|Track||Album / EP / Single|
|That's Love||Decca F 11237 / The Sound Of Fury|
|Phone Call||The Sound Of Fury|
|Don't Leave Me This Way||The Sound Of Fury|
|Turn My Back On You||The Sound Of Fury|
|Wondrous Place||Decca F 11267|
|Halfway To Paradise||Decca F 11349|
|Nobody's Child||Billy Fury And The Tornados EP|
|I'm Lost Without You||Decca F 12048|
|Do My Best For You||Parlophone R 5819|
|Love Or Money||Polydor POSP 488|
Contributor: Dave Stephens
I don’t like to use the word iconic …
… because it’s been so massively overused since it entered our vocabulary, but this is one album that definitely warrants such praise. It goes without saying that it’s the best British rock’n’roll album since there wasn’t a vast amount of competition, but it’s actually up there with Gene Vincent’s second, Elvis’s first and a few others of their ilk.
I wrote those words in September 2011 in my review of Billy Fury’s The Sound Of Fury album. Within a few weeks I started off my review of Billy’s best-of set entitled His Wondrous Story with the following:
Billy Fury was one of those rare singers in the vein of Elvis, Charlie Rich and Solomon Burke who could sing almost anything and make you feel great, and, when they got a song and arrangement that was really good they could tear your head off. We were so lucky to have him. And what did we do? We lumbered him with a string of ballads of increasing similarity such that risks were minimised making him an easy target for the beat group revolution from `63 onwards. Not that these ballads were bad as such, not at all. As I’ve said, Billy could sing anything and sound good and he could project smouldering intensity on a teen ballad better than most.
Even allowing for the fact that I’m inclined not to hold back when it comes to praise, I still stand by all the above. But I’d add a comment in defence of Fury’s management and/or recording team. In 1959, the year Bill’s singles commenced release, first generation rock and roll was showing serious signs of starting to unravel. Holly, of course, died in that plane crash in February. Elvis was already in the US Army. Little Richard had found religion and wasn’t to re-emerge for some time. Jerry Lee had found almost the opposite if you looked at the way the UK press went into overdrive over his 1958 visit to our shores complete with 13 year old Myra Gail Lewis. And Chuck Berry had a charge hanging over his head which culminated in an arrest in December of ’59. So maybe a move to a ballad career for one Ronald William Wycherley aka Billy Fury, wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Arguably he beat Elvis down that particular avenue. And arguably again, Billy was less of an El clone than some of the Americans, like Conway Twitty and Ral Donner.
Another comment that’s worth making before diving into the Fury story, is that the entire world outside the US was in serious catch-up mode when it came to rock and roll, something that rarely gets a mention when commentators casually dismiss almost everything in terms of popular music from the UK prior to the Beatles and Stones era (I expand on this point a little more in footnotes).
He was born on the 17th April, 1940 in Liverpool. He suffered from rheumatic fever plus heart problems for much of his life which tragically caused his relatively early death in 1983. He had a guitar by the age of 14 and was singing with a group the following year, and he’d started song writing, something that would set him apart from other budding Brit rockers. There is a famous story about his start in show business which has him attending a concert in Birkenhead in ‘58 and attempting to interest the concert promoter, Larry Parnes, in his songs. He had previously sent a tape of himself singing to Parnes. Both the promoter and Marty Wilde, the star of the show, listened to the lad. Parnes, apparently was so impressed that he put young Ronald up on stage in the interval, singing his self-penned material. It was Parnes, of course, who gave him the name, Billy Fury. More importantly, he got him a record contract with Decca.
THE EARLY SINGLES
Decca displayed remarkable faith in Fury in allowing his self-written songs to appear on many of those early records. Indeed, it was not until record number three, the Pomus/Shuman written Angel Face, that they looked outside at all. One wonders how much they might have been influenced by Parnes, who was seen as something of a Svengali figure in his early years. Record number one, Maybe Tomorrow, was one of that small grouping that Bill sang to Larry and Marty in Birkenhead, and subsequently sang to the audience.
Unashamedly teen pop in style with all the usual accoutrements like femme chorus (actually the Vernons Girls) fully in place. I know I’m damning it somewhat with that statement but I should add that it was easily as good as any teen stuff we were hearing from across the pond at that time – think Paul Anka, or, slightly later, Neil Sedaka. There was a naturalness about Billy’s voice that was without precedent in British pop. There might have been something mid Atlantic about his diction but there was no clear debt to any of the big US names. Bear in mind also, that this record came out before Sir Cliff’s Living Doll and Travellin’ Light. Perhaps amazingly, the arrangement, from Harry Robinson, suited the song well. There was a prominent Pledging My Love style guitar and the sax, when it came, might have borrowed slightly from Anka’s Diana but only in a relatively subtle manner.
