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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Halfway to Paradise

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

A statue of 1960s pop idol Billy Fury stares out 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 times, when Billy Fury made the girls swoon.  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.  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.

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.

Billy Fury, statue at Liverpool's Albert Dock

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 was a bit of an imitation Elvis at first: handsome in a boyish kind of way, ready with the obligatory lip-curl and moody look, equally compulsory DA haircut, a reputation for hip-swinging, sexually-charged concerts, and a more than adequate voice.

Born Ronald Wycherley in Liverpool on 17th 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 appreciation of pre-decimal currency will understand.  According to legend, Parnes was so impressed that he put the young, shy, Ron 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.

Billy Fury looks out over the Mersey from Liverpool's Albert Dock

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 then 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 'Telstar').

Mersey ferry, MV Royal Iris

Sadly, Billy Fury died of heart failure in Paddington, London, on 28th January 1983 aged just 42.  The bronze statue which started this piece was created by Liverpool sculptor Tom Murphy and unveiled on 19th 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 even now a very active Billy Fury fan club, In Thoughts of You (a hit for Billy in 1965) – link here to the Billy Fury fanclub website – as well as several tribute acts.


I think Billy deserves his statue, don’t you?  He certainly brought pleasure to a lot people (Halfway to Paradise notwithstanding). 


Let your imagination go and listen to the song....now take a cold shower.

37 comments:

  1. I have to admit- I've never heard of him!

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  2. I thought from the thumnail it was a singer and recognised Billy Fury as soon as I saw the enlaged photo sothat should tell you I remember him and his songs even if I was only around 9 at the time. Nice bit of reserch into Billys life history. I love the fact he was a Tug boat hand makes him sound more down to earth. It was a shame he died so young

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  3. I think he never made it over to this side of the pond. I missed that sculpture at Albert Dock when I was there.

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  4. Ah, he was gorgeous, a real heart-throb. I wonder if he'd still be singing if he had not been taken so young? Some of these guys have gone on for a long, long time. Nice photos of the statue too. It's not placed to photograph easily - you've done a good job.

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  5. I have to admit - I have heard of him! I was too young for him to make much impression on me.
    Since we're in pop trivia mode, did you know that the Tornados drummer Clem Cattini has appeared on more British number one singles than anyone; he was a session musician who was good enough to play with the likes of Jeff Beck, Donovan and Brian Auger, though most of his "hits" were with the likes of Benny Hill, the Bay City Rollers, the Wombles, Rolf Harris, the Brotherhood of Man....the list goes on.

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    1. I shall never listen to Ernie - the fastest milkman in the west - in quite the same way again...

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  6. Good grief! I first thought you were blogging about Elvis.

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  7. Nice tribute to a singer who died too young.

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  8. That is an artistic sculpture, I like it, and recall some of his songs though I did not recognise his name which is rather memorable. So the Silver Beatles almost became his backup band. Wonder whatever became of them (joke).

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  9. At first I thought this was a statue of Elvis. Curious that Billy died about the same age as Elvis.

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  10. How sad that he had a bad heart. I guess nowadays, he would have had more of a chance to live longer. Same thing with my mother. She died in 1966 but if she was alive today they could have "fixed" her problem in time. Anyway, such a waste of talent to die so young. Rest in peace Billy. Hope you made it all the way to Paradise. ~:)

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  11. That's one artist I have to admit I don't remember, but it's a nice statue!

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  12. Hi Mike,

    I'm rather embarrassed to show my ignorance here, but I've never heard of Billy Fury. The only Billy I can think of right now is Billy Idol -- "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell." Not the same kind of music at all, I'll bet. I am familiar with Elvis; believe it or not, my parents are major Elvis fans. They saw him in concert several times. My mom and dad were young parents -- got married at 19 and had me when they were 20. They really like the old 50's rock and roll. I've never heard of the Silver Beatles ;-D but I am a big Beatles fan.

    This is a very nice statue, and I'm struck by the resemblance to the young Elvis Presley. His hair style and facial bone structure are very similar. Thanks for sharing with us and have a great weekend!

