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.
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.
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').
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.