Tuesday, May 08, 2007

“Little Children” / Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas

MAY IS BRITISH INVASION MONTH!

There was a heady moment in time when it seemed every musician in Great Britain was from Liverpool. Take Billy J. Kramer (born William Ashton -- he picked the surname Kramer out of a phone book to sound less “posh”), who slipstreamed behind the Beatles and Gerry & the Pacemakers into the limelight in 1963. Not coincidentally he was also a client of Brian Epstein, who’d plucked him from obscurity mainly for his fair-haired Ricky-Nelson-like looks. Epstein teamed up Billy J. with a Manchester group called the Dakotas and, on the heels of the Beatles’ success, got them a Parlophone recording contract. Billy J. Kramer was a very lucky man.

The Epstein connection also snagged Billy J. some foolproof material to record – namely a handful of Lennon-McCartney cast-offs, including his first UK hit, “Bad To Me”, which topped the charts in August 1963. (I guess songs were pouring out of John and Paul so fast, they never could have recorded them all.). Yet Billy J.’s biggest hit – his only major US hit – was “Little Children,” written by Shuman and McFarland, a team of Elvis Presley songwriters. I don’t blame Billy J. for wanting to record at least one song that wasn’t a hand-me-down from two guys who, just a few months earlier, had been his mates around the Merseyside club circuit.

“Little Children” caught my ear immediately, thanks to its witty premise – it’s addressed not to his girlfriend but to her pesky younger siblings, who won’t leave the couple alone. The angle’s oblique, but the pent-up urges of horny teenagers percolate through all right. It certainly was sexy enough to make me curious in 1964, when I was still a pesky little kid myself. “Little children / you better not tell on me,” Billy J. starts out, his light voice more desperate than threatening. “I’m telling you / Little children / you better not tell what you see.” Next comes a line that should have tipped me off that this was an American song -- “I’ll give you candy and a quarter / If you’re quiet like you oughtta be” – though Billy J.’s British accent on “oughtta” preserved the Merseybeat illusion for me (back then I had no idea that UK currency didn’t include quarters!).

Billy J.’s voice was undistinguished, but it was certainly virile, more so here than ever. Maybe it was the Elvis vibes. He practically channels The King, sliding chromatically from note to note in the bridge: “You saw me kissing your sister / You saw me holding her hand / But if you snitch to your mother / Your father won’t understand.” I get a special kick out of the impatient little asides slipped in here and there -- “(I wish they would go away),” “(I wish they would take a nap)” – turning this into situation comedy. He waits until the last verse to reassure us that he’s not just taking advantage of her, that the relationship’s serious: “Me and your sister, we’re going steady / How can I kiss her, when I’m ready to / With little children like you around.”

Nobody “goes steady” anymore, which is too bad, because it fit perfectly into that sly rhyme. The whole song was a throwback even then, given the sexual freedom hinted at in other contemporary songs (“Please, Please Me,” “How Do You Do It,” even Billy J.’s earlier “I’ll Keep You Satisfied”). The hits stopped coming for Billy J. Kramer in 1965; he moved to America and now works a steady round of British Invasion revival shows. But he had his moment in the sun -- and very sweet little moment it was.

Little Children sample

2 comments:

Julie said...

This one makes me smile. I thought it was obscure until a friend gave me a collection of British Invasion songs.

Iñakink said...

Believe it or not, I didn't know this song by its title, I've had to listen to it to recognise it.

Yeah, Billy was a VERY lucky man.

"I will always be indebted to Brian Epstein, John Lennon and Paul McCartney for all that they did for me" - BJK