    Hugs,

    Denise at Forest Manor

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  13. Sorry, not my kind of groove, but your account was excellent.

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  14. Before my time - though my big sister is definitely the right era, so I am familiar with the music. But I'm much more put out by the recent death of Keith Emerson. I'd love to see him commemorated with a statue.

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  15. I vaguely remember him and I have read about the Beatles auditioning to back him.

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  16. was not familiar with him. my sis had rheumatic fever as a child and endured 2 open heart surgeries as an adult. died at age 47 of congestive heart failure. :(

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  17. I'm old enough to remember him and the rest as my sister gave me all her old records that she'd bought. Also Fabian, Helen Shapiro and Bobby Darin who also died young. The entertainment business must be one of the hardest to break into and even harder to have a long lasting career that you can earn a living from. Even today it's the "kingmaker" behind the talent that makes the real money.

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  18. I am not familiar with him, but I like this statue. Well done.

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  19. Stop in from Cherie place. I find it interesting what other place got. Our town doesn't have a statue of any body.
    Coffee is on

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  20. I do recall Billy quite well, I think he must have started making a name for himself just before I left England in 1962. The lyrics were so simple in those great days of music - you could understand them, remember them, and sing along with the radio or 78 rpm records - loved them!

    Thanks for the memories Mike - but always sad to learn these entertainers often died long before their time.

    Happy weekend - happy Spring!
    Mary -

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  21. Funny... or maybe ironic, I must've missed Tony Orlando (and Billy Fury).
    I was otherwise occupied when they recorded it.
    But I do remember Bobby Vinton recording it later.

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  22. His statue certainly has a nice resting spot. Incredible how many people changed their names for the stage. I certainly much prefer the lyrics of the past over what's going on in songs today. I love all kinds of music, but sometimes I have to turn the radio off when I hear certain things, even if it's just innuendo. Thanks for stopping by my corner of the world. Best wishes, Tammy

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  23. Can't say I have heard of him but what the hell great song, I did like it and what a bloody nice statue just saying

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  24. A little before my time, but I have heard one of his songs...Teenager in Love!

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  25. I think that statue is quite nice. I do not recall Billy Fury, even though that would have been the time frame when I was studying in England. But then I was not into that type of music, my idols then were Lonnie Donegan and his skiffle group and Chris Barber‘s jazz band. I was really into that type of jazz, going into Soho often to dance (and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.) I also liked Acker Bilk and I kept liking jazz – one of the reasons I came to the US, rather than rock stars like Elvis.

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  26. Being a 50's teen I appreciated this post.

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  27. Great romantic song! I hadn't heard of him, but he certainly deserves such a beautiful statue. I like his rock & roll pose!

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  28. Hi Mike - I do remember Billy Fury - but I was more a Sir Cliff fan. But the Beatles had 4 of them making records .. while your Billy was on his own - a pretty good achievement on his own.

    Fun facts you've given us .. a great deal of which I didn't know ... cheers Hilary

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  29. How cool was Billy Fury? Love the statue and the background story. He was a little before my time but i know his music and he definitely died far too young!

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  30. Hi Mike,

    I hope you will forgive me, but the name Billy Fury did not ring any bells with me. I guess Billy was not as popular in the rest of Europe as in the UK.

    Just watched a video on Youtube with Billy singing 'Halfway to paradise'. It made me smile. If only for the swooning girls.

    Enjoy your evening!

    Madelief

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  31. That is one cool ass statue...makes me wanna dance. If only i could...

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  32. Oh what a brilliant post ... and names I recognise too !!!
    Yes, "undeniably, the sound of an era"

    I always think we are so fortunate to have music in our lives, no matter what kind we like and most of us like quite a varied selection.

    I just cannot believe it was 1983 that he died, sometimes that just seems like Yesterday.

    Once again, thank you for a great read

    All the best Jan

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  33. A bit before my time but I had heard of him at least. If I was Joe Brown, I wouldn't have wanted to be known as Elmer Twitch either.

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  34. Always a difficult statue to photograph due to the number of people nearby, great effort.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.