By Chris Eley
An edited version of an article written for Issue 6 of Elvis Today magazine, reproduced with Chris's kind permission. Transcribed by Pauline Swindells.
When singing to Decca during the week commencing Monday the 17th of November 1958 the strong Elvis influence was apparent in the bandanna and two-tone western shirt featured in the signing session photograph. It was Billy's first stage outfit and was clearly based on the film, "Loving You", from a year earlier. About one year after the Essoldo this basically shy, introverted young lad would be banned from making further live appearances in Dublin, or elsewhere in the Republic, due to "objectionable" features of his act, and then taken to task in a national magazine for being too overtly sexual in the early Elvis style.
A scathing review in Picturegoer magazine, dated the 7th November 1959 highlighted the live performance similarities between Billy and the early Elvis. Artists in later years would have given much to have been the subject of such a report! Reporter Mark Crossways description of Billy simulating sex with a microphone stand during the performing of Mean Woman Blues and headlines such as "Does Billy cause too much Fury" resulted in Billy having to perform his act in his living room for his father Albert. Result, at least a partially toned down act. In fact, despite such reports Billy was unlike Elvis in the respect that he always had a vulnerability and even fragility, that other rock'n'rollers lacked. This was a major part of his appeal to the opposite sex.
The cover of Billy's most famous album "The Sound of Fury" featured Billy clad in a 70 guinea version of Elvis' famed gold suit. Like Elvis, Billy would discard the gold pants for more serviceable black ones, mostly because Parnes complained about the 35 guinea repair bills resulting from Billy's on-stage antics! Billy's other influences, among them Frankie Laine, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and especially Johnnie Ray (Destiny was one of Billy's favourite songs) would contribute to the development of a diverse and unique vocal style quite unlike that of any other performer.
The classic mean and moody looks, plaintive, often powerful, soulful voice, riveting, sensual, yet also vulnerable, stage presence soon had the aptly re-named Billy Fury firmly established as Europe's premier rock'n'roll star. Just one listen to his authentic cover of Elvis' Baby Let's Play House, featured in the excellent award nominated 1998 omnibus TV documentary, and Turn My Back On You from his first album, is enough to establish the young rockers credentials. His Elvis influence was also evident on live performances of Too Much and Old Shep among others, the former track coming to light only recently.
Scoring some success with his own compositions it was with his switch to cover versions of U.S. ballads that, in 1961, consistently high top 10 placing began. From then on he became known primarily as a hit balladeer, chartwise at least. Halfway To Paradise, his most famous song hit the No 3 spot, (No 4 in the NME), Jealousy, No 2, and I'd Never Find Another You, No 5, spilling over into early 1962, with a fine performance on ATV's "All That Jazz", the clip finally surfacing again in 1998, thanks to producer and fan, Paul Pierrot.
The highly accomplished performance of Just Because on the same original programme showed just how much at home Billy was with blues styled music. Indeed on stage and radio during 1961, backed by the Blue Flames, his set would contain such numbers as Low Down Blues, Milkcow Blues, My Baby Left Me and Get On The Right Track Baby, as well as the obligatory hit singles. Billy never did appear on "Six Five Special" but was at home on "Oh Boy", "Boy Meets Girl", "Wham", "Thank Your Lucky Stars", "Discs-a-Gogo", "Ready Steady Go", and many others. He even appeared on "Crackerjack"!
During 1962 Billy played the lead in his own film "Play It Cool". Although he had followed the hit ballad route and toned down his act the real essence of "Fury" could still be seen and heard. The rough edges guest vocal on Shane Fenton's, Its Gonna Take Magic, and the bluesy start to the end-title version of Play it Cool tell the real story. One of his most adventurous and certainly one his finest ever performances, came out in the same year: Letter Full Of Tears.
During the formative years it was unquestionably Elvis who had been the major influence on Billy, visually, vocally and stage performance wise. Unfortunately the highly sensual and controversial live performances, coupled with other Elvis comparisons helped to obscure what was in fact, a highly original talent. Billy was not a copyist yet people, even to day, describe him as being Britain's Elvis.
