BILLY J. KRAMER with the DAKOTAS
William Howard Ashton worked on the railways by day but always turned out smart on stage as Billy Kramer fronting combo the Coasters. When Brian Epstein wanted to sign singer and group to his NEMS management agency the Coasters refused to turn professional. Epstein solved this by teaming Kramer up with the popular Manchester-based Dakotas. Billy had chosen his stage name at random from the local telephone directory. Around the time of signing with Epstein the "J" was added (allegedly at John Lennon's suggestion) to give his name a stronger presence.
The Dakotas were formed in 1960, the line-up being Mike Maxfield (lead guitar), Robin MacDonald (rhythm guitar), Ray Jones (bass) and Tony Mansfield (drums). Pete MacLaine was the original frontman and the group went down well in the Northern Ballrooms, especially around the Manchester and Liverpool area. Their reputation was a factor when Epstein needed a good group to back his new protégée. Singer and group were signed to Parlophone under separate contracts and to accentuate this they were billed as "Billy J. Kramer WITH The Dakotas."
Both sides of their first single came from the pens of Parlophone stable mates Lennon and McCartney. Shane Fenton (A.K.A. Alvin Stardust), whose run of chart hits for the same label had stalled the previous year turned down the chance to record "Do You Want To Know A secret". The song was allegedly written by John Lennon in a toilet (the only place peace and quiet could be found) and Kramer's version knocked the Beatles themselves off the top of the the UK charts in the Summer of 1963. The flipside was McCartney's Holly-esque ballad "I'll Be On My Way", one of a series of exclusive Lennon / McCartney originals that sustained the group's chart success. The follow-up was the chart-topping "Bad To Me" coupled with and yet another Beatle song, the altogether gutsier "I Call Your Name" which Billy actually preferred to the topside. Their debut LP "Listen" contained a good cross-selection of styles and achieved respectable sales, peaking at no. 11 in the album charts. The year was rounded off with the rhythmically interesting "I'll Keep You Satisfied" attaining no. 4.
During this time the Dakotas were given their chance as an instrumental unit and Mike Maxfield's "The Cruel Sea" (issued in the US as "The Cruel Surf") actually made the UK top twenty. At this time the Tornados were getting ever-decreasing returns from their discs and the Shadows 45's couldn't guarantee a top ten place any more. The Dakota's follow-up "Magic Carpet" had a textured melody line by combining Maxfield's muted guitar with echoed piano composed by recording manager George Martin failed and it was a year before another single appeared under their own name. In the meantime they wrote a succession of fine tracks that ended up accompanying their lead singer's efforts as B-sides.
In an attempt to break away from the influence of Lennon/McCartney in 1964, "Little Children" was recorded at Kramer's insistence and gave the group their third chart-topper. Penned by Mort Shuman and John McFarland their biggest hit broke records by shifting almost 80,000 copies in one day alone, whereas in 1998 single selling a similar quantity in one week would probably have made the UK top ten. It was also their first taste of success in America where it made number 7. The previously unsuccessful "Bad To Me" was quickly re-issued and made the top 10. The UK follow-up saw Billy revert to Lennon & McCartney for "From A Window," stated as being his personal favourite of all the duo's songs he attempted. A pounding version of Jackie DeShannon's "When You Walk In The Room" sadly remained unreleased allowing the Searchers a clear run all the way to no.3.
In August 1964 Ray Jones left and Robin MacDonald moved over to replace him on bass. The vacant position was filled by Mick Green, legendary guitarist with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates who shared lead duties with Maxfield, two years before the Yardbirds' Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page did so. Around this time a clutch of recordings destined for US-only LP's were made and from here on Kramers' output displays a number of songs courtesey of the Green and MacDonalds' growing songwriting partnership. The Dakotas' own career was also revived with the adventurous "Oyeh!" (c/w "Hello Josephine") which missed and turned out to be their last waxing on Parlophone. After Kramer's complete miss with the ironically-titled "It's Gotta Last Forever", his first release of 1965, the chart reign ended with Burt Bacharach's "Trains And Boats And Planes" which peaked at number 12 in the UK and was comfortably outsold by its composer who made number 5.
Subsequent releases failed to chart although there were some fine efforts amongst them including 1965's "Neon City" and the following year's "We're Doing Fine". "You Make Me Feel Like Someone" didn't make him feel like chart act anymore, while the B-side "Take My Hand" was yet another interesting cut from the Dakotas' own pens. Kramer's star was definitely on the descendant and he apparently turned down the chance to record "Yesterday". Perhaps it was understandable at the time in his quest to establish his own identity within Epstein's NEMS empire. That said his promoted softer style was at odds with the new wave of upbeat R&B bands. As if to confirm this the strong version of "Sneakin' Around" (for a US-only LP) with a superb Mick Green solo unfortunately remained unreleased in the UK until a retrospective album in 1984. The group remained a popular live act as a listen to their live 1965 EP "Billy J. Plays The States" confirms. The revamped "Sugar Babe" rocked as good as any, sporting two searing solos and ending by Billy relaying a message asking the audience to cool it or the show will have to end! Mick Green recalls that he came across Jimi Hendrix trying to sell the idea of "Purple Haze" to Kramer who embarked on a solo career with "Sorry". This final Parlophone title in 1967 failed to win Kramer a new audience and he eventually sought solace on the cabaret and nostalgia circuit. Kramer continued performing while issuing sporadic singles for a wide variety of labels including a short spell returning to EMI but attained no further chart action. He currently resides on Long Island, New York with his wife Roni, his two sons, and his dog Elvis, fulfilling a long time ambition to move to the home of Rock and Roll.
The Dakotas meanwhile forged ahead, Tony Mansfield vacating the drum stool and another ex-Pirate Frank Farley taking over in 1966 before splitting with Kramer. March '67 saw their next single, "I'm 'n 'Ardworkin' Barrow Boy" released on Larry Page's Page One label while a year later saw their last waxing was on Philips. "Can't Break The News" featured b-side "The Spider And The Fly" with a menacing riff and solid solo, all of which served notice of the direction the band could go. It was included on the first in a series of bam Caruso compilation LP's of minor UK 'freakbeat' classics from the late 1960's. Some of the other tracks have been rescued from oblivion and have been re-evalued as notable entries in a similar mould on further compilations. In fact, many group tracks (but not Dakotas-only) have seen the light of day in stereo, including all the hit singles with the exception of "Little Children" which stubbornly exists in mono-only.
During 1968 fellow EMI artist Cliff Bennett had his links with his backing band the Rebel Rousers severed (they actually left him to became the Roy Young Band) and he recruited the Dakotas as the new, streamlined Cliff Bennett Band. The brass section failed to work as it had with the Rebel Rousers and after a couple of singles was dispensed with. The remaining quartet released "Back In The U.S.S.R." / "This Man" (Parlophone R 5749)" in the autumn after which Robin MacDonald and Mick Green left to join Engelbert Humperdinck in cabaret. Frank Farley stuck it our until he left to get married the year after. Eventually in 1989 the Dakotas reformed with a revised line-up, Maxfield and Mansfield being joined by Manchester musician Eddie Mooney and Pete McDonald on Keyboards, later replaced by producer Toni Baker. More recently Pete Hilton (ex-Freddie and the Dreamers) replaced Mansfield. Occasionally joined by Kramer, The band have toured with virtually all the major 60's and 70's acts on the revival circuit through the UK and Europe including many visits to America.