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Billy Fury, Singer/Songwriter

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Billy Fury.

Born in the Wavertree area of Liverpool on 17 April 1940, Ronald Wycherley was the first-born son of Albert and Sarah Jane (Jean) Wycherley.

At the age of six Ron contracted rheumatic fever. This entailed long hospital stays during his school years, which caused him difficulties settling in with both the other children and his teachers whenever he was fit enough to return to classes. He took solace in his piano lessons and at 14 his parents bought him a guitar, which he taught himself to play.

At about the age of 16, rheumatic fever struck once again; this time it caused permanent heart damage. Nevertheless, he refused to let this hinder his new-found freedom, as he began working as a rivet thrower for an engineering works and later as a deck-hand on the tugboat Formby, which worked the River Mersey. It was at this time that Ron's interest in music soared as he was able to listen to new sounds. Seamen brought home records from across the Atlantic: country and western, rhythm and blues and, more to the point, rock 'n' roll!

The Audition

In 1958, Ron entered the recording studio of Percy F Phillips in Liverpool, where he recorded four Elvis Presley songs and one he had composed himself. A copy of the tape was sent to Larry Parnes, who already managed Marty Wilde and Tommy Steele among many others. Ron received an invitation to meet Mr Parnes at the Birkenhead Essoldo, where he was putting on the Extravaganza Show with Marty Wilde headlining. So, with a couple of his friends, Ron kept his appointment across the Mersey on 1 October, 1958.

He met Larry Parnes in Marty Wilde's dressing room and sang, accompanying himself with his own guitar, two of his own compositions: 'Margo' and 'Maybe Tomorrow,' hoping they would be good enough for Marty to sing. Impressed, Larry Parnes asked young Ron if he would be prepared to go on stage within a few minutes. Subsequently, Ron went on stage as a surprise extra. He sang two or three songs and was given a wonderful reception by the audience. Ron was signed to Larry Parnes that day and the following day found himself heading towards Manchester with the rest of the show.

Billy Fury Is Born

The name 'Billy Fury' was created by Larry Parnes. Ron didn't mind Billy, he just wasn't keen on the 'Fury' bit. Businessman Parnes was not going to change his mind and pushed his new act into the recording studios. Within days he was signed to Decca Records, recording his own composition 'Maybe Tomorrow. It hit the charts in February 1959, peaking at number 18. In April that same year he was being groomed as an actor, with a bit part in the play Strictly for Sparrows which would provide an opportunity for him to plug his first record. He began to make appearances on television and radio shows, eventually becoming a regular on Jack Good's Oh Boy! television show.

Stage Presence

All was going well until he began to receive bad press for his 'stage presence'. His second single (again his own composition, 'Margo') only reached number 28 in the charts and the next two failed to reach the chart completely. This was due to his 'wild and overtly sexual stage act'. In Dublin on 30 October, 1959, the curtain was dropped during the middle of his act. With British watchdog committees also planning to stop the rest of his stage shows, Billy had to capitulate and stop squirming1 on stage. Billy was becoming so famous that he couldn't go anywhere without being recognised. Furymania was here, and he had to be smuggled from hotel to theatre and back again in each town he visited.

Success and Tragedy

In January 1960, Larry Parnes arranged a 12-week tour beginning in Ipswich. Americans Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran topped the bill and Billy, Joe Brown and Georgie Fame occupied the rest of it. In March, while he was still on the tour, Billy released his next single 'Colette.' It reached number nine and was his biggest hit so far. Unfortunately, the successful tour ended tragically as Eddie Cochran was killed in a car accident on his way to the airport to get his flight home.

The rest of the year Billy toured the country with other stablemates from the Larry Parnes books. He was so popular, even the Beatles auditioned in the hope of accompanying him on tour, but, alas, it was not to be. Billy did a short tour with Cass and the Casanovas instead.

'Halfway to Paradise...'

In May, 1961, Billy released his biggest hit 'Halfway To Paradise,' which was originally recorded by Tony Orlando and had been a minor hit in the US charts. Billy's version remained in the British charts for 23 weeks, reaching number three. In August he received a silver disc for the sale of over 25,000 copies. September saw the release of 'Jealousy' which reached number two and was the closest Billy was ever to get to the top of the charts.

The number one spot might have been elusive for Billy, yet his hits still came thick and fast. His proudest moment was arriving in Hollywood with Larry Parnes to meet Elvis Presley on the set of Girls, Girls, Girls! where he presented Elvis with gold and silver discs for his UK sales. He spent the entire day with Elvis and came home with a song from the film, 'Because Of Love,' which was to become another hit for Billy.

April 1962 saw Billy with a new backing group for his spring tour, The Tornados2. He also made his debut in a low-budget film called Play It Cool which was directed by Michael Winner. It was a box office hit and was released in America the following year. Songs from the soundtrack were released and remained in the EP charts for 45 weeks, eventually reaching number two. The continuous touring Billy had undergone since meeting Larry Parnes began to take its toll on his health and he had been forced to cancel shows for what was described to fans as flu, measles or just a mystery illness. His weak heart was beginning to protest at his punishing schedule. Yet he still continued releasing records and making his tours.

'..So Close...'

A new sound emerged in 1963 - Merseybeat - and the popularity of many established pop singers waned almost overnight with one or two exceptions, such as Cliff Richard. Billy was certainly at the peak of his career during this year. In the annual New Musical Express poll he was voted Britain's number two male singer and the number one 'Most Requested Artist'. He was also listed highly in the polls of other pop magazines. He became the most requested artist to appear on ATV's Thank Your Lucky Stars, then topped the bill on the first episode of ITV's major pop show Ready, Steady, Go!

