Posted on Nov 30, 2019
Born into a relatively comfortable and loving family in a working class district of Liverpool in April 1940, young Ronald Wycherley was a sickly youth - from the age of six he was plagued with rheumatic fever - whose childhood ambition was to become a sailor.
The nearest he would ever come to realising his dream was to work briefly as a deckhand on the Mersey Ferry, a job that his father managed to arrange for him: but even this short period on the water was to come to a swift and abrupt end due to the continuing ill health that would affect him for the rest of his short life.
Who could have imagined then that this young man - painfully shy and as often as not sick - would emerge as one of the most charismatic, most innovative, and most enduring Rock n Roll stars of all time?
Recording his superb self-penned songs he was to define an era - at the height of his success in the UK he was outsold only by Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, and the Beatles (who once aspired to be his backing band, but who were rejected as he thought they were “trouble”).
Under the tutelage of legendary impresario Larry Parnes, Ronald Wycherley adopted the stage name of Billy Fury, and was to set the world on fire. In the process, he would record what is acknowledged by many as the ultimate British Rock ’n’ Roll album - The Sound of Fury.
... the best rock & roll album to come out of England's original beat boom of the late 1950s
Under the wing of Parnes the newly named Billy quickly found himself very much the great man’s favourite. Parnes had what might be called the “Midas touch”. With his unerring judgement he was able to identify talent, and to mould it into superstardom. Many of his young prodigies are still active and touring to this day, 20 years after Parnes himself passed away.
Despite his natural shyness and modesty, Billy had an onstage charisma that drove his mostly teenage female fans wild. Off stage, his natural reticence and quiet demeanour endeared him equally to the finer ladies.
His moody Rocker image, and his carefully chosen repertoire also appealed to a male audience - there was always a touch of James Dean about Billy, with his nervous smile.
Unusually for the day, Billy penned much of his own material, sometimes under the pseudonym of Wilbur Wilberforce. His ballads, which reflect his own deep sensitivity, remain amongst the best loved and most recognisable of his works.
Sound of Fury, however, not only showcased the ballads, but unleashed such gems as the hard-core Rock n Roll classic Turn my back on you, regarded by many (including this writer) as being the greatest British Rock ’n’ Roll track ever released.
Jumpy, aggressive and challenging - almost arrogant - even Elvis himself would have struggled to better this great performance. Others may have stood the test of time, and adapted to changing tastes, carrying their fan base with them through the decades, but not one - not even the likes of Sir Cliff Richard - could have ever bettered this uniquely structured track.
Produced by the legendary TV, theatre, and record producer Jack Good, Sound of Fury was recorded in Decca Studio 3, West Hampstead, London on April 14th 1960 (with the exception of Turn my back on you, which was laid down on January 18th). According to Billy’s brother, Albi, most of the tracks only required one take.
The recordings themselves owe a great deal to the outstanding guitar work of the legendary Joe Brown (pictured right with Billy), who received the meagre sum of £2/10d (£2.50) for his work.
Joe, an instinctive and gifted musician, was probably the only guitarist at that time capable of producing the sound we hear on the album.
Billy chose pianist Reg Guest, who has over the years worked with such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davies Jr., Scott Walker, and so many other legendary performers.
This year, his 89th, Guest is credited as conductor/arranger on a newly released retrospective of the recordings of French Rock ’n’ Roll sensation Johnny Hallyday (1943-2017).
Interestingly, whilst Halliday was presented as the “French Elvis”, many of the more objective fans of his early recordings refer to him as the “French Billy Fury”. Hallyday’s 1961 recording Bien Trop Timide seems to confirm this - even the song title, which translates as “far to shy” has more than a touch of Billy about it.
To back him on drums Billy picked Andy White, who two years later was to play on the Beatles first single, Love Me Do, after it was decided that Ringo Starr wasn’t particularly up to the job. White, who passed away in 2015, was played just £5 for his work, and even had to take his own drum kit to the Abbey Road studios.
Bassists Bill Stark and Alan Weighell made up the rest of the backing band. Weighell played on electric bass while Stark was responsible for the percussive rockabilly style ‘slap bass’ sound that adds aggression and urgency, especially on Turn my back on you. When the listener knows this detail, the unique bass sound becomes apparent: this did not come about by accident - the 20 year old Billy Fury, who struggled to read musical arrangements, knew what he felt, and he knew how to translate his feelings and lay them down on vinyl.
You Don’t Know, a heartrending tale of unrequited love may in fact be auto-biographical. The track could, it has been speculated, have been inspired by his affections for the subject of his first A-side, Margo. That the lady in question was older, and married, did not deter Billy. Nor would it ever: he was an incurable romantic. The running order of Sound of Fury is also interesting: You Don’t Know is followed by Turn My Back on you.
The Four Jays provide backing vocals throughout the album in a style somewhat reminiscent of Presley’s Jordanaires. In his superb book Mods, Rockers, and the Music of the British Invasion James E. Perone compares Billy’s style to that of the King himself - particularly his tendency to add syllables to words.
Perone also draws attention to the fact that Joe Brown is essentially playing Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore’s role with his performance on The Sound of Fury, acknowledging and reprising Moore’s contribution to the Sun Sound which, under producer Sam Phillips gave birth not just to Presley, but to Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, and so many more.
I get an idea when I'm depressed, usually because one of my girls has let me down, and I scribble a lyric and sing the thing straight into a tape recorder. It never gets on to paper until someone at the music publisher puts it there. Then they send me back an arrangement, which I can't read, so I just record it the way I thought of it.
The Four Jays were to find success in their own right after changing their name to The Fourmost. The band’s first chart hit Hello Little Girl (1963) was penned by John Lennon, who was to collaborate with Paul McCartney on the follow up I’m In Love later the same year; the latter track was to have the distinction of being one of the first Lennon-McCartney compositions to be released in the U.S.
On it’s initial release Sound of Fury made little impact, spending just one solitary week at number 18 in the album charts. However, in 1981 it was re-issued, riding on the wave of the global Rockabilly revival and a renewed interest in other Rock ’n’ Roll genres at that time, notably Doo Wop. The Teddy Boy cult was also experiencing something of a comeback, and the Teds had a particular enthusiasm for British artistes. Sound of Fury was finally being fully appreciated for the masterpiece it is, albeit by a new audience.
The Sound of Fury is the best British Rock 'n' Roll album and one of the best ever... He goes from Country to Rock via Rockabilly. It makes complete sense, and that's why the album worked. It wasn't contrived, it was from his heart.
Following a career break in which he devoted himself to his passions, breeding horses and sheep, and his greatest love of all - photographing wild birds - reflecting his gentle and often solitary nature, in 1981 he returned to recording: however his final album, The One and Only, was to be released posthumously.
Returning to his London home from a recording session in the early hours of 28th January 1983, Billy collapsed. He was rushed to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, but passed away in the afternoon, aged 42.
- "That's Love" (Fury)
- "My Advice" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "Phone Call" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "You Don't Know" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "Turn My Back On You" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "Don't Say It's Over" (Fury)
- "Since You've Been Gone" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "It's You I Need" (Fury)
- "Alright, Goodbye" (Wilber Wilberforce)
- "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Fury)
Click on the title to hear the track
Billy Fury Archive: @BillyFuryMuseum Daily postings of rare photos of Billy, as well as posters, articles, and other memorabilia.
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