Ronald Wycherley aka Billy Fury only starred in a couple of movies and didn’t have the chart success of Elvis Presley, but strangely enough the pair of them died at the relatively young age of 42.
Billy was born in Liverpool in 1940. A landlady’s dog bit him on the face when he was an infant leaving a scar and at the age of six he contracted rheumatic fever which left him in hospital for a few months and with a compromised heart. He got it again when he was around twelve which didn’t help matters.
An avid birder or birdwatcher since he was a child he hated school and said “it was like being in jail” leaving aged 15.
Despite a bad heart he worked hard as a deckhand on a tugboat… But Billy had an aura about him. He was sexy and could turn girls into blobs of oil. He dressed well and was one of the late 1950s era Teddy Boys with drape jackets and drainpipe trousers.
A bit of a tearaway, he was playing guitar, though not particularly well and writing songs with his friends. Music was a good way to pull the birds and rock and roll arrived in Britain with the emergence in America of Elvis Presley (1935-77 heart attack).
Along with Elvis came the film The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) with Gene Vincent (1935-71 ruptured ulcer) singing Be-Bop-A-Lula, Eddie Cochrane (1938-60 car crash) doing Twenty Flight Rock and Little Richard (1932-) performing Ready Teddy as well as the title song. The Girl Can’t Help It is strictly squares-ville if you’re a hard-core rocker although pneumatic Jayne Mansfield is definitely memorable and director Frank Tashlin, who did better work with Jerry Lewis, has fashioned an insightfully amusing screenplay about the music business in its day.
It was a movement and even a 26-year-old Princess Margaret (1930-2002 lung cancer) sat in the cinema and put her bare feet on the dress circle bar in front of her which had her dubbed a “half-baked jazz-mad Teddy Girl”.
Billy was told he looked like Eddie Cochrane and by November 1958 was no longer Ronald Wycherley but Billy Fury auditioning with the likes of future Beatles and Hollies. He got signed to Decca Records. Not bad for a shy kid who could do a passable Elvis impersonation.
It’s all a bit hazy how the music honchos heard Billy, but they liked it. This kid wrote his own songs, was photogenic and like Ruby Keeler in the film 42nd Street (1933), he was pushed on stage to sing his song Margo and others much to the delight of female fans.
It was all due to music entrepreneur Larry Parnes (1929-89 meningitis) who was gay but great at “grooming” new male stars and an innocent Billy had to be tipped off not to stay with Larry lest he get a bad reputation. It was Barnes who had dubbed him Billy Fury. However, Barnes was tight and dishonest when it came to paying his stars, although he paid for the rooves over their heads, clothes and sundries.
Billy and Cliff Richard (1940-) took their cues from Elvis and unashamedly copied him much to their own success and Billy was on tour with Eddie Cochrane when the car Cochrane was in blew a tyre and hit a lamppost at speed killing him in England in 1960. Only two days earlier, Billy had recorded his classic album The Sound of Fury in one day. It’s simple but still a good listen and is apparently an old favourite of Rolling Stone Keith Richards (1943-) – although he lost the record.
It wouldn’t be long before music tastes changed again and rock and roll shifted to pop. In between there was something called Dixieland pop as jazz became popular for a spell with young white men trying to replicate old black men. Performers like clarinettist Acker Bilk were having bigger hits than Billy.
One of the movies to come out of this movement was Ring a Ding Rhythm aka It’s Trad, Dad (1962). It came late in the cycle and the best things about the movie are the popular numbers by Gene Vincent, Gene McDaniels (1935-2011) and best of all teenager Helen Shapiro (1946-).
She plays one of the leads in the film and she is spunky and sweet with her beehive hairdo. Her two songs are also rather memorable too and if I had the singles would give them more than one listen. Ring a Ding Rhythm came out just as the jazz influence died. It is also the first feature directed by Richard Lester (1932-) who went on to do The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965).
Elvis had got out of the army and a new type of pop was born with his rendition of It’s Now of Never. He hit number one with a series of power ballads and Decca said Billy had to follow. And he did with his highest charting single Jealousy, which took the number two position.
This shy little boy lost, with the bad heart, who loved animals and had plenty of girls along the way was a star. He couldn’t walk out of a stage door lest he get pulled apart.
In the early 60s – sixty per cent of teenagers went to the movies once a week – and so it was time for Billy to make a film. That film was Play it Cool.
The writer of the film was so ashamed of the script he changed his name. While 26-year-old director Michael Winner (1935-2013 liver disease) – later he would make many Charles Bronson films – confidently took the helm.