I say “amazingly” since that same Mr Robinson messed up the backdrop to the flip, Gonna Type A Letter. What could have been a sharp little rocker, of the style sometimes termed bitter sweet, was near ruined by a ricky tick brass arrangement and all too literal typing noises.
I’m a gonna type a letter to you
Bye, bye, bye, bye baby we’re through
Robinson did a marginally better job on the flip of Billy’s second single, Don’t Knock Upon My Door. Those ladies just shouldn’t have been there. They all but cancelled out the menace from Billy’s threatening vocal. But this one showed that Billy could rock out at least as well as, if not better than, most of his British peers. There’s more Elvis in the voice but then almost all white rockers had touches of El in their early days. It didn’t do Holly any harm.
Single number five, Colette, is another that definitely catches the ear, and for more than one reason. Firstly there’s another singer alongside Billy but not really duetting à la Don & Phil, he/she is mixed slightly lower. I say “she” because I’ve subsequently been informed that the voice came from a member of the Vernons Girls. And there was me thinking that they might have double-tracked Bill (there’s more on this in the footnotes). Secondly, the song is Hollyish in style. And thirdly the backing is about as minimalist as it got in those days. I don’t know who the arranger and/or producer was. No one is mentioned in 45cat. But the result is pleasing if slightly derivative.
The flip side was even better – though all such remarks from me should be taken with the usual “in my humble opinion”. Baby How I Cried was a latin-inclined mid-tempo rockaballad, once again with stripped back support though the vocal backing contributed a building effect. My guess is that Billy was attempting something like It’s Only Make Believe, a song he would later record, though I’d add that such similarities aren’t blatant and don’t detract from the performance.
The sixth single, released in May 1960, was That’s Love c/w You Don’t Know and it came from the sessions for (and was included in), Bill’s first album, the 10 inch The Sound Of Fury, which more than warrants a heading of its own.
THE SOUND OF FURY
For Bill’s debut album, Decca went to TV producer and renowned rock’n’roll fan, Jack Good. He had been featuring Fury on the weekly TV show Oh Boy, but I don’t believe he’d had any previous experience in record production. Support was provided by Joe Brown on guitar, a pianist, two bassists (used on an either/or basis but together when they attempted to simulate the US rockabilly slapback bass sound), plus a drummer. Male vocal group the Four Jays, from Liverpool, were also used.
Before diving into the tracks, a few general points are of significance/interest/or whatever:
* The content of the vast bulk of pop music LPs at the time consisted of a small handful of singles, their flips, plus some ‘filler’ usually, but not necessarily, recorded at the same sessions as the singles. This album broke that rule. There was a single but it came out at the same time as the LP near as dammit. This sort of approach to pop music albums didn’t start to become the norm until the late sixties where there was greater separation between singles and albums.
* All the songs were written by Fury (and by Fury alone), which was most unusual in the industry. Even Buddy Holly included covers on both the albums released in his lifetime. Don’t be misled by the surname Wilberforce appearing against some of the songs. Fury used the name Wilbur Wilberforce rather than let Larry Parnes get a share of the ‘Fury’ royalties.
* Unlike most of Bill’s singles with the notable exception of Colette/Baby How I Cried, the sound was small group with plenty of space. The obvious comparisons in the world of white rock would have been the Presley Sun singles, The “Chirping” Crickets album and the first couple of Gene Vincent albums.
* The LP was a 10 incher which, again, was unusual. Intriguingly, Spotify does hold a set of the demos that Fury created for the session which includes several tracks which didn’t go through to release. Two things are clear from these tapes: the very limited ability Billy had on guitar (which has been documented), and, the quite remarkable transformation that took place on these songs in the studio.
* Under my first asterisk I almost added “but I wouldn’t go as far as to say this was a concept album”. Maybe it was. Maybe it was un hommage to rock’n’roll (and by that of course, I mean American Rock‘n’Roll) as our friends in France might put it.
There’s a perception that the album is rockabilly all the way through. That’s not the case. There are only two out-and-out rockabilly tracks though that feel crops up in several others. The opening track, That’s Love, is an excellent example. Coming from some kind of hinterland between teen pop, country and, yes, rockabilly, it was a sound that absolutely no one in the UK had ever heard before. But those guys at Sun and a few other Memphis labels had been doing this sort of thing for years. No, not the distinctive big names. I’m talking about the likes of Warren Smith, Carl Mann, or even lesser known guys like Harold Dorman and Tracy Pendarvis. The puzzle was, how had Billy latched on to this sort of thing. The second and third division Sun stuff didn’t see release in the UK until the seventies and some of it was even unreleased by the host label (Sun or whichever) in the US at the time.
