me” or “Little Children.” But it doesn’t hurt to be old enough to know what he’s singing about. This is the kind of rock Baby Boomers should still dig.