Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods
illy, Don't Be a Hero" was a tale about the Civil War, composed by two British songwriters. Mitch Murray had already scored a number one single in America with Freddie and the Dreamers ("I'm Telling You Now") as well as hits by Gerry and the Pacemakers ("How Do You Do It," "I Like It"). His partner Peter Callander had written for Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw and Tom Jones, among others. After collaborating for six years, they formed their own British company in 1974, Bus Stop Records. One of the first acts signed to the label was a group from Nottingham, Paper Lace.
Paper Lace passed the audition, and Murray and Callander finished the song, adapting it for Paper Lace's style. Released in Britain on their own label, the single went to number one on March 16, 1974.
While the song was climbing the British chart, Murray and Callendar were trying to make a deal for the song in the United States. They had already been disappointed with the reaction from Australia and New Zealand, where representatives of EMI had sent them a letter: "You've sent us quite a few records. This is the worst one you've sent us."
Negotiations dragged on in America while "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" closed in on the top spot in the United Kingdom. By the time Chicago-based Mercury Records bought the master, it was too late.
Producer Steve Barri had heard the Paper Lace version when it was offered to the label he worked for, ABC Records. Certain the song could be a hit in America, ABC Records chief Jay Lasker decided to cut a cover version. "We had signed Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods," Barri recalls. "We cut it that very night and had it out two or three days later."
The Heywoods had one previous chart single, "Special Someone," released on Artie Ripp's Family label in late 1972. It made an unimpressive showing at number 64. But the Heywoods, all from Cincinnati, Ohio, had built up a tremendous following from their appearances on Dick Clark's Action '73 television show. The group got its start after keyboards and trumpet player Bo Donaldson's mother, Bea Donaldson, went to work in Clark's Cincinnati office in August, 1966. Soon the Heywoods were touring on Clark's Caravan of Stars, as the opening act for groups like the Rascals, the Raiders and Herman's Hermits.
Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' version of "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 20, 1974, just one week ahead of Paper Lace's version. Many radio stations pitted the two records against each other on the air. Once typical competition took place at WFIL in Philadelphia, where the Heywoods won in a landslide. The program director telephoned Bo Donaldson with the results. "He said he knew we had fans there, but he didn't realize they were crawling out of the woodwork."
Paper Lace had to settle for a peak position of 96, while Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods spent two weeks at number one. The Heywoods had one more hit record, "Who Do You Think You Are" (number 15 in September, 1974). Paper Lace had the last laugh just two months later, with the 1940s gangster-themed tune "The Night Chicago Died."
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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