Enough waffle, here’s That’s Love:
Here’s Harold Dorman with I’ll Stick By You, so you can get an idea where I’m coming from.
There were a couple of ballads in the set which bore a slight similarity to those breathy ones from Eddie Cochran. Here’s You Don’t Know which made the flip side of the single. Accompaniment limited to little more than a sympathetic piano but very effective. He even threw in one of those recitation bits but kept it brief (maybe mercifully depending on how those things grab you).
Another of those rockabilly hybrids actually started out as a slow blues. Billy makes a pretty good fist of Since You’ve Been Gone, a piano led twelve bar affair, with a voice that’s a tad more raspy than usual. He even throws in some semi scat suggesting he’d listened to some jazz blues. And then about two thirds in, there’s a jump through hyperspace and we’re into rockabilly plus some melodic variation which flows rather well. A nice trick. Bill might have got the idea from Elvis whose I’ll Never Let You Go does something similar. If he did then he might have deliberately chickened out of El’s magnificent “Weeeelllll” which bridges the sections starting somewhere near his boots and stretching up to who knows where.
I’ve selected two of the non-rockabilly styled rockers, Phone Call and Don’t Leave Me This Way. The easy loping piano on the first is somewhat reminiscent of Sun era Charlie Rich and there’s some excellent bluesy picking from Joe Brown. The second again has piano well to the fore, this time with a rather striking riff. The track is busier than most on the album with the Four Jays more prominent than usual, and flurries of notes from Brown. It has an air of not being quite finished in terms of polish and all that stuff but this doesn’t detract from its charms,
There’s no way I could cover The Sound Of Fury without an out-and-out rockabilly number so here’s Billy diving into an echo chamber and switching on the hiccups for Turn My Back On You which is possibly the best original rockabilly recorded by a Brit. Yes he does go for the Elvis Sun sound but then, so did so many of those American rockabilly guys, all tossing their respective titfers in the air to the great man. This one is so good, that, if you hadn’t heard it before you could have mistaken it for one of those minor Sun gents.
Quite how Bill and the band carry this off I don’t know but somehow they manage not to turn the performance into a pastiche. Indeed that comment applies to everything in the set. It’s as if the time machine controls were set to late fifties with the destination one of those small recording studios in Memphis. It didn’t have to be Sun. It could be one like Cowboy Jack Clement’s Fernwood with Scotty Moore in the production booth.
End of rave, but …
… given that my, possibly outlandish to some, claims about Billy’s abilities as a rocker are based very largely on the music on this album, I’d urge readers to listen to all the tracks rather than merely my selections and/or chosen clips. Here’s the playlist on Spotify …
The Sound Of Fury didn’t sell a lot at the time. Maybe it was too alien for the ears of early sixties British pop pickers. Over the years though, it hasn’t half gained a cult reputation.
Which brings me to the subject of chart positions so far for the Fury singles. I guess in football speak the boy had done okay but not great. Maybe Tomorrow had reached #18 which was pretty good for a debut, and the best charter pre-Halfway To Paradise was Colette which got to #9. Some didn’t even make the Top Forty. I thought that the follow up to That’s Love, the minor key Wondrous Place, was rather good – haunting is the word that comes to mind – but it only made #25. So much for my judgement I guess. The song was a cover of a US record (from Jimmy Jones) which didn’t make the charts. It was also an indication of Decca starting to consistently look outside for potential hits for Billy rather than rely on his own songs. Bill was to re-record the number several times over his career, and, relatively recently (2008), it was covered by the Last Shadow Puppets (Alex Turner & Miles Kane). Here’s Billy:
One last comment on Wondrous Place: although 45cat don’t supply a producer name for this record (which is on a par with many of his early singles), I’ve seen it stated with some conviction that Jack Good was the man behind the console. All credit to Mr Good. The novice had certainly done a great job and it was outside his more obvious home patch of rock’n’roll.
Skipping forward a couple of singles we arrive, with not too indecent haste, in April 1961, which saw the release of Halfway To Paradise, or The Big One, as I’m inclined to call it. Now this one was a clear cut cover. The writers were super heroes/heroines, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and the US artist was the sixteen year old Tony Orlando. It was his debut. Release date was March ’61 so Decca struck with some rapidity but that was the sort of thing British record labels did in those days. Orlando only reached #39 in the US. Fury made #3 in the UK. Here are both recordings. Compare and contrast and note that Ms King was arranger on the original; I’d love to have heard her demo but it doesn’t seem to be on YT.