Winner found Billy a “delight” as did everybody.
The first Bond film Dr No (1962) was being filmed in the same Pinewood studios. It was an unhappy shoot according to reports and Sean Connery (1930-) would drop by the Play it Cool set for relief. The only person not having a good time was Billy. Up at 5am and to bed at 10pm with scripts and elocution lessons – it must have taken a toll on a man with a weak heart.
“I found the film difficult to make,” he later said.
Winner brought the film in on its 75,000-pound budget although it went a couple of days over schedule. It’s release in July 1962 had been delayed so Ring a Ding Rhythm could get a fair go at the box office beforehand.
It was then that Fury went to America and there was talk of making a movie in Hollywood, this time in colour. It didn’t eventuate – but he did meet his hero Elvis Presley, presenting him with a couple of silver discs on the set of his latest movie Girl! Girls! Girls! (1962). By reports, both men were shy, particularly Billy.
Play it Cool is the still conservative world of pre-Beatles and the press, if they mentioned it at all, dismissed it upon release. Which is a shame because if you have any interest in Billy, it is the perfect movie.
The film has Billy playing a character called Billy Universe and follows his band as they befriend a young heiress forbidden to see her boyfriend by her father. They try and get them together as they tour nightclubs and see a succession of pop acts including Helen Shapiro and Bobby Vee (1943-2016 complications of Alzheimer’s disease).
I like Play it Cool. It is well directed by Winner and is the Conservative side of popular music where Billy is respectful of the heiress’s father, wheras when the Beatles came along they had no problem poking fun and taking on authority figures.
In the film, Billy gives a not quite natural performance as there’s a bit of self-consciousness. You can see there was some sort of great magnetism there, though. With his Northern accent and air of shyness, he obviously had issues with the medium. It was probably his natural attitude in that he had no idea why all these people were interested in him. He is an endearing character and he performs the best number in the movie Once Upon a Dream. It is by no means a classic of the genre but the film is not the disgrace that should be hidden under a rock either which is how it was treated in its day. At least we don’t have to sit through endless jazz pop numbers like in Ring a Ding Rhythm which are all right but… And Billy performs the catchy title tune more than a couple of times.
The rest of the cast is uniformly professional too and, apparently, on set it was Winner who had to introduce Billy, the shy boy, to the clique of actors who got along so well in the beginning they forgot Billy. You can see why director Winner went on to popular success.
Then in November 1962 The Beatles Love Me Do charted, the contraceptive pill became easy to get and D.H. Lawrence’s long banned novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was allowed to be read by the general public. There was suddenly a sexual revolution and Billy writhing on the floor was a part of yesterday.
As for Billy, his health was never good and many a concert was cancelled due to him being ill or carted off to hospital. But he remained popular with girls smearing his car with lipstick and when asked why they liked him said: “He makes me want to cry.”
In 1963, Billy had three top five hits. He never had another.
He moved into a big mock-Tudor mansion house in Surrey with his girlfriend and several dogs, a monkey, a couple of birds and livestock. An animal lover always, he also bought a racehorse. It was an outsider named Anselmo and it cost him 8,500 pounds. It came fourth in the great race at Epsom where Billy got the meet the Queen and royal family whom he found “charming”.
Whether the whole thing was a publicity stunt by Billy’s manager Larry Parnes the film I’ve Gotta Horse (1965) resulted and Anselmo played his part. Parnes wrote the story with a script by the television writers who would go on to have a hit with On the Buses (1969-73) and songs by the composer and lyricist of the popular West End musical Half a Sixpence. It would be the last film for director Kenneth Hume, who killed himself with a drug overdose in 1967 aged just over forty. It is obvious why he didn’t direct another film as I’ve Gotta Horse is a cheap – even if it is in colour – and not a very well made movie. If you are seven or eight years old and watch it with undemanding grandparents you may like it, or you may well turn your nose up at it and refuse to eat your dinner.
Some of the songs from performers other than Billy are downright embarrassing to watch today. Even Billy’s songs aren’t that good including the cloying I Like Animals. I feel like I am probably being a bit hard on this film because on the second viewing it wasn’t such a chore although Michael Medwin (1923-2020) and Amanda Barrie (1935-) singing Problems still had me cringe. Let alone a number performed by Dr Who Jon Pertwee (1919-96 heart attack)! The spirit of the movie though and its heart are in the right place.
“He has an extraordinary presence,” director Hume, who was gay and married for a time to Shirley Bassey (1937-), said about Billy.
