Often hailed as “Britain’s own Elvis Presley”, Billy Fury was one of the nation’s first rock and roll stars and a true pop idol. He had his first Top 20 hit in 1959 and went on to have more hit singles than the Beatles in the ‘60s, so what was it about Billy that gave him the X factor back then… and continues to do so to this day, more than 30 years after his death?
Billy’s career in the music industry began with his ambition to be a songwriter. In 1958, he walked into a theatre near his home in Liverpool with the intention of bringing his songs to the attention of Marty Wilde who was playing there. Marty was already a well-known singer, appearing on TV shows such as Oh Boy! and Billy thought the songs he’d written would suit his “teen idol” style.
Marty’s manager, Larry Parnes, was so impressed by the songs Billy performed for Marty that he suggested Billy should get out onto the stage and sing them himself – that very evening. Billy’s talent as a songwriter set him on the road to stardom as Britain’s No.1 rock and roller, and set him apart from most other performers at that time.
However, his resistance to the idea of performing on stage is now a legendary tale that has been told many times in interviews…
Billy’s ambition had been to write songs, not perform them, so stepping out onto the stage was not part of the plan when he walked into the Essoldo Theatre that evening. He described himself as a shy guy, something he often said held him back in life, and he was literally pushed out onto the stage by Larry Parnes. He said, “I was standing behind the curtains, unable to go on, when Larry literally pushed me through onto the stage. I was so nervous, my legs were shaking, and people thought it was my act.”
Yet to his audience, Billy appeared anything but shy, and his provocative, highly charged stage performances led to criticism and had to be toned down. In an interview, DJ Billy Butler said that the real Billy Fury was nothing like his stage persona: “He became someone else on stage. Billy was the only true rock ‘n’ roller. Cliff (Richard) was the boy next door, Marty (Wilde) was the one you wanted to go out with, Billy was the one that frightened parents.”
Film Star Good Looks…
Billy’s X factor was the complete package: he could sing, he could swivel his hips on stage, and he had movie star good looks. Teenage girls screamed his name and fainted at his feet wherever he went, but he stood apart from the other teen idols of the day by continuing to write his own songs, making him the first British rock ‘n’ roll artist to do so. His first album The Sound of Fury, released in 1960, featured ten self-penned songs, some under the pseudonym of Wilber Wilberforce, and is considered today by the All Music Guide to Rock as “the best rock & roll album to come out of England’s original beat boom of the late 1950s”.
… and John Lennon Wanted His Autograph
In 1960, the Beatles, then known as the Silver Beetles, joined the queue of musicians auditioning to be Billy’s band. They were offered the job, but on the condition that they dropped Stuart Sutcliffe.
John Lennon refused to sack his friend so they left without securing a contract, but John famously secured Billy’s autograph before they left the building.
Billy died in 1983 at the age of just 42. Rheumatic fever in his childhood had left him with a weakened heart and a life of health struggles, ultimately leading to his fatal heart attack. After Billy’s death, Paul McCartney paid tribute by saying, “He opened the door to our future”, a sentiment shared by many to this day. Billy changed the face of popular music by not only being a performer, but also the writer of the songs he performed. His overnight success may still be the stuff of dreams, but his success paved the way for other talented singers and musicians to believe in those dreams.
Billy was the tugboat deckhand who became a rock and roll star. He was the complete package, but perhaps his real X factor was his genuine, unassuming personality… Billy is remembered fondly by all who knew him as one of life’s truly nice guys.