Thursday, June 21, 2018

Billy Fury (1940 - 1983)

Ronald Wycherley was born in 1940 and brought up in Liverpool. As a child he suffered rheumatic fever which left his heart weak but that did not stop him from becoming a consummate performer. In almost formulaic way his father bought him a guitar, (aged 14) and he taught himself to play. Whilst not the best guitarist, he was quite good at writing songs and when he saw the Girl can’t help it (1956) and a friend told him he looked like Eddie Cochrane, he was sold on a career as a rock ‘roller. He took the name Stean Wade and played mostly skiffle and some C´n´W numbers as part of the "Formby Sniffle Gloup." He had enough confidence to record a demo disc and a copy was sent to pop impresario Larry Parnes. Parnes asked him to meet him at the Essoldo Theatre, in Birkenhead, where his Extravaganza Show, with Marty Wilde was showing. Marty Wild was Cliff Richard’s closest rival. Parnes was so impressed with the young scouser he pushed him on stage to perform two of his own songs and the audience just loved them. Parnes signed immediately and Stean Wade became Billy Fury. Within days the new teen sensation had a record contract with Decca Records and “Maybe Tomorrow” became a hit record (1959).

In 1960 Billy was signed and Colette was released while he was on tour with Parnes’ "The Fast Moving Anglo-American Beat Show" (starring Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran). Colette became his biggest success, so far.

Billy’s records continued to sell well and his tours were very popular. The man had animal magnetism and his live shows were earthy for the time. He milked his audience and like the nabob of song, Johnnie Ray knew exactly the importance of screaming fans practicing his stage craft for hours. This did not meet with approval from the guardians of morality who fearing the arrival of R’n 'R as the beginning of the end, began a campaign to ban the singer. The press picked up on the story and Billy had to curtail his live act. Record sales dipped and he released an album called “The sound of Fury” which many believe was one of the most important self-penned British rock and roll albums ever made. The album featured a young Joe Brown on lead guitar, with backup vocals by The Four Jays.

Billy’s usual band was the Blue Flames (BF) but they were sacked because they were becoming too jazzy (1952). The keyboard player was the one and only, Georgie Fame. Still he shouldn’t feel so bad, when Parnes held auditions (Wyvern Social Club, in Liverpool) for a new group he rejected an unknown band called The Silver Beatles. Parnes took exception to the poor bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe) but the band refused to have him replaced and the group lost the gig. Parnes did see something in the Silver Beatles and signed them for a Scottish tour with Johnny Gentle and Duffy Power. According to legend Lennon was consoled when Billy gave him his autograph. In 1961 Billy recorded Halfway to Paradise by Goffin/King . The song had been a minor hit in the US for Tony Orlando (Tie a yellow ribbon), but Billy´s cover is now considered the definitive version.

Rock 'n' Roll’s peak had passed by 1962 and Billy toned down his wild man image to concentrate on ballads. 1962 and 1963 were Billy Fury's best chart years but the man had too much stage sexuality to be just another pop performer. His live performances still remained something to see and he was backed by Joe Meek’s studio band, the Tornadoes (featuring bassist Heinz Burt with his famous blonde hair). They recorded a live album “We want Billy” which is now considered to be a collectable because it was rare for pop groups to record anything other than studio work.

In 1964 the Tornados were replaced by The Gamblers, a six-piece unit from Newcastle whose live performances were extremely popular. In 1967 they were replaced by The Plainsmen. As time passed Billy started to experience pains in his chest. Then in 1967, the singer underwent heart surgery which led to him abandoning touring, altogether. Billy’s features made him ideal for television and his acting debut started early in his career (1959) with a bit part in a play called "Strictly For Sparrows" (plugging his first single Maybe Tomorrow, naturally). Three years later Billy Fury was the key character in "Play It Cool" (1962) (Director Michael Winner – Death Wish) and “Once upon a dream” was the theme. The film also featured Helen Shapiro, Danny Rivers, Shane Fenton (aka Alvin Stardust), Bobby Vee and the Vernons Girls.

Another film followed in 1965 “I've Gotta Horse” which featured The Bachelors. His most memorable performance on celluloid came in 1973 with “That’ll be the day “with David Essex and Ringo Starr. Billy played Stormy Tempest. The character was thought to be based on Rory Storm a very popular Liverpool singer in the 50s and early 60s. Ringo Starr was a Dingle boy like Fury. Ringo (Richard Starkey) originally played drums for Rory Storm & The Hurricanes.

His last public appearance was in December 1982 and Billy died a year later. Privately, Billy was an ornithologist (something we had in common, only he liked the feathered variety). His significant partner Lee Middleton (1959-67) who later married Kenny Everett had a bitter separation but became friends again before he died. Billy was very much a talented pop singer who unfortunately fell into the period between the Rock’n’ Roll and the Mersey Sound, so he was just a little older than the sixties groups and although he enjoyed great popularity he never really had the celebrity he might have had he come earlier or later. Still that is history and many remember Billy with great affection, myself included. The singer had a favourite song entitled “Wondrous Place.” Billy recorded the song at least four times during his career.

Worth a listen:
Maybe tomorrow (1959)
Colette by Billy Fury (1960)
Halfway to Paradise (1961)
It's Only Make Believe (1964)
Once upon a dream Billy Fury (1962)
Wondrous Place

Dave Essex
Rock On (1973)

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