But in colour Billy looks a bit frail and pale and, in fact, he collapsed on the set at Shepparton studios during filming. Some blamed his heavy marijuana habit, one he had since he was a Teddy Boy, while others said it was the marijuana which was keeping him alive. No wonder he was always so shy and chilled.
Apart from a short affair with co-star Barrie, the film disappeared without a trace and while Cliff Richard had his own show, Billy’s brand slipped as he stayed at his mansion and got stoned.
“In many ways he was like a child,” said Barrie of Billy.
One day he went to get a packet of cigarettes and she never saw him again as he went back to his old girlfriend.
There was more illness and a trip to New York where he claimed to have signed a six-film deal for 180,000 pounds which came to nothing along with his stab at the US music scene.
It was around this time that he indulged in his great love of bird-watching. Cue bird gag. It was 1965 and Billy had his last top ten hit with In Thoughts of You. A goodie but my favourite from that year is the production of the rambling I’ll Never Quite Get Over You with its epic musical opening.
Still, he toured and did a “panto” – the English equivalent of a musical play for children. Decca didn’t renew their contract so he went to Parlophone but little came of it.
Then the Summer of Love arrived in 1967 and music tastes shifted again. Billy should have been at home in the psychedelic pot-smoking world of free love… But Billy wouldn’t chart until shortly before his death. It was also the year that one of his heart valves began to close up.
“I like to live everyday like it’s the last,” he said in an interview and that meant photographing wildlife in bird-watching hides with a stash of dope.
Still churning out singles which were perceived as good, they failed to chart and his performances were still well received in smaller venues.
Split from his long-time girlfriend, he married in 1968 and the press wasn’t invited. In 1971, he became very ill, tired and breathless as years of heavy smoking and junk eating took a toll. Open-heart surgery resulted and Billy claimed to be half awake during the operation, feeling them saw through his ribs. He survived and was terrified of another. He was 31. His marriage quickly ended and me took up with a rich man’s daughter of eighteen.
Then after the Summer of Love period ended with the overdoses of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, rock and roll came back into vogue as a cynical generation longed for the simplicity of their youth.
Billy was suddenly on tour with Chuck Berry (1926-2017 cardiac arrest), Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis (1935-). It was the mid-60s again and Billy rose to the occasion.
Along came the movie That’ll be the Day (1974), set in the early 60s about a working class boy who discovers rock and roll. Leaving his wife and child in the end, it was pure rites of passage stuff and rather good. Good enough to be a hit and warrant a sequel using the same star, singer David Essex (1947-), entitled Stardust (1975). It’s probably even better. But I relate this in hind-sight as I haven’t seen them lately. Billy got cast in a cameo in the first movie as Stormy Tempest a singer left over from the brylcreem 50s and reduced to performing in holiday camps. He was sending himself up and his young girlfriend forced him to do it.
Filmed on the Isle of Wight, Billy wrote a song for the soundtrack and formed an unlikely bond with The Who drummer Keith Moon (1946-78 drug overdose with alcohol), who he would witness consuming pills ten at a time between slices of bread for lunch.
Billy shines for a moment in That’ll be the Day and it is said that Ken Russell (1927-2011) offered him the role of The Doctor in the musical Tommy (1975) but ill-health intervened and Jack Nicholson took the role.
When the That’ll be the Day soundtrack hit number one for seven weeks, it was the only time Billy ever topped the charts.
It was around this time that he bought a farmhouse and became really serious about animal conservation.
For his 1976 heart valve operation he wrote his will… and survived again.
A couple of years later he filed for bankruptcy. Billy was so nice, he didn’t sue his old manager Larry Parnes for the tax bill that got him into trouble.
Then there was a cold and arduous winter on his Welsh farm digging snow and feeding animals… on 7 March 1982 he was hospitalised with kidney and heart failure. There was a recovery again and a bit more recording, the best in years.
When a song from these last recording sessions was released in August 1982, it crept into the top 60. The first single to do so since 1966.
There was talk of a comeback but Billy wasn’t well and you only had to look at him. While Elvis had put on a lot of weight before his death, Billy with his various organ failures was stick thin, alarmingly so. He still performed but it exhausted him. A couple of days after recording a television show, the spent singer was left to sleep in… he couldn’t be woken.
28 January 1983 and Billy Fury was dead at the same age as Elvis Presley – only 42.
This article wouldn’t have been possible without the excellent biography released last year about Fury entitled Halfway to Paradise: The Life of Billy Fury by Caroline and David Stafford.