Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Billy Fury

Nice suit, and check out the make up! Not everyone can get away with white, cuban heeled boots.... Yet another variation on the gold suit....
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.


flamingo said...

Thanks for giving Billy Fury some credit!
I've always considered his Elvis ballad style treatment of "Nobody's Child" the best version. Check it out!
"You Got me Dizzy" works fine as long as you don't play it on the same day as Jimmy Reed's original...
Thanks for the best rock n roll blog I know!

flamingo said...

...I forgot: check out his kid brother Albie Wycherly doin' biz as Jason Eddie and The Centremen. He cut some great freakbeat like "Come on Baby" and the wildest version ever of "Singin' the Blues" (OK, the only wild version)...


rascuachero54 said...

Very informative post. Nicely done. Check my blog if you have time.

J.D. King said...

"... they did the best they could by simply copying what American records they could lay their hands on."

Y'know, that's exactly what I love about that era. It's like when you're camping out. You don't eat gourmet fare, you make do with the basics. Or it's like trying to grow a vegetable garden in sandy soil. Even if you add horseshit, it's a difficult affair. But, somehow, if you want to eat, you do it.

Have you ever read Wolf Mankowitz' "Expresso Bongo" from 1958? I think it really captures the time and place. Not that I was there...

The Hound said...

"Have you ever read Wolf Mankowitz' "Expresso Bongo" from 1958? I think it really captures the time and place."

No, but I love the movie w/ Cliff Richard. Wolf makes an uncredited cameo as the sandwich man. Sometimes TCM shows it back to back with Beat Girl (w/Gillian Hills--wow...).

Anonymous said...

Gillian Hills! She of the drooping lolly and time lapse threesome in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE ! Great Fury post. That Joe Brown was quite the string strangler.

The Hound said...

"Gillian Hills!"

She also shows up in Blow Up. Gillian Hills even made some pretty good records in the style that's now called Ye-Ye Girl, I rather like one called Look at Them b/w Tomorrow Is Another Day (Vogue) a rare English language record from her (most of her discs are recorded in her native tongue-- French).

Signed D.C. said...

Thanks especially for "Gonna Type a Letter," I've been coveting that one for ages. In all the many times I heard you play it on your show, the saxes made me crack up so hard I never noticed the banging typewriter keys beneath them 'til now!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Billy even made a pretty great Byrdsy yet kickass beat 45, She's So Far Out She's In, which has some stonking 12-string rifferama by either Big Jim Sullivan or Little Jimmy Page. Me? I hope it was Big Jim...


Anonymous said...

Great as usual.
I was surprised you made no mention of the brilliant Shadows.

nuno said...

well, concerning british rock'n'roll what about the meek/tornados et all connection?

The Hound said...

"well, concerning british rock'n'roll what about the meek/tornados et all connection?"

That's a whole 'nuther story, not only the Tornados, but Heinz's solo material (Big Fat Spider, Questions I Can't Answer), great stuff and I think it deserves it's own entry which maybe I'll get around to some day.

flamingo said...

" deserves it's own entry which maybe I'll get around to some day."
I really hope you find the time and inspiration for such a post! The Hound blog is always a great read!

ian gordon said...

"together they cut a live LP-- We Want Billy!... I don't think it's ever been re-issued."

We Want Billy was in fact re-issued as a "two-for" CD, paired with the "Billy" album.

These past couple of years I find myself listening more to the shear decadence of British rock'n'roll than the more "southern gentlemanly" Americans. (No question the US invented it and made the best records though).

the family cat said...

Hang on a minute-Billy Fury's Play it Cool was an original song-the one Eddie Fontaine made was Cool It Baby.
(Fury did however record a Fontane song with Nothin' Shaking).
British rock'n'roll was laced with a music hall and jazz tradition-we never had blues and country to go at.
The earliest r n r was produced by jazzmen-the only ones who knew how to play it (Tony Crombie was the first and Ted Heath adapted to it)
It was obvious the U K would infiltrate American music when Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber scored in the States.It just took longer to do it but the British music had always gone down big in the States from the 40s into the r n r era-this was the albums market mainly
However by the 60s the U K had a great high school pop scene-Helen Shapiro,Billy Fury,Eden Kane etc.
And equally as good as the first Cliff Richard single was the folloup-High Class Baby

the family cat said...

The first U K r n r hitsingle was Tommy Steele's Rock with the Caveman-which as a single compares favorably with Bill Haley's Comets or Freddie Bell's Bellboys.Halfway through there a 24 bar sax solo which begins with 12 bars on the same note! Again the backing was produced by jazzmen who were credited as the Steelmen.
It wasn't all hopeless
Earlier U K r n r was made by the Ted Heath Band with Lita Roza,a Liverpool born singer who got her version of TWO HEARTS TWO KISSES into the shops a week before Pat Boone (the U S original was never issued here)

The Hound said...

"-Billy Fury's Play it Cool was an original song-the one Eddie Fontaine made was Cool It Baby.
(Fury did however record a Fontane song with Nothin' Shaking)."

You're right, I confused the two, my mistake.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone besides myself was wondering which came first, Preston Epps' Bongo Rock or the film version of Expresso Bongo:

Bongo Rock - hits the charts in June '59
Expresso Bongo - UK release in Dec. '59

Anonymous said...

Hey, cool blog.

One thing though - Gillian Hills may have recorded most of her material in French rather than English but French was not her native tongue - she was as English as they come. She did however live in France for most of the early sixties and recorded for Barclay; the one UK single mentioned on the blog was rec orded in 65/66 when she moved back to the UK but is not typical of her French period, which ranges from easy listening wearly 60s style) to fine girl group styled pop, plus one good twist record with French legends les Chaussettes Noires. She's still fondly remembered in France, although nowhere near as legendary a figure as Vince Taylor or Petula Clark, both of whom also lived in France for much of the decade. Also worth checking out for French connections are Louise Cordet (one EP), the Gladiators (as in Nero and.... - one EP) and the Krewkats (a couple of EPs, I think), while hotshot UK guitarist Dean Noton also led French instrumental heroes Les Fantomes, also very good if you like the Shadows.

Keep up the good work,


Let's Hear It For The Orchestra

Let's Hear It For The Orchestra
copyright Hound Archive