Listen…Do You Want To Buy A Guitar?

So far we’ve seen three cover versions of Lennon/McCartney tunes and no hits. Luckily this would all change when William Ashton’s guitar got stolen! Eh?

Ashton was the rhythm guitarist of a Bootle based instrumental group called the Coasters but the lack of an instrument forced him to become a reluctant front man, “Billy Kramer” (The surname was picked up from a phone book at random). The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein liked something about the combo enough to offer them a managing contract. Kramer said yes and got an extra J to his name from Lennon (“You can say it’s for Julian, if they ask!”) but the Coasters backed down when they heard only their singer would be guaranteed a fixed salary. In their place Epstein lured in the Dakotas from Manchester, with the promise of releasing their own instrumental records as well. This was a good move: while Kramer’s vocal talents can best be described as “limited”, the instrumental prowess of the Dakotas ensured that their records packed more punch than most of their competitors’.

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For their debut single two Lennon/McCartney numbers were chosen. The eventual top side “Do You Want To Know A Secret” had already been offered to and rejected by Shane Fenton & the Fentones. (Fenton later became succesful under the name of Alvin Stardust but thankfully that’s another story!) Kramer was more than happy to record the song, following The Beatles’ arrangement very closely. The flip side of the record was “I’ll Be On My Way”, an early Buddy Hollyesque McCartney number which The Beatles never recorded for EMI and as such “the first song The Beatles gave away.” However the Fabs recorded the song just once for the BBC and luckily this performance is preserved on “Live At The BBC.” Comparing the two, the Dakotas take the number at an unnecessarily fast tempo, but guitarist Mike Maxfield’s truely brilliant guitar solo more than makes up for this!

“Do You Want To Know A Secret” went all the way to number two in the UK charts, becoming the first ever cover hit of a Lennon/McCartney tune. Perhaps it was this early success which explains why Billy J would always be the first one to get his pick from the unrecorded Lennon/McCartney numbers. And perhaps this “outside success” assured at least John and Paul that they were indeed “real song writers”. They continued on giving songs away but never again would they be pushing every one of them to everyone. Well they didn’t have to. By now people would be queuing up to get one.

“Do You Want To Know A Secret” and “I’ll Be On My Way” are readily available on any number of Billy J Kramer compilations, I have them on an EMI CD called “Billy J Kramer with the Dakotas at Abbey Road 1963-1966.”

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Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 8:40 am  Leave a Comment  

The earliest cover versions

The present day notion of an artist recording primarily his own material was far from being established in the early 1960’s. True, some of The Beatles’ biggest influences, mainly early rock and rollers like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard wrote a lot of their own records. But more typically people like Elvis Presleyand the Everly Brothers, not to mention all the vocal and girl groups like the Coasters and the Shirelles relied heavily on outside writers. This was probably even more true in the UK: songs were written by “professional songwriters”, picked up by record companies’ “A&R men” and performed by “recording artists”. Thus if Lennon/McCartney wanted to be considered “real” song writers they had to get their numbers covered by other people. Well, this is my theory anyway! And Lennon/McCartney succeeded pretty well: all four new original numbers on The Beatles’ debut LP were instantly covered as singles by other people!

The Please Please Me LP was recorded during a rest day (yeah, right…) from a tour of the UK, head lined by the 17 year old pop star Helen Shapiro. John and Paul had offered “Misery” to her but when she (or her management – sources differ) rejected the tune, Kenny Lynch, another artist on the tour promised to record it. His somewhat poppier version of the song, with strings and slightly altered lyrics (or were these the original words?) was to become the first ever Lennon/McCartney cover version, hitting the shops a week before The Beatles’ version! It also featured a guitar part by session veteran Bert Weedon, something that reportedly upset John Lennon, clearly in an anti-establishment mode!

Although Misery was not a hit, Lynch had seven UK hit singles and also co-wrote hits for other artists, like Sha-la-la-lee for the Small Faces. Later on he became a very popular actor and even appeared on the sleeve of the Wings’ Band On The Run LP some ten years later!

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Misery – and all the rest of his 1960’s material can be found on a CD called Nothing But The Real Thing, on RPM Records.
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The Kestrels, a West Country vocal group with a four year recording career already behind them, were another act on the Shapiro tour to be offered a Lennon/McCartney number. They imaginatively reworked “There’s A Place” as an attractive piece of uptown soul, but sadly the single would join the ranks of their other non-hits, when released in April. Group members Roger Greenaway, Roger Cook and Tony Burrows would find success later in the decade – but more of them when we reach David and Jonathan

“There’s A Place” is available on the compilation CD “Beat Beat Beat Volume One” on Castle Records

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Duffy Power was and remains a fine soul and jazz singer with a long and chequered career. He’d even been a part of promotor Larry Parnes’ stable along with Johnny Gentle (remember him?), Billy Fury and others. In February 1963 he was a labelmate of The Beatles on Parlophone which probably explains how he ended up recording “I Saw Her Standing There” in the same month The Beatles did! On the initial recording he was backed by the Graham Bond Quartet, featuring jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, as well as future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Unsurprisingly The Beatles deemed the version too jazzy and unrecognisable and vetoed it’s release. A slightly poppier remake was done in March, this time with Big Jim Sullivan on guitar, but when released in April, a competing version had already been released by actor Anthony Newley . Sales were split and neither record was a hit.

Both of Power’s versions can be heard on the CD “Leapers and Sleepers” on RPM Records.
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(Billy J will have to wait untill tomorrow – duty calls)

Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment