Billy J. Kramer

Do You Want to Know a Secret: The EMI Years 1963-1983

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Billy J. Kramer was one of the weaker yet more enduringly popular of the early acts to emerge from Liverpool, following in the wake of the Beatles. But even with a career on the pop charts that extended a year past the thickest part of the Merseybeat boom, the idea of a 121-song four-CD compilation of Kramer's work is still overkill in almost any context. One is constantly reminded of this fact in the course of listening to this set -- there's perfectly good, and occasionally very good music here, almost all of which has long been available on CD. There aren't any revelations to be found in terms of repertory or range -- Kramer was a pop/rock balladeer on the soft side of the latter (though his occasional soul covers, including "Dance with Me" and, more notably, "I'll Be Doggone," show that he had potential in other directions, if he'd wanted to pursue them), and that was the nature of his recording career. On the rarities side, however, the previously unheard, complete Long Beach and Oakland, CA shows are well worth hearing, just to verify how well Kramer and his backing band, the Dakotas, acquitted themselves on-stage. Ironically enough, though Kramer's preference was for ballads, that material comes off the least well in the live recordings, whereas the renditions of "Little Children," "Bad to Me," "When You Walk in the Room," "From a Window," etc. do rock reasonably well. Those live tracks, and the material cut by the Dakotas, are the unique highlights of this set, and greatly enhance its value -- it might have been a smarter move a decade or so earlier, however, if EMI had assembled all of the Dakotas material in one place. The only other real surprise is how poor the stereo mixes on disc three come off -- Kramer had a limited vocal range, and it took all of George Martin's mastery of the studio to generate first-class records; but with the exception of "Trains and Boats and Planes," this expertise did not extend to the mixing of the stereo masters. The other complaint about this set is the same as we've heard about most of the rest of this series -- it's perfectly fine for EMI to have assembled all of this material in one place, but it would have been nice to have listed session and recording (or even just release) dates? As it is, this is more a Billy J. Kramer/Dakotas stew than a comprehensive recording survey. In any event, one comes away from the five hours of music here with the impression of Kramer as a slightly more than middling talent, lofted to world-class exposure by the management of Brian Epstein, the production acumen of George Martin, and the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Burt Bacharach. And that's precisely what he was.

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