Early British rock'n'roll was a sad affair. With no decrepit old black alcoholics straight from the cotton fields, or speed wired hillbillies in sequin suits to teach them the licks, the style, the songs, they did the best they could by simply copying what American records they could lay their hands on. With no independent record labels or crazy all night disc jockey's they had to then enter the already established British showbiz system and hope for the best. Recording studios were staffed by men in white lab coats and studio musicians wore jackets and ties (unlike in America where studios where staffed by cigar chomping gangsters and studio musicians guzzled cheap wine straight from the bottle and popped dexadrine like they were tic-tacs). Still, occasionally they'd hit the mark-- there's even a few genuine vinyl masterpieces from this era-- Cliff Richard's Move It, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' Shakin' All Over, Vince Taylor & the Playboys' Brand New Cadillac and Jet Black Machine, but these were rare occurrences, few and far between. What early British rock'n'roll did have was a guy named Larry Parnes, himself a failed singer turned manager/Svengali, he was known to get behind young talent and give a big push. He would buy them new clothes, teach them how to comb their hair, and re-name them (rumour has it the names Parnes chose for his acts came from their performance in his bed, hence a stable of catamites with names like Johnny Gentle, Duffy Power, Marty Wilde and Wee Willie Wayne). The closest England came to developing a real rocker was today's subject--- Billy Fury. He was no Esquerita, in fact at his very best he was sort of a second rate Ricky Nelson, but I love Ricky Nelson, and I have a soft spot for Billy Fury. Fury came from Liverpool, born Ronald Wycherley in 1940. As a child he suffered from rheumatic fever which caused a permanent heart condition. Growing up in the rough, working class neighborhood known to locals as The Dingle, Fury who had spent much of his early school years in the hospital had few friends and and less education. At age 16 he left school and became a rivet thrower in the shipyards, then later signed on as a deck hand. Liverpool being at the time Britain's biggest port city gave young Ronald exposure to American country music and rhythm and blues, and when the film The Girl Can't Help It was released in 1956 he became infatuated with Eddie Cochran to whom he bore more than a passing resemblance. He got a guitar, changed his name to Stead Wayne and formed the Formby Sniffle (sic) Group, probably in that order. He also began writing songs. In 1958 he entered a recording studio in Liverpool and recorded four Elvis tunes and an original called Love's A Callin'. He sent the tape and a photo of himself to Larry Parnes. In October of that year a Parnes package tour was playing in Liverpool and Parnes invited young Ronald to present himself, which he did, even pitching two tunes-- Maybe Tomorrow and Margo to Marty Wilde backstage. Parnes could spot talent, and was taken by the youngster, putting him onstage that night where he performed for eight minutes, wowing the audience. He was added to the show and the next day he was headed for Manchester, an overnight sensation was born. Parnes signed him up, changed his name to Billy Fury, dressed him in a tight gold suit and black mascara and soon he was signed to Decca Records, Ronald/Stead/Billy was soon chartbound. His first single was Maybe Tomorrow and it rose to #18 on the U.K. pop charts. Soon Fury was appearing all over the country, onstage he was a wild performer, and like Elvis in the U.S. he was met with great dismay by the press and adult censorship organisations like the British Watch Committee (which tried to have him banned from all U.K. stages). As a result of the bad press his next single Margo reached only #28 and his next two releases didn't chart at all. Fury was ordered to tone it down or he'd be back on the Liverpool docks before his stock of mascara ran out. He relented and toned his stage show down a bit, no more humping the mike stand, no Elvis-like hip swivels, etc. It didn't matter, Billy Fury became a huge star in Britain, probably second only to Cliff Richard as far as home grown rock'n'roll stars went at the time. He churned out the records, and his recorded output was surprisingly good. His biggest hit-- Halfway To Paradise, a cover of a tune that was a minor hit for Tony Orlando in the States was fairly typical of his hits, an Elvis style ballad, aimed at teenage girls, not half bad but nothing that would upset your parents. I Will, Jealousy and Please Don't Go fall into the same category. His first really great record was Collette, an original that would have fit into Buddy Holly's set list perfectly. I Can Feel It is an excellent country style rocker with a psuedo gospel style call and response refrain and a killer guitar solo from Joe Brown. Play It Cool is a cover of the Eddie Fontaine tune from The Girl Can't Help It that bests the original, another good rocker of his was You Got Me Dizzy. Also worth mentioning is Don't Jump, a teen snuff classic with a big, twangy guitar sound.His finest moment was the whacked out, out of tune sax section driven Gonna Type A Letter-- you haven't lived until you've seen a whole room full of aging Teddy Boys jiving in line to this one (as I witnessed back in the early 80's).
Around 1959 Decca issued the ten inch LP-- The Sound Of Fury, probably the best pre-Beatles British rock'n'roll LP and one that has been cited by Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck as highly influential in their formative years. Consisting of ten original tunes, and showing off Joe Brown's guitar to great effect this little disc had some actual rock'n'roll classics including Don't Leave Me, My Advice, That's Love and Turn My Back On You. Fury kept up the furious pace, girls mobbed him where ever he went, he was on the package tour that ended with the car crash the killed his hero Eddie Cochran (and maimed Gene Vincent).
In the early sixties he hired the Tornados (of Telstar fame) as his backing band and together they cut a live LP-- We Want Billy! One of the first Brit live albums and while not exactly Jerry Lee Lewis Live At The Star-Club (Phillips) or Bo Diddley's Beach Party (Checker), it does have a sort of perverse appeal for me, especially the more rockin' cuts like his renditions of Sweet Little 16, I'm Movin' On, Just Because, and That's Alright Mama. I don't think it's ever been re-issued.
Bill Fury's career wound down considerably after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones changed the game. He would make an appearance in the 1973 movie That'll Be The Day, stealing the show as an old rocker. Later Billy Fury played the supper club circuit, appeared in dozens of U.K. television shows, and finally in 1983 his heart gave out. He'd been running on borrowed time since a teenager, the rheumatic fever had permanently damaged his ticker and he knew he'd never live to a ripe old age. But for a few years there, Billy Fury rocked harder than anyone else on that little island. Once the Beatles opened the door all manner of mania would issue from the place from inexplicably brilliant Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things (and their maniacal drummer Viv Prince), the sonically visionary Yardbirds, and a seemingly endless supply of groups devoted to reproducing the sounds of Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, even Chan Romero. But if Billy Fury hadn't have gotten there first, they'd have had to do it without the eyeliner.