The Fury take is faster and there seems to be more warmth and maturity to it. Other than that it is the King arrangement lifted wholesale. But it’s a great record, luscious even. Just luxuriate in it.
The Billy Fury hit making machine was now up and rolling. And machine it was. Decca took a cold hard look at that single and what they could replicate – slow to medium tempo ballad, latin inflections à la Atlantic with the Drifters, swirling strings (UK arranger Ivor Raymonde somehow made them more swirly than Carole King), and just a hint of a rock sensibility. And they did a very good job. The stream of singles that followed Halfway were individually excellent but, played in sequence, there was a samey effect. Most were originals but the one that immediately followed Halfway was an oldie, Jealousy, which hit the #2 position, the highest Fury would ever get. Several had a distinct melodic similarity to Halfway. I’d Never Find Another You, another from Goffin and King was one such, with the result that while humming one of the pair to myself I often find myself on the other.
The UK record buying public loved Bill. My statement in the intro to the effect that he was “an easy target for the beat group revolution from `63 onwards” was some way from the truth. Up to mid ’65 almost all his singles hit the top twenty with more than half making the top ten. He even got a couple in the top forty in ’66 when the whole record scene had changed considerably.
There was occasional minor divergence from the Halfway template. Letter Full Of Tears, a Don Covay song, was a minor US hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1961. It was probably deemed close enough to give it a go by Billy’s management team at Decca. I’m rather partial to the result, but the Brit public wasn’t. This was one of the rare ones that didn’t make the top twenty,
Okay, it’s not as good as Gladys, but then who was?
By 1965, sensing that a greater degree of variety might be called for in the face of a chart onslaught from the beat groups, Decca tried Bill on a wider range of material including ballads with melody lines that didn’t necessarily adhere to that template. I’m Lost Without You is an excellent example. It could be said that this was an attempt to emulate the Walker Brothers who had their big breakthrough that year. Maybe. Certainly the Walkers and, subsequently, solo Scott, did show that it was still possible to reap chart success from ballads.
… AND WHAT CAME LATER
There was one last top forty hit for Bill, Give Me Your Word, in late summer ’66, and that was it. This more or less coincided with the end of his Decca contract and he signed a five year deal with Parlophone. Broadly Parlophone followed the Decca approach on the A-sides, that’s to say ballads of various hues, but got more experimental on flips. But there were some interesting selections nevertheless. The third Parlophone single, Suzanne In The Mirror, released in September 1967 had an Ernest Tubb track on the flip. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Gene Pitney got into country music in the mid/late sixties and Bobby Darin dabbled in the genre. In addition, it’s well known that Billy was a country fan as a youngster. The track was It Just Don’t Matter Now and I think Billy handled it reasonably well, if you look at it as pop country. Apologies for the black image; this was the only version available on YouTube.
Billy’s March ’68 release was possibly of more interest. The song was Silly Boy Blue and the writer was one David Bowie. Reputedly, this was the first cover of a Bowie song. I can’t confirm that that’s the case but it does seem likely since the song appeared on Bowie’s self-titled debut album which was released in June 1967. However, Parlophone deserve an award for imaginative song placement (or was it desperation?)
In September ’68, Parlophone gave the world a double sider of Fury compositions, the first time such a thing had happened for years. From then on, they would seem to have embarked on a policy of putting a Fury song on the B-side of almost every release. While none of these could be termed mega outstanding, virtually all were more interesting than the predictable A-sides, often being relatively quirky in nature. Tracks like Certain Things, Phone Box (The Monkey’s In The Jam Jar) – great title, could have come from a minor but still creative beat group – merit exploration. Bye Bye, from July ’69, was a throwback to the heady days of the Brit R&B boom – memories of Graham Bond etc. – and might well have been a hit, or at least a cult favourite, if it had been released in 1963/64.
Do My Best For You, a flip from November ’69, was a rare attempt at a tender ballad from Bill (and I mean rare in terms of his own compositions), and it was realised superbly. This one deserved to be a hit but it got no promotion – it was a B-side of course and the A-side was disposable. I guess you might call this my wild card since I’d be surprised if many have heard it. I might be sticking my neck out here, but I believe that if the credits had read Lennon, McCartney, this record might have been seen as a national gem. And if the Last Shadow Puppets were to record this song with a spooky type of backing plus a soupçon of baroque icing, then I reckon they’d clean up.
Baby don’t be afraid
What’s in store for you
I’ll try to make the grade
And see what I can do
I’ll do my best you
The video is a bit twee but hey ho.
