Billy Fury: The rock 'n' roll pioneer who had as many hits as The Beatles
22 March 2022, 11:32 | Updated: 1 November 2022, 13:27
A British rock 'n' roll pioneer, Billy Fury had 24 hits in the 1960s – as many as The Beatles.
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But before all of those was Billy Fury. His voice, rugged good looks and songwriting talent made him one of the first British rock 'n' roll superstars.
Want to know more about Billy? Read on and rock on!
Where did Billy Fury grow up, and what was his real name?
Billy Fury was born Ronald Wycherley on April 17, 1940 in Smithdown Hospital, Liverpool, to his soldier-turned-shoemaker dad Albert and mum Sarah 'Jean' Jane.
He lived at 34 Halliburton Street and went to Silas's Infants' School, before going to Wellington Road Secondary Modern School.
It's safe to say they weren't the best days of his life, and he left in 1955 when he was 15. He later told the story of getting brutally caned on his last day when he "put my feet up on the desk and lit a cigarette" with five minutes of his final school day left.
"I hated school. It was like being in jail," he said. "Now I was being released, a free man. I went wild, running out of school shouting: 'I'm free, I'm free, I'm free!
"They told me at school, 'You'll achieve nothing. You'll come to a bad end'. So I went back there in my car just to show them."
How did Billy Fury get that scar on his right cheek?
Poor Billy didn't have much luck when he was young.
As well as his unhappy schooldays, he was bitten by a dog on his right cheek when he went to visit his dad in London when he was just three years old.
Three years on, he contracted rheumatic fever, resulting in a two-month stay at Alder Hey Hospital and a lifetime of health problems.
Always the rebel, when he was hospitalised at the age of 12 after a relapse, he clambered down a drainpipe to escape after a couple of weeks, being caught in some fields nearby.
How did Billy Fury get into music?
When Billy was 11 years old he had piano lessons, and three years later he got a guitar for his 14th birthday present.
Despite finding fame as a rock 'n' roller, Fury was never a virtuoso on the instrument.
After leaving school he had a bunch of jobs, none of which went particularly well.
He was a tea boy, then rivet heater at Ellison's Engineering, but lost that job when he tried to attack his boss with a welding gun.
Then he was a deckhand on the tugboat Formby, which helped his musical education as he picked up the country and western records coming over from the States, inspiring him to form a local skiffle group wittily called the Formby Sniffle Group.
"Hank Williams and some of the country and western singers were singing about real life and how it feels when you get let down, so I kind of tagged on to their stuff," Billy later said.
Then came a boat change, another bout of fisticuffs with a boss, and a move to a department store, while he simultaneously worked on his music.
He visited Percy F Phillips's studio in Liverpool and put down six songs and also sent a tape to pop manager Larry Parnes, who had already hit it big with Tommy Steele and Marty Wilde.
Another letter to Larry eventually got him an audience with the man himself at the Birkenhead Essoldo during one of his package tours, and Billy played Parnes and Wilde a clutch of his songs with the hope of selling them to the pair
But Larry had other ideas. He ushered Billy on stage and told him to get singing. He did just that, knocking out future hits 'Margo', 'Don't Knock Upon My Door' and 'Maybe Tomorrow'.
Larry wanted to give Ron a stage name. Ron agreed, and suggested "Stean Wade". Thankfully Parnes had other ideas, and Billy Fury was born.
He joined the tour, got a record deal, and became an overnight sensation.
Who was Billy Fury's songwriting "partner" Wilbur Wilberforce?
Unlike many rockers, Billy Fury was also a talented songwriter who penned plenty of his own material.
But if you look at the credits of his first album The Sound of Fury and some of his other releases you'll also see some songwriting credits for the mysterious Wilbur Wilberforce.
It turns out that Wilbur Wilberforce was... Billy Fury.
Like most pop managers of the time, Larry Parnes wasn't the most generous. He wanted a cut of Billy's songwriting royalties, so to get around that Billy invented the esteemed Mr Wilberforce.
