William Howard Ashton was born in 1943, in Bootle, Liverpool. He was a trainee engineer by day and an aspiring singer by night, performing under the stage name Billy Kramer (with "Kramer" chosen at random from the telephone directory). John Lennon suggested he add "J" to give him a 'tougher edge'. Billy's performance at local rock clubs soon brought him to the attention of Brian Epstein who signed him. Billy’s band, The Coasters was less keen and so Billy was matched with the much respected Dakotas (from Manchester). The line up of the original Dakotas was Mike Maxfield (lead guitar), Robin MacDonald (rhythm guitar), Tony Bookbinder (drums), who was the brother of singer Elkie Brooks, and Ray Jones (bass). Up until this time the Dakotas had been backing Pete MacLaine. Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas were offered the chance to record Lennon and McCartney songs which either the Beatles (or other artists) had refused. George Martin produced their early hits but was concerned at Billy’s lack of vocals range. In "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" George used loud piano notes to cover the singer. The song became a hit in 1963.
The singles Bad to me/I call your name, and I’ll keep you satisfied followed, also sold well and became international best sellers.
Breaking with the successful formula of Lennon and McCartney song, Billy recorded "Little Children" (written by Mort Shuman and John Leslie McFarland). The song became a hit in the UK and US.
By 1964, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas had peaked and "From A Window" (another Lennon and McCartney composition) was one of his last chart entries in the UK.
Billy’s last chart success was a cover version of Burt Bacharach’s “Trains and boats and planes” which reached a respectable number 12 in the UK.
The Dakotas maintained their own independence and enjoyed Top 20 success in 1963 with a Mike Maxfield's composition "The Cruel Sea."
The instrumental was retitled "The Cruel Surf" for the U.S. and was subsequently covered by The Ventures.
Ray Jones became disgruntled at his earnings and was sacked by Epstein in 1964. Guitarist Mick Green (formerly The Pirates) joined the line up in 1964 as lead guitarist but only played on one hit with Billy, "Trains and Boats and Planes." The Dakotas recorded several interesting tracks but little came from their release. Billy and the Dakotas finally split in 1967. Billy pursued a brief solo career but could not sustain success once the supply Lennon-McCartney compositions had dried up. The Dakotas re-formed in the late 1980s and recruited vocalist Eddie Mooney and session musician Toni Baker. They still tour and record.
Worth a listen:
Do You Want to Know a Secret? (1963)
Bad to me/I call your name (1963)
I’ll keep you satisfied (1963)
Little Children (1964)
From A Window (1964)
Trains and boats and planes (1965)
Cruel Sea (1963)