Billy’s heart problems continued to the extent that, at times on tour, he had to cut his act short or even be replaced at the last minute. After the switch to Parlophone in 1967 he switched to occasional cabaret work. His condition worsened and, in 1971, he needed open heart surgery, which he had under the National Health since he was unable to afford a private operation, a sad indictment on his allegedly shabby treatment, financially, by Larry Parnes.
After a long rest, he returned to cabaret work and established his own record label, Fury (Billy Fury) Records – that’s the full title, brackets included. During its brief existence, the label released one single from Billy plus a tiny handful of others – the only recognisable name among them being Shane Fenton. The Fury single was Will The Real Man Stand Up/At This Stage, with the latter being another Fury comp. This one was a slightly singalong styled ballad, (commencing with guitars but inevitably the massed strings did appear).
At this stage and this time in the morning
At this stage of life I feel cold
There’s a stagecoach leaves later this morning
Gonna catch it before I’m too old
This was Billy at the age of 32, singing about getting too old. But it was after his operation and recuperation.
There were only a few more records interrupted by a second heart operation in 1976, a declaration of bankruptcy in 1978, and a collapse on his farm in 1982 which caused partial paralysis and temporary blindness. Among those records were several more songs penned by the man himself, of which, Fascinating Candle Flame is well worth digging out. Not unlike Do My Best For You in its vocal riff approach and almost as good. Don’t Tell Me Lies and Your Words are also worth searching for. Both have that haunting sound of some of the early Fury.
Of the non-Fury songs I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his cover of Bobby Vee’s Devil Or Angel, and, even more so, the posthumous Forget Him which became his final (unfortunately minor) hit.
But for me the best of the late period Billy Fury was the August ’82 pairing of Love Or Money and Love Sweet Love (on Polydor). Both sides were unashamedly retro with the A-side deriving from an obscure US single released in 1961 and sung by the two brothers and a sister act, the Blackwells. Love Or Money might have been obscure but it should have been a hit. London released it in the UK but I didn’t discover it till relatively recently. If you want a descriptor it would be white doo wop but that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Here are the Blackwells, in that familiar blue and white London sleeve:
… and here’s Bill:
Whether it was Bill or producer Stuart Colman who dug up this song, I’ve no idea but I’m mighty glad one of them did. Fury added extra oomph, and, while the original had elements of pastiche, Billy played it straight but at the same time was obviously having an absolute ball. I know of no other song in the Fury canon that communicates such sheer fun. It was still a pastiche but a much more knowing pastiche.
The flip, a Fury original and straight ahead piano-led bluesy rocker, initially sounds trivial/throwaway but it’s one that grows on you. Reaching for comparisons, The Sound Of Fury comes to mind. Yup, for perhaps the first time Fury has managed to evoke that magic again, albeit twelve years later.
On the 28th January 1983, Billy Fury was pronounced dead on arrival at St Mary’s Hospital, London after being found unconscious in his flat in St. John’s Wood. His heart had finally given up.
I could have finished there but a few more tracks that appeared on flip sides, EPs and LPs demanded attention. Covers, but not all obvious ones.
The Jimmy Reed warhorse Baby What You Want Me To Do appeared as a flip in ’64 and turned out to be one of the better versions I’ve heard of the song, though lacking the sheer exuberance of the Presley ’68 Comeback Special version.
Delving back further into the world of R&B, Billy came up with his take on Chuck Willis’ What Am I Living For on an EP in ’63. The fruity trombone is something of a surprise but it actually works well.
The original What Am I Living For from 1958 is widely seen as one of the precursors to soul music. It’s always been something of a puzzle to me that Billy only rarely recorded such music. The Gladys Knight/Don Covay track I featured earlier was one of the rare exceptions. His version of Ray Charles’ 1961 single, Hard Times was another. He made no attempt to emulate the idiosyncrasies of the Charles vocal, probably wisely.
I’m sneaking one in here that’s not quite a cover, it’s a kind of sequel (or alternate view from a parallel universe). Much more urgency than the original. On this one he knows what he wants alright. You’re Having The Last Dance With Me:
For my last selection I’m going for a rather obscure cover which appeared on another EP in ’63 (Billy Fury And The Tornados). I saw him sing it live in ’61 or ’62 in the Brixton Astoria (as was, now it’s the Brixton Academy). This was what I wrote in “Rock‘n’Roll”:
I remember his stance with both feet planted firmly on the stage and those shoulders which looked as if he hadn’t taken the coat-hanger out before putting his jacket on. He commanded the stage without needing to move too much – he`d point to emphasise. I particularly remember him singing a beautiful Nobody’s Child, a song from Lonnie Donegan’s first album, bathed in a blue light. He was to go on later to record the track (on an EP unless I’m mistaken).
