As pre-teen moviegoers in the early 1960s, we were not at all discriminating. Whatever was playing within a walk or bus ride in the Bronx, at the Earl, the Kent, the Luxor, or up near Fordham Road, was perfectly ok with us. But anything that promised a a look at contemporary pop stars – since television was not very helpful in that particular area in that particular era – had high must-see priority. Anything with “rock” or “twist” in the title, anything with Elvis (even something as dashed-off as Kid Galahad). Movies as dreary as Teenage Millionaire with Jimmy Clanton: in order to see Jackie Wilson and Dion, we sat through hijinks with Rocky Graziano and ZaSu Pitts. It didn’t matter so much what the premise of the film was, or that the stars were singers who hadn’t gotten much exposure in the U.S.; we even went to the British movies that managed to make their way over here: Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (called It’s Trad Dad in the U.K., and directed by Richard Lester), Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, and something called Play It Cool starring Billy Fury.
Play It Cool (directed by Michael Winner) is, no spoiler here, utterly forgettable, and it’s a bit of a mystery why it was released in the States at all. Neither of its stars, Fury or Helen Shapiro, made any transatlantic waves, and tossing Bobby Vee into the mix doesn’t up U.S. marquee value by much. And yet there it was at our local cinema in 1963, a year after it premiered in England. If the plan was to break Billy Fury in America, that didn’t pan out. Not much British pop made the crossing. A few instrumentals, “Stranger on the Shore,” “Midnight in Moscow,” “Telstar.” ABC-Paramount and Epic Records took some shots with Cliff Richard to middling response. The whole slew of teen idols over there, most of them managed and renamed by manager Larry Parnes (where would U.K. pop be without the insight and influence of gay Jewish men?) remained unknown in America: Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, none charted so much as a single (it took until ’65 for Adam Faith to crack through with “It’s Alright” and some riveting performances on Shindig).
So reading the new book Halfway to Paradise: The Life of Billy Fury by David & Caroline Stafford is like taking a tour through an alternate pop universe. It’s a detailed, enthusiastic and eye-opening look at pre-Beatles England. For most Americans, it might as well be historical fiction; Billy Fury could just as easily be “Billy Universe,” his character in Play It Cool; the titles of single after single zip by, chart positions noted, descriptive assessments offered, but we have no first-hand context. We have the Staffords’ word for how seismic Fury’s impact was, how compelling and scandalous he was as a live performer, what a landmark his self-written debut album The Sound of Fury (1960) was. It is a mysterious artifact to us, but luckily we can click over to Spotify and hear what the fuss was all about. What it is, is snappy, imitative rockabilly, a little bit early Elvis, some Buddy Holly and Charlie Gracie. The surprise is how confident it sounds; it’s enlivened quite a bit by Joe Brown’s guitar – he clearly did his homework listening to Scotty Moore, and maybe the James Burton solos on Ricky Nelson records – and it wins points for being slightly behind the curve, for evoking pre-Army Elvis, and the Crickets. It is, no joke, one of the purest rock’n’roll albums of 1960, and most of us never even heard it.
Halfway to Paradise, unfortunately, recycles the old tired clichés about 1960 pop music, Elvis in uniform, Chuck Berry in prison, Little Richard finding God, Jerry Lee in exile, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran dead. “Real rock’n’roll,” the Staffords tell us, “had all but vanished from Americas airwaves,” replaced by an army of Bobbys. All that doesn’t take into account the incredible amount of musical invention early in that decade, through the JFK years. But in Fury’s case, he rarely came close to the convincingly moody U.S.-rock’n’roll replication of The Sound of Fury. There was the string-laden tango of “Jealousy,” the Goffin & King song that gives the book its title, the eerie “Wondrous Place,” the cover versions of “A Thousand Stars” and “Letter Full of Tears,” the dismissible “My Christmas Prayer.” Is Fury’s life worth nearly 300 pages, dotted with stories of sexual exploits, chronic health issues, career slides, and quite a bit of minutia about his fascination with birds (of the ornithological sort)?
It is, because whatever Fury’s career might have meant outside of the U.K. – some Americans might only know him from his portrayal of the anachronistic pop (not porn) star Stormy Tempest in the movie That’ll Be the Day – he was a key figure in the evolution of British rock, when it was still hadn’t found its own voice. Together with Billy Bragg’s book Roots, Radicals and Rockers, subtitled How Skiffle Changed the World, it fills in a lot of blanks, gives a snapshot of English pop before most of us were paying close attention, or only hearing the occasional trad-jazz number, or the cheery novelty of Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Over Night” (which clearly pointed the way to Herman’s Hermits). It was a different world over there in the early ‘60s, and no one had any idea how it all was about to change.