He'd claim that Wilberforce wrote the songs, and that he bought them from him. Then "Wilbur" would get full royalties, and Larry wouldn't be dipping his hand in the songwriting till.
What were Billy Fury's biggest hit songs?
Billy Fury had 24 hits in the 1960s – the same number as The Beatles. Changing tastes and his bouts of ill health meant the smash singles dried up as the decade wore on, though he did enjoy comebacks in the 1970s and, shortly before his death, the 1980s.
His biggest hits include:
- Maybe Tomorrow
- Don't Knock Upon My Door
- That's Love
- Wondrous Place
- A Thousand Stars
- Halfway to Paradise
- I'd Never Find Another You
- Last Night Was Made for Love
- Once Upon a Dream
- Because of Love
- Like I've Never Been Gone
- When Will You Say I Love You
- In Summer
- Somebody Else's Girl
- Do You Really Love Me Too (Fool's Errand)
- I Will
- It's Only Make Believe
- I'm Lost Without You
- In Thoughts of You
- Run to My Lovin' Arms
- I'll Never Quite Get Over You
- Give Me Your Word
What films did Billy Fury star in?
Billy Fury was called the British Elvis for a while, and that wasn't just because of his rocking music and wild stage act.
He also starred in some early rock 'n' roll films, and oh-so briefly looked like he'd have a movie career as big as The King's.
He starred in pop musical Play it Cool in 1962, opposite Helen Shapiro, Danny Williams, Shane Fenton and Bobby Vee. Billy's cover of Ray Charles's 'Unchain My Heart' (written by Bobby Sharp) from the film was a hit.
Billy's second leading role was in 1965's I've Gotta Horse, which also starred Amanda Barrie, Michael Medwin and future Worzel Gummidge/Doctor Who Jon Pertwee.
It also featured bands The Gamblers and The Bachelors and animal lover Fury's own racehorse Anselmo, and some of his pet dogs, too.
After his semi-retirement, Billy returned to the movies in Claude Whatham 1973's nostalgic coming of age classic That'll Be The Day, opposite David Essex and Ringo Starr.
He played Stormy Tempest in the film, which was loosely based on the backstory of The Beatles and fellow Liverpudlian rockers Rory Storm & The Hurricanes.
How did Billy Fury die and how old was he?
After his battle with rheumatic fever when he was six, Billy had poor health throughout his life, which was one of the reasons behind his retirement in the early 1970s.
He had open-heart surgery twice, in 1972 and 1976, but as well as focusing on his love of wildlife, Fury did tour with former Larry Parnes stablemate Marty Wilde in the mid 1970s.
Blaming the alleged financial mismanagement by Parnes, Fury was declared bankrupt due to unpaid taxes in 1978.
That may have prompted his return to recording, but his later-years manager Hal Carter disagrees: "There was no pressure on him to make a comeback. He wanted to do it. It took him two years to decide."
He released 'Be Mine Tonight' in 1981, but soon after he had a collapse on his farm. He recovered, and went on to release 'Love or Money' and 'Devil or Angel'.
He returned to touring, and also recorded six songs for Channel 4 show Unforgettable.
When he returned from a recording session on January 28, 1983, Fury suffered a heart attack. He was taken to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, but either died in the ambulance or later in hospital that afternoon (the records are contradictory).
A funeral service was held at St John's Wood Church in London, with a choir singing Billy's own 'I'm Lost Without You', before he was buried at Mill Hill Cemetery.
Who did Billy Fury influence and what was his legacy?
The wave of British rock and rollers that invaded America and took over the world in the 1960s was clearly indebted to Billy Fury.
Cliff Richard called him "the James Dean of rock 'n' roll" while The Beatles were also big fans.
Ian Dury narrated 1999 BBC documentary Halfway to Paradise. Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin recorded a song called 'Billy Fury' on his own 1986 album Tribe and roped in Elton to do backing vocals, too.
He was one of Morrissey's cover stars, featuring on the front of The Smiths final single 'Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me' in 1987.
And in 2010, a previously unnamed alleyway off Finchley Road was named Billy Fury Way in his honour.