There’s always a temptation to compare. Statements like Cliff was the Brit Ricky Nelson and Billy was the Brit Elvis, don’t do justice to either of them. But where does one put Billy in the rock and roll hall of fame? On rockaballads he scored with a longer stream of hits, if only in the UK, than Conway Twitty or Jack Scott, two of the US masters of the medium. He wasn’t up there with Orbison, (but no one else was apart from possibly Elvis). But he was as good as, if not better as, a straight rocker than any of those three gents.
Few commentators have remarked upon Billy’s ability to write songs. Perhaps the situation has been clouded by the fact that hits associated with him weren’t, in the main, his compositions. But he was a genuine British singer/songwriter years before John and Paul burst onto the scene, and at a time when only a tiny handful of big stars, all from the US, were capable of writing songs. Let’s raise a cheer for the first British singer/songwriter on the popular scene.
I don’t know of any pop musician, certainly not from that era, who suffered as much physically, but such suffering didn’t show on record. Love Or Money, from near the end, was enjoyment through and through. A possible comparison is those live scenes in the Presley ’68 show that I mentioned earlier but Presley had hardly been suffering (or was that what he was doing in those films?) To paraphrase Eddie Cochran, “But Billy must have had something boys, that can’t be found in books.”
“Sound Of Fury is one of the greatest rock and roll albums of its era, and one I swear by” Keith Richards (1970)
“We were on tour with Larry’s show Extravaganza – Marty, The John Barry Seven and me. When we had completed the sound check at the Birkenhead Essoldo, John Barry’s drummer, Dougie Wright, and I decided to have a Wimpy burger. We walked out of the stage door and there stood this James Dean look-alike. Raincoat collar up and looking very moody.” Vince Eager, billyfury.com
“To my mind Billy’s ability to inhabit a mysteriously powerful vulnerability reached its zenith with a record that haunted Billy (he recorded it three times) and will surely haunt you too – “Wondrous Place”. Thom Hickey from his excellent Immortal Jukebox on Billy
“One of the things we used to like to try and do was to plant a false story in the NME. We actually got in with “George was Billy Fury’s cousin”, which he wasn’t.” Sir Paul McCartney in a speech on his memories of the NME (from NME.com)
“Bill was the greasiest, sexiest most angst-ridden Brit-rocker of them all.” Colin Kilgour, Black Cat Rockabilly Europe
“The record was a miraculous piece of rock & roll, ten hard-rocking songs that could’ve passed for Memphis originals. “My Advice,” “Turn My Back On You,” “Don’t Say It’s Over,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and “It’s You I Need” could stand next to the best work that Elvis cut between 1955 and 1957, running that gamut from hot rockabilly blow-outs to hard white blues.” Bruce Eder reviewing The Sound Of Fury for AllMusic
“In the sixties in a Didcot pub I sang it (Halfway To Paradise) in Welsh and the landlady gave me a free pint” Comment on YouTube
“I get an idea when I’m depressed, usually because one of my girls has let me down, and I scribble a lyric and sing the thing straight into a tape recorder. It never gets on to paper until someone at the music publisher puts it there. Then they send me back an arrangement, which I can’t read, so I just record it the way I thought of it.” Billy Fury (billyfury.com)
1. I made mention of record buyers (and indeed, artists themselves) being in catch up mode if they didn’t happen to reside in the US of A. The most extreme example of this came with those genre defining Sun singles from Elvis, which first saw the light of day between July 1954 and August 1955 in the US. In the UK we didn’t get full official record release of this material until 1959 when El was in the army, and RCA were happily padding out RCA material on LPs with those masters they’d bought from Sun as part of the deal. I should add that HMV released an EP of Sun material in September ’57 and a Sun sourced single in ’58, though the record buyer could have been forgiven for not spotting those. The LPs were A Date With Elvis and For LP Fans Only (though that title didn’t appear on the British release). In a similar manner it was nearly four years before we had a Fats Domino single release in the UK (so we missed out on The Fat Man), and we missed out on Maybellene and Thirty Days from Chuck. The advent of London (American) with a mission to sign up US independent labels and sell their records did eventually help of course, though you could argue that London wasn’t fully rolling, with certain notable exceptions, until mid ’56. Add in to this the fact that we only had very limited radio channels in those days – BBC only in fact – while the States had a host of channels, with some devoted to black music, and that our early television was, likewise, very limited. As the fifties progressed we found that Radio Luxembourg broadcasting from that small principality was a far more attractive listening proposition than the dreadfully old fashioned Beeb.