It's highly flattering and partially true, but far from the real truth. By the end of the ill-fated but deservedly legendary Eddie Cochran/Gene Vincent tour of 1960 Billy was a fully fledged artist in his own right, having been heavily influenced by Cochran and the need to be professional enough to stack up against these superb artists.
By 1961 it was the blues, more specifically rhythm and blues, which came to the fore on stage and radio, giving tracks such as My Baby Left Me and Just Because more of a Ray Charles than an Elvis feel. Billy also featured a version of Have I Told You Lately on Saturday Club that was arguably superior to the Elvis version and recorded a fine version of Ral Donner's incredible Please Don't Go which obviously owed a lot to Elvis.
Despite the fact that by 1961 Billy had cleaned up his stage act, developed a unique, highly intensive vocal style and had displayed a song writing talent not evident in the "King", the Billy-Elvis connection was in tablets of stone. It's not surprising therefore that Billy was the first major British Pop icon to meet his premier idol. It seems that manager Larry Parnes had promised Billy for some time that he would take him to meet Elvis.
The opportunity came when Parnes bumped into pioneering DJ Jimmy Savile who was supposed to be going to America to present some silver discs to Elvis. Jimmy had already met Elvis in 1961 and would again in 1964, but was unable to go in 1962 because of commitments. Parnes told Jimmy that he and Billy would take the discs to Elvis. A trip to the USA had already been planned in order to take a rough cut of Billy's first film, "Play It Cool", to the states for pre-release publicity. In a subsequent article in New Record Mirror on May 26th Parnes stated that the film had impressed the Americans. This opinion conflicted with later U.S. critiques of the released film which classed Billy, regrettably and quite incorrectly, as just another Elvis clone.
On the 20th April 1962, three days after what would have been Billy's 22nd birthday, Parnes and Billy flew to New York and managed to contact Colonel Tom Parker's side-kick, Tom Diskin, who was in Hollywood. Later he was again contacted by Parnes and Billy, who, having enjoyed a holiday break, were in Los Angeles, and invited them to come and meet Elvis at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
On Wednesday the 16th May 1962 Billy finally met Elvis on the set of "Girls, Girls, Girls", reportedly watching him for about thirty minutes as he filmed a nightclub scene, miming to a pre-recording. According to Parnes, they all enjoyed a twenty-minute chat during a break in filming. All four photographs from the meeting show Elvis dressed in Black, so the scene would have been either the Because Of Love or Return To Sender scenes. It seems that Elvis was aware of Billy's prominence in the UK.
Billy later commented "Really I got quite a surprise. He knew a lot about the scene here. His first words to me when he said hello were; "Well, so we finally got to meet." Years later it became part of the myth of the meeting that Elvis knew of the classic "Sound Of Fury Album" and was impressed by Joe Brown's guitar work, but this was not reflected in the NME, New Record Mirror, Melody Maker, Mirabelle or Elvis Monthly reports of the meeting. It's likely that Billy let it slip at some time following the meeting in a subsequent Mirabelle article Larry Parnes said that Tom Diskin asked him if he was the Colonel Parker of Britain.
When Parnes replied that he couldn't be because he didn't have an Elvis it seems that Elvis grinned and said, "I don't know about that. I've heard about Billy here. I understand he's right at the top in Britain." As they left the studio Billy commented "What a wonderful guy! Being the biggest star in the world and being busy with his film-Elvis might have been a bit offhand. But man, he couldn't have been nicer. All that success and he still remains a natural, homely sort of feller." The photographs of the meeting reveal both artists looking, arguably, at their very best and it's certain that no other male entertainer, with the possible exception of Ricky Nelson, could have stacked up in the way Billy did against "The King Of The Whole Wide World".
Elvis looked immaculate in the kind of black outfit that Billy already favoured, and would have worn to the meeting but for Parnes intervention! The neat Italian style suit worn by Billy was typical of that worn by all solo male artists of the years prior to Beatle eminence. Exactly what was discussed is not clear but Elvis was reported in the NME for the 16th of May 1962 as saying "Billy is okay! A swell guy!" Elvis told reporter Jonah Ruddy. "He (Billy) seemed like a very nice boy. We didn't have a chance to talk much because I had to work.
But from my impression he's just great". He went on; "I understand he's going great over there (in the UK). Before I met him I'd heard that he was the tops in Britain. I tell you, I'd sure like to meet him again." According to Parnes, Elvis asked after a lot of people on the English scene and told him that he had been to see Marty Wilde in "The Hellions" no less than five times, being impressed with actor Lionel Jefferies. History doesn't seem to record whether Elvis ever viewed "Play It Cool". Billy presented Elvis with two silver discs, for Rock-A-Hula Baby and Wild In The Country, one picture appearing in the Elvis 1963 Special (printed in 1962).
In the June 1962 issue of Elvis Monthly, under the heading "Fury Meets Elvis", Billy commented on his Elvis label and then continued; "But when I met Elvis I was bowled over! I reckon he must be the most handsome guy in show biz! Perhaps I'm biased but that's because I'm an Elvis fan. That's one thing I'd like to clear up with a lot of folks as well. How much do I like Elvis?
Well I like him a lot especially now I've met him, but I also think Ray Charles is the greatest. What I liked about Elvis was his terribly polite manners and the way he said "Hi Billy", as if he had been my cousin or something, and he hadn't seen me for a few months. He not only treated me like a friend but he was so anxious to know about my discs, different styles, etc. He had heard quite a few of my records (presumably including the Sound Of Fury); I don't know how but he certainly had. And brother is he tall! At least he seemed to tower over everybody else who was standing around."
The Melody Maker also carried a story under the heading "Billy Fury talks about Elvis". In the article he mentioned that Elvis' two songwriters were composing a song just for him. We can only assume the song was Because of Love, written by Bachelor and Roberts, who also wrote, Where Do You Come From and Thanks To The Rolling Sea for the film soundtrack of "Girls, Girls, Girls". Billy's superb cover of this average but pleasant song reached a disappointing No. 18 in the UK Charts. Billy also commented about the film set meeting. "Around the set he was very interesting to watch. Elvis moves about stealthily, almost like an animal! He's cool man. Very relaxed. He's a quiet person but nevertheless very self-assured".
In interview in 1982 on Radio 210 in reading, Berkshire, with Mike Quinn and Mike Read, Billy was asked how the song had come about. He replied: "The story is that Dick Rowe was producing my records at the time and everyone at Decca thought they would get a song that Elvis was supposed to be recording, and their great idea was that they had a song he was due to record in four weeks time so everyone thought I should record it before he did. We dashed around to get things going and record the song and then we were told it was a rumour and that Elvis wasn't going to record it. I think he did finally." Billy also replied to a Radio 210 question about his meeting with Elvis.
"I did have the privilege of meeting him and it was early on in both our careers and he was a very shy person and quiet and unfortunately I was the same. So when we met each other we really didn't say much at all, because I was on the set all day watching him do one of his movies. I had some photographs taken with him. All we ever got to say to each other was "Hi" and he seemed to be one of the nicest people I had ever met, he called everybody "Sir". I went to meet him because the music paper Disc had some silver discs for Elvis and I had quite a suitcase to take over with me and got held up in customs because they thought I was trying to smuggle in silver bullion! I had about twenty silver discs to present to him and he was really thrilled with them and just told me to give my love to the folks back in England. Apart from that he was a very quiet and shy man." Whether there were really more than the two discs carried over for presentation we will probably never know. Billy's memory could certainly play tricks during interviews!
By 1963 Billy was at his professional best, recording the multi-style sixteen track LP "Billy" and the essential live album, "We want Billy", with his third backing group, The Tornados. Once again the Elvis influence was apparent on That's Alright Mama and in particular the ending of Just Because. If proof were needed of the excellence and sheer vocal impact of a live Billy Fury performance, then one spin of any "fast" number from the album provides just that.
Despite surviving the Beat Boom, by 1967 changing musical trends and increasing ill health had forced Billy from the chart scene, although the switch to Parlophone in December 1966 was a very lucrative deal for it's time. Some of the single releases, eleven in all, failed to chart, but prolific song writing and recording continued, much of it such as the cover of Buddy Holly's Heartbeat and the wonderful Right Or Wrong still being unreleased. The Elvis connection continued with a beautiful, smooth but soulful cover of Loving You, and a yet to be released version of That's Alright Mama, an in-concert stalwart for Billy as for Elvis. TV, radio and live performances still continued with the Plainsmen giving way to the very complimentary Dr. Marigolds Prescription. By May 1968 Billy was the proud owner of "First Rate Pirate", who failed to emulate the success of "Amselmo". During 1969 Billy was married to model Judith Hall, a friend of Billy's former long-term companion, Lee Middleton (who subsequently married Kenny Everett).
