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A statue of 1960s pop idol Billy Fury stares out from Liverpool’s Albert Dock, across the Mersey, where he used to work on a tug-boat. Billy was hot stuff in his day. Of course, no immediate contemporary of mine has any clear recollection of those far-off heady times, when Billy Fury made the girls swoon. Nor, so far as I’m aware, did our Bill make any impact beyond the United Kingdom – though I did hear that he once met Elvis (Presley, not Costello). But you may be vaguely familiar with his biggest hit, a cover of Tony Orlando’s ‘Halfway to Paradise’; it spent 23 weeks in the charts in 1961 and got to No 3. Did you know it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin? You do now. It is, undeniably, the sound of an era, full of scudding violins, teenage angst and unrequited love. Have you looked at the lyrics of some of these compositions? Surely, Halfway to Paradise is a metaphor. Baby, please don’t tease. Teenager in love. Three steps to Heaven. Clearly, as well as having to cope with a world that was still largely black and white, the kids of the 1950s and early 60s were in a permanent state of sexual frustration. Unlike teenagers at any other time before, or since.
Billy’s follow-up, ‘Jealousy’, reached No 2, but was only in the charts for 12 weeks. Overall, the lad had 24 hits in the ’60s, which his fans like to point out was only 3 fewer than fellow-Liverpudlians The Beatles struggled to achieve over the same period – though actually the Fab Four did manage 11 more top tens and 17 more No 1s than Billy did. There was only ever one Bill, though.
However, comparing the then new music of groups like the Beatles, Kinks and Stones with artists like Billy Fury is unfair; rather like comparing Cole Porter with John Lee Hooker; honey with blue stilton. I gather Billy started as an unashamed rock ‘n’ roller – and a pretty good one, by all accounts – but he is best known as a balladeer in the late ‘50s mould. Very few of the top acts in Britain at that time successfully transitioned their clean-cut (but frustrated) selves through to the end of the next decade – Cliff Richard being one notable exception.
Like Sir Cliff, Billy Fury was a bit of an ersatz Elvis at first: handsome in a boyish kind of way, ready with the obligatory lip-curl and moody look, equally compulsory DA (duck’s arse) haircut, a reputation for hip-swinging, sexually-provocative concerts; and a more than adequate voice.
Born Ronald Wycherley in Liverpool’s Dingle area (as was Ringo Starr) on 17 April 1940, two bouts of rheumatic fever as a child left him with a heart problem, which ultimately took his life too soon. His break came when he came to the attention of leading pop impresario Larry Parnes, the Simon Cowell of his day, who the press dubbed ‘Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence’ – a reference that only those with an understanding of Britain’s pre-decimal currency will appreciate. According to legend, Parnes was so impressed that he put the young, shy, Wycherley on stage almost as soon as they met in 1958 at a gig in Birkenhead. Parnes had a stable of teen-idol male artists, who he liked to rename as part of their route to stardom, a process which began with the highly successful Tommy Steele (Thomas Hicks) and went on to include Marty Wilde (Reginald Smith), Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Johnny Gentle (John Askew) and Dickie Pride (Richard Kneller). So Ronald Wycherley became Billy Fury. Another signing was Joe Brown – who apparently refused to change his name to Elmer Twitch. I so much want that to be true…
The world of pop wouldn’t be the same without its mythology. The Beatles (then known as the Silver Beatles) were among the bands Parnes auditioned as Billy Fury’s backing group. Versions differ, but the popular story is that they were offered the slot for 20 quid a week provided they sacked their bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, which John Lennon refused to do. Anyway, the Beatles went on to tour Scotland with Johnny Gentle, and Billy Fury’s new backing group was The Tornados (who had a massive hit in their own right with the instrumental, ‘Telstar’).
Sadly, Billy Fury died of heart failure in Paddington, London, on 28 January 1983, aged just 42. The bronze statue which started this piece was created by Liverpool sculptor Tom Murphy and unveiled on 19 April 2003. It was funded by Fury’s loyal fans and the ceremony was attended by hundreds of them. Afterwards, a tribute concert was held, headlined by Billy-Ron’s younger brother, Albie (stage name Jason Eddie, as if Albie Wycherley didn’t roll off the tongue sufficiently well). The statue was donated to Liverpool Museums and moved to its current location outside the Pier Master’s House in Liverpool’s Albert Dock in 2007. From what I can make out, there is still an active Billy Fury fan club, ‘Sound of Fury’, and a Facebook page, ‘In Thoughts of You’ (a hit for Billy in 1965) – though neither seem to be updated very often. Now, most people passing Billy Fury’s statue have no idea who he was, and certainly no recollection of his brief moment of fame.
I think Billy deserves his statue, don’t you? He certainly brought pleasure to a lot people, despite the evident frustration of Halfway to Paradise.
Let your imagination go and listen to the song….now go take a cold shower.
Billy Fury is far from forgotten. I have discovered, thanks to Matt Brown’s comment below, that Billy has an alley (albeit possibly a slightly dodgy one) named after him in West Hampstead, NW6. You’ll also see a link on Matt’s comment to a picture of Billy’s grave in Mill Hill. Further investigation revealed the alley-naming was because Billy used to record at the Decca studios nearby and that a mural of him had been painted on the alley wall – though this might have disappeared by now. And then I came across the ‘Halfway to Paradise’ tour, the Billy Fury Story, performed by his one-time band, Billy Fury’s Tornadoes. Their website contains much more information about Billy. There’s more: the cutting-edge music magazine, Vintage Rock, featured a 20-page Billy Fury pull-out in its August 2018 edition. To cap it all, there’s a book, ‘Halfway to Paradise: the Billy Fury Story’, by David and Caroline Stafford, published in 2018. The notes on Amazon contain this quote: “There’s only ever been two English rock ‘n’ roll singers,” Ian Dury said, “Johnny Rotten and Billy Fury.”