In December, The Beatles appeared as the jury on the BBC's Juke Box Jury, where they voted Billy's 'Do You Really Love Me Too' a hit. A hit it was: peaking at number 13, it remained in the charts for ten weeks. At that time, Billy and the Tornados were touring Europe, including France, Germany, Belgium and Holland.

Constant changes in the line-up of the Tornados were making it impossible to rehearse and in early 1964 Billy parted with his backing group. Newcastle band The Gamblers made their debut with Billy on BBC Radio's Saturday Club in March, although they had recorded some tracks with Billy in the January. At this time, Larry Parnes began to release his stable of singers, but he retained Billy Fury. He was the last of the signings who was still bringing in the money.

'..Yet, So Far Away..'

The British invasion of the States began in 1965. Scouser or not, Billy just didn't seem to be able to make it over there and so he returned home. He was then given a film script which was about himself and his racehorse Anselmo, called simply I've Gotta Horse. Although the storyline was weak, Billy had a strong supporting cast which included Amanda Barrie3, Jon Pertwee4 and Michael Medwin5. Irish singers The Bachelors and Billy's backing group The Gamblers also had parts in the film. In April, the film premiered in the West End. The critics and the fans loved it. This was the real Billy, the animal-lover, not the stage performer and it appealed to almost everyone.

Change of Management

In June, Billy released 'In Thoughts Of You' which eventually climbed to number nine in the charts. This would be Billy's final top ten hit, though others did manage to hit the lower end of the top 50. Out of a total of 29 singles released between 1959 and 1966, Billy achieved 11 top ten hits, although he only reached the number one slot in Singapore, with 'It's Only Make Believe'. His health was continuing to fail, so he semi-retired from the music business, spending most of his time birdwatching at his farm in Surrey. At this time, he also parted company with Larry Parnes, who then moved into the theatrical arena after finding he couldn't cope with the rapidly changing trends in popular music.

On 31 May, l969, Billy secretly married the former model Judith Hall at Esher Register Office, Surrey. His new manager, Hal Carter, acted as his best man.

Billy underwent his first major heart surgery in December, 1971. He was admitted into the National Heart Hospital in London, where they performed an operation to widen a valve in his heart. This would allow the blood to flow freely from the heart and not back into the chamber as was previously happening. For some months afterwards he rested.

Change of Direction

Gradually, he began to return to the cabaret circuit. At about that time he undertook a change of direction and opened his own record label called 'Fury'. To promote it he recorded a one-off single 'Will The Real Man Please Stand Up?' The Fury label only released a few singles by Shane Fenton6, and Johnny Hackett and so, unable to sustain itself, folded shortly afterwards.

Wembley Stadium

By August, 1972, Billy felt strong enough to join a star-studded bill at the London Rock 'n' Roll Festival at Wembley Stadium. Among his fellow performers were Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and Little Richard. Later in the year Billy filmed That'll Be The Day with David Essex and Ringo Starr, making a cameo appearance as a holiday camp singer from the 1950s named Storm Tempest. The part very much reflected Billy's early career. The movie premiered in April 1973 and proved to be a huge success. The soundtrack album was successful too, spending seven weeks at number one in the charts and including five tracks by Billy. That year, he bought himself a farm in the Welsh mountains, where he bred horses and sheep. This was his retreat: a place he could relax and enjoy his love of horses and bird watching. He even had plans to make a bird sanctuary. Unfortunately, it was also the year his marriage ended in divorce.

The mid-1970s proved to be a disappointing time in his career. He tried a revival tour with Marty Wilde, Heinz Burt and Tommy Bruce and recorded more singles, but to no avail. One single, '57 Queen,' has never been released into the public domain. Still, he continued with his fairly successful career on the cabaret circuit.

Heart Problems Return

Problems with his heart were to plague him again. In 1976, Billy underwent more major heart surgery, this time replacing the troublesome valve. He spent the rest of the 1970s in quiet retirement, except for a break in which he recorded some of his old hits for K-Tel in 1978; this was to discharge a bankruptcy order which had been announced earlier in the year. Then Billy returned to his quiet life on the farm.

One night in March, 1982, Billy's long-term companion, Lisa Rosen, rushed him to London after he collapsed with a kidney and heart condition. He became paralysed down one side and also lost his sight temporarily. Billy's condition was critical and medical staff did not expect him to make it through the night. Still, somehow he managed to pull through and weeks later he went home. News of his illness resulted in a flood of get well soon cards from his fans, not to mention fresh offers of work. He spent the rest of 1982 regaining his strength.

Suddenly, lots of plans were in the pipeline for the 1983 season. Billy was to do a nationwide tour with Helen Shapiro, a new album was being prepared and he taped six songs for the show Unforgettable, to be shown on Channel 4. Then, one night after working late in the studio, Billy returned home and appears to have collapsed. He was found unconscious the next morning. Although he was rushed into hospital, there was nothing that could be done to save him.

Billy Fury, born Ronald Wycherley, died on 27 January, 1983, aged 42 years.

1Elvis Presley could only be seen on television from the waist upwards for similar reasons.2Famous for their classic recording 'Telstar'.3Later to become Alma Sedgewick/Baldwin in Coronation Street.4A future Doctor Who.5An accomplished film actor, later to co-star with Trevor Eve in the series Shoestring.6Later to be known as Alvin Stardust.

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