By the mid-70's Billy, offstage a gentle, humorous and self-effacing man, was living on his farm in Wales on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, breeding horses and sheep and undertaking cabaret in order to fund his wildlife preservation projects. Billy also assisted with preservation of the threatened red kite. He shared the purportedly 17th Century Welsh long house with his new long-term companion, Lisa Rosen, whom he met in a club in 1971. In December 1971 Billy underwent heart valve repair, but 12 months later the distressing symptoms returned. There is no firm record of further major treatment until 1976, so it seems he had to struggle bravely on.
The 1970s saw two more single releases, divorce, a very well received appearance at the 1972 Wembley Rock'n'Roll Festival, a reluctant 1973 cameo appearance opposite friend Keith Moon in "That'll Be The Day", and in 1974 a major tour. One of Billy's stage outfits for the tour was a kid leather pink jump suit, more shades of Elvis. During the summer of 1976 there was a major heart valve replacement operation, a Russell Harty appearance, and, in 1978, bankruptcy, with a hospital visit during September of that year. Billy also played cabaret but made sure the hits were interspersed with several great rocking numbers such as Sweet Little Sixteen. A very mixed decade indeed.
On Sunday October the 4th 1981, Billy made a non-singing appearance at the Elvis Fan Club Festival at Pontins Camber Sands site. He walked with Todd Slaughter and kept repeating what a great day he was having.
Sunday the 21st February 1982 saw him appearing at the Elvis Silver Jubilee convention at Wembley, to a rapturous reception. He was so nervous that according to the stage manager he had to be plied with whisky just to get him to walk on. He was knocked over by an over enthusiastic fan that had jumped onto the stage. It was enough, a final wave and he was gone. The blue and white western style shirt (featured on the cover of the Be Mine Tonight single) and blue jeans that he wore echoed the 1958 Billy.
A near fatal collapse on the farm in March 1982 boded ill for the future, although Billy was back in the recording studio by April. A BBC TV "Nationwide" profile, the Russell Harty show, Marty Wilde's "This is Your Life", Radio 2's "Heroes and Villains Concert" (singing Love Or Money, not the Wondrous Place track featured on the subsequent album), a Beck theatre Concert to a celebrity packed and wildly enthusiastic audience; all this and many lesser gigs, non-singing appearances such as Buddy Holly week and radio show "guesting" ensured a very full, high profile year. In concert Billy mentioned Elvis prior to launching into That's Alright Mama, and Ricky Nelson, before performing My Babe. In fact, in overall equivalent terms, Billy was more Britain's Rick Nelson than anything else.
During November Billy recorded Maybe Tomorrow for the TV slow "Greatest Hits" and on New Years Eve, attended a show business party where he sat at a piano singing numbers from the Cole Porter songbook. Back in the 60's, on his own Radio Luxembourg shows in particular, he had performed standards such as You Made Me Love You and When I fall In Love, mixed in with the likes of Johnny B Goode, so such a performance, pleasant and special as it must have been, would have come as no surprise to those who could remember. In January 1983 he cut six tracks for ITV's "Unforgettable" series. Two songs were never shown. Perhaps, ironically, "Greatest Hits" was to be broadcast after the "Unforgettable" show, the last performance of Maybe Tomorrow reflecting Billy's TV debut with the same song in Strictly For Sparrows in 1959. Regrettably, it seems he never recorded great scheduled tracks such Everyday I Have To Cry and Let Me Watch The Children Play, among others.
Tragically, on 28th January 1983, at only 42 and with major success again at his feet, this courageous, complex and caring idol of thousands finally lost his battle with heart illness. Ironically, there was yet another link with Elvis, but this time a very unwelcome one. The beautifully sung Forget Him, with its 1970 vocal, was to be his final hit single.