2. I think I’ve more than implied that, in my opinion, Billy Fury was the best British first generation rocker. There were competitors of course and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them. Tommy Steele was the first but he scarpered off to musical comedy as soon as he realised that that was his metier. Cliff Richard was/is the one with longevity and that debut single, or to be technically correct, its flip side, is still up there with Brit Rock’s finest moments. But after some neat Ricky Nelson like semi-ballads he meandered, or more likely was steered, into blandness. Marty Wilde had the fate of being a great covers man but never found success with anything else. Johnny Kidd had a couple of seriously great records but suffered from a certain lack of distinctiveness vocally. Joe Brown wasn’t lacking in ability and could lay claim, with records like I’m Henery The Eighth I Am and What A Crazy World We’re Living In, to be inventor of cockney rock well before Chas ‘n’ Dave, but did seem to spread his talents across too many genres. And there was Vince Taylor, whose cult fame has largely come after those exciting few years, not during. His heart was in the right place, one felt, but there were very few records that you could call great.
There was one figure of real stature, though he wasn’t strictly a rocker. Lonnie Donegan could be (cruelly and unfairly) described as a purveyor of second hand Americana. But several of those records had an intensity about them that just wasn’t matched by the majority of the so called Brit rockers. I’m very pleased to see that Lonnie now has his own Toppermost. He was the man who gave us Brits a head start into blues and American roots music quite apart from persuading the masses that it wasn’t difficult to pick up a guitar and sing.
3. Larry Parnes was one of the more colourful pop star managers operating in the fifties. It all kicked off in 1956, when he along with John Kennedy, started out as co-managers of Tommy Steele. But this was just the start. At various times during Parnes’ management career he was looking after Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Lance Fortune, Duffy Power, Johnny Gentle, Terry Dene, Nelson Keene, Georgie Fame, Tommy Bruce and Joe Brown. All bar the last two were persuaded into a name change with the new name chosen by Parnes.
4. The full cast for the “Extravaganza” at the Essoldo Cinema, Birkenhead on October 2, 1958, consisted of Marty Wilde, Dawn Scott, Vince Eager, The John Barry Seven, Sonny Roy, The Sophisticats, Mike Coyne and Jimmy Tarbuck (who stood in for Pat Laurence).
5. The Vernons Girls were formed from staff at the Vernons (Football) Pools company in Liverpool. They started out as a 16 strong outfit in 1958 but slimmed to 5 and then 3 members from 1961. The group supported singers on the Oh Boy TV Show, provided session support for Decca artists, and also appeared on record under their own name. As session singers, one of their first dates was on the Billy Fury Maybe Tomorrow session.
6. In May 1960, one of the groups that auditioned unsuccessfully to become Billy’s backing group comprised Johnny Hutch (standing in for Tommy Moore on drums), Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. At the time they called themselves the Silver Beatles (source: billyfury.com)
7. Harry Robertson who, confusingly, also chose to use the name, Harry Robinson, was a musician, arranger and music director who provided music for television, theatre, films and recording sessions. He was musical director for both Six-Five Special and Oh Boy. The backing band he led for the last named show was called Lord Rockingham’s XI who achieved a #1 hit, Hoots Mon, in 1958. He was arranger for the early Fury singles.
8. The billyfury.com website tells us that Colette, the song, was named after an actress in a sub-titled French film. Apparently Billy was so impressed that he wrote the song on the back of a cigarette packet he found on the floor of the cinema. It was that site also, that stated that one of the Vernons Girls took the second vocal part on the record. Elsewhere in the site there’s a claim that the second vocal part was an attempt at double tracking. I’m unsure which to believe but aural evidence suggests the second.
9. Jack Good was the producer for Six-Five Special, the first teen oriented television show which started in February 1957 on the BBC and went out weekly in the early Saturday evening slot. He resigned from the programme in early ’58 due to differences with the BBC management – they wanted a magazine format, he wanted more music. He moved to ITV and created Oh Boy which was non-stop music. It ran in direct competition to Six-Five Special on Saturday night, and, while the latter featured rock, skiffle, jazz and crooners plus non-music items, Oh Boy was predominantly rock or as close to rock as you could get in the UK at the time.
Good was the first man to flip Cliff Richard’s Schoolboy Crush and feature the B-side, Move It. Richard and Wilde were virtually resident on Oh Boy while Fury was a frequent guest. Good went on to produce further television shows including Shindig in the US. He also created musical theatrical productions including Catch My Soul which was loosely based on Othello and featured Good himself in the Othello role. A considerably later period in Good’s life saw him working as a near hermit in New Mexico painting religious icons.
