Wait a minute, isn’t that a Beatles song? Yes, yes it is. While it was the first Beatle song to feature George Harrison as lead singer, it was released first as a single in the U.S.and the U.K. by Billy J Kramer with The Dakotas. The Beatles version had been released on their album only, until they released it as a single later in 1964. The song was inspired by “I’m Wishing”, a tune from Walt Disney’s 1937 animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which Lennon’s mother, Julia Lennon, would sing to him as a child. The first two lines of the song in Disney’s movie (“Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell?”) come right after the opening lyrics (“You’ll never know how much I really love you… You’ll never know how much I really care…”). McCartney has said it was a “50–50 collaboration written to order” for Harrison to sing, but Lennon, who always claimed the song as his own, explained in a 1980 interview, that he had realized as soon as he had finished writing the song that it best suited Harrison.
In fact Billy J Kramer With The Dakotas’ first four of five songs were written by John and Paul, all of which became top 10 hits for Billy with the Dakotas. Let’s see how all this came to be.
In the beginnings of the 1960’s, Liverpool was a Northwestern English town of hard-working people who worked the docks of an important seaport. It is also located on the river Mersey, which lent its name to the “Merseybeat” sound, which became synonymous with the Beatles and fellow Liverpudlian rock bands. You might recognise Gerry & The Pacemakers, the Searchers, and Cilla Black. From nearby Birmingham came the Spencer Davis Group and the Moody Blues.
Beat music is a fusion of rock and roll (mainly Chuck Berry guitar style and the midtempo beat of artists like Buddy Holly), doo-wop, skiffle and R&B. The genre provided many of the bands responsible for the British Invasion of the American pop charts starting in 1964, and provided the model for many important developments in pop and rock music, including the format of the rock group around lead, rhythm and bass guitars with drums.
Remember Brian Epstein? He was the guy who “discovered”, and became the manager of, the Beatles. According to Billy J Kramer:
He was the man that pounded the pavements in London when nobody wanted to know about the Beatles, and he was responsible for making them what they were. I think only for Brian they could have well been overlooked. They could have stayed in Liverpool forever.
You know, I obviously think he was interested in pop music, and everybody doesn’t find out their role in life immediately, you know? I mean, I never set out to be a pop singer. It just happened. It was a series of events and the next thing I knew…I think Brian had always been interested in the arts, and he wanted to be a designer, actually. He saw the Beatles and saw potential and he went for it. And I think he was a great representative, because coming from Liverpool at the time — it wasn’t the greatest place on Earth. I think it was a disadvantage.
Brian initially wanted to be an actor, but always had an interest in “the arts”. After losing interest in becoming an actor, he wound up back in Liverpool. His father put his son in charge of the record department of the family’s newly opened NEMS music store on Great Charlotte Street. Epstein worked “day and night” at the store to make it a success, and it became one of the biggest musical retail outlets in Northern England.
The story of Brian and the Beatles is rather involved and we won’t delve deeper here, but suffice to say that Brian developed a taste and reputation for following and supporting local Liverpool bands. One of the approximately 350 bands around the area he noticed was a band called The Coasters (not the American R&B group) and their lead singer Billy J Kramer.
Billy J Kramer (born William Howard Ashton) was a rail-fitter and 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. John Lennon suggested that the “J” be added to the name to further distinguish him by adding a “tougher edge”. Kramer wanted to turn professional but his then backing group, The Coasters, were less keen, so Brian Epstein sought out the services of a Manchester-based group, The Dakotas, a combo then backing Pete MacLaine. The group’s name arose from an engagement at the Plaza Ballroom in Oxford Street, Manchester. Their manager asked the group to return the next week dressed as Indians and called The Dakotas. Founded in September 1960 by rhythm guitarist Robin MacDonald, with Bryn Jones on lead guitar; Tony Bookbinder on drums, and Ian Fraser on bass. Ray Jones joined the band as bassist replacing Ian Fraser, and Mike Maxfield joined the band in February 1962 as lead guitarist replacing Bryn Jones after being with a Manchester band called The Coasters.
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. While many called them “And (&) The Dakotas”, their recordings were always released under “With”.
Not to dismiss any of his own musical accomplishments, but it’s fair to say that Kramer’s greatest claim to fame is that he was part of Brian Epstein’s roster of artists and, as such, benefited tremendously from Epstein being able to reach into Lennon and McCartney’s backlog of tunes and pull out a new single whenever Kramer needed one.
Kramer’s first hit: a cover of “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” backed with a previously-unreleased Lennon/McCartney composition entitled “I’ll Be on My Way.” That reached #2 in the UK, and the follow-up single – “Bad to Me” backed with “I Call Your Name”, both of which were also written by Lennon and McCartney, rose all the way to the top spot. Next up: “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” which made it to #4. While the B-side was his first hit not written by John and Paul, “I Know”, it was written by George Martin, so it’s not like Kramer was stepping that far outside of the Beatles for material. Martin’s connection to Kramer with The Dakotas was more than as a songwriter, of course: he also helmed the sessions for all of the aforementioned tracks as well as for those that produced “From a Window.” When Kramer with the Dakotas recorded “From a Window,” both of the song’s composers were also in attendance, with Paul McCartney providing harmony vocal on the very last word of the song.
And here’s a compiled John Lennon demo of that song:
After having success and recognition from their first five records, Billy decided to venture a little farther afield for his next hit. Later in 1964, he sought a departure from the traditional love songs previously recorded by Kramer that had been supplied by Lennon & McCartney. When offered another Lennon and McCartney song, “One and One Is Two”, for his next single, Kramer turned it down and chose “Little Children” instead, after a search for suitable material from music publishers. It was written by J. Leslie McFarland and Mort Shuman, who had penned a few other hits for other artists.
Tony Barrow’s sleeve notes claim that “Little Children” was Billy’s personal favourite from all the songs that he’d performed. Considering that it became the second #1 that Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas earned, perhaps that’s not so surprising. In the United States, “Little Children” was backed with “Bad to Me”. This 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. After releasing “We’re Doing Fine”, which also missed the charts, the singer and group parted company. Like many vocalists Kramer decided to turn solo when the hits began to fade. However this didn’t help him return to favour and he was soon on the nostalgia circuit. Kramer, then living in Rugby, Warwickshire, had a solo career over the next ten to fifteen years working in cabaret and television with his new band, again from the Manchester area.
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. In 2015, Kramer was part of the British Invasion 50th Anniversary tour, performing in the U.S. and the UK. The following year, 2016, saw the publication of his autobiography “Do You Want to Know A Secret”. He still does occasional appearances.