10. Vocal group, the Four Jays, later changed their name to the Fourmost, got signed up with Brian Epstein as manager and had several hit records. The drummer who was used on The Sound Of Fury, was Andy White who, in slightly later days, played on the Beatles’ Love Me Do instead of Ringo.
11. The song, Wondrous Place, has, according to Wiki, been used twice on TV commercials. The first was for the Toyota Yaris car in 2000. The second was for Carling Beer in 2011. Brit lady Alice Gold sang on the Carling one while Fury’s own take was used by Toyota.
12. Jimmy Jones was a black American R&B singer who had big hits with Handy Man in 1959, and Good Timin’ in 1960. Unfortunately for Jimmy he faded fairly rapidly after that.
13. The Blackwells were a white vocal group consisting of brothers DeWayne and Ronald Blackwell plus sister Glenda. They were California based for most of their existence and made 12 singles between 1959 and 1969. Their Love Or Money, written by DeWayne, only got to #107 in the US Chart. However, they did do slightly better with a version of Unchained Melody which reached the impressive position of #83. The group are so obscure that they don’t warrant a Wiki entry.
I was so fascinated by Love Or Money that I dug a little more into the Blackwells. Disappointingly, that record was something of a one-off, though I confess to not being able to find absolutely all of their singles on YouTube. Their normal output was pitched somewhere between devotional and teen pop of the more sober variety. However there a few snippets of interest: (1) Phil Spector produced the single after Love Or Money, which was titled You Took Advantage Of Me c/w I. For the majority of their releases, the Blackwells’ record label was Jamie Records. It was for that label that Duane Eddy made his classic records and Spector travelled to the studios in Phoenix to see how Duane’s producer, Lee Hazlewood, achieved his echo effects. (2) DeWayne Blackwell wrote Mr Blue for The Fleetwoods. (3) The group’s last three records were made for Hickory Records of Nashville. During that period the Blackwells became friendly with Don and Phil Everly.
14. Both sides of Devil Or Angel, Love Or Money plus other Polydor sides including the posthumous release, Forget Him, were included in Billy’s final studio album, The One And Only.
15. The song, Nobody’s Child was written by Cy Coben and Mel Foree and the first recorded version came from Hank Snow in 1949. While I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Billy having heard the original, it’s more likely that he picked it up from Lonnie Donegan’s first LP release – it was another 10 incher – which hit the #2 spot in the UK in 1956. Here’s Lonnie:
16. From early ’62 onwards Billy started working with a regular road band who occasionally, but relatively rarely, accompanied him in the studio; the norm was for session players to be used. The first such band was what later became Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Fame was only playing keyboards at the time, but the group was already called the Blue Flames which reportedly appealed to Billy because of the initials. Larry Parnes sacked them after a few months “because they were becoming too jazzy for Billy” (source: billyfury.com). The replacement was the Tornados, who were proffered by Joe Meek and were virtually his house band for recording purposes. They later became famous for their #1 hit Telstar. In ’63 they were replaced by the Gamblers who stuck with Billy till the mid/late sixties. The last band he used with any degree of regularity was the Plainsmen, from ’67 onwards.
17. Billy Fury’s funeral service was held at the St John’s Wood Church in London. Among those present were Larry Parnes, Marty Wilde, Jess Conrad, Eden Kane and Mick Green. The choir sang a version of I’m Lost Without You. He was buried in Mill Hill cemetery (source: Wiki).
18. I’ve said next to nothing about Billy’s personal life apart from his battles to keep his health; that means nothing about the ladies who included Amanda Barrie from Corrie, nothing about his cars, and nothing about his love of nature. But rest assured that the biographies do a far better job than I would on these topics.
19. I saw Billy for a second time circa 1967 in one of those cavernous northern clubs somewhere in the Stockton/Darlington area. This was at the height of flower power and psych, and it was a year or so after Billy’s records had ceased to be automatic chart entries. But he delivered well and the crowd absolutely lapped him up.
BILLY FURY’S TOP 20 UK HITS (1959-65)
A Thousand Stars
Halfway To Paradise
I’d Never Find Another You
Last Night Was Made For Love
Once Upon A Dream
Because Of Love
Like I’ve Never Been Gone
When Will You Say I Love You
Somebody Else’s Girl
Do You Really Love Me Too
It’s Only Make Believe
I’m Lost Without You
In Thoughts Of You
BILLY FURY: THE SOUND OF FURY
BBC Four 90 minute documentary (2016)
Director: Alan Byron / Writers: Alan Byron, Chris Eley
Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX
Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Eddie Cochran, Don Covay, Bobby Darin, Lonnie Donegan, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Cliff Richard, Little Richard