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Billy Don't Be A Hero by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods

Album: Billy Don't Be A HeroReleased: 1974Charted:
1
  • This song is about a guy who goes off to war, and despite his fiancé's pleas to stay safe, volunteers for a dangerous mission and is killed. The girl receives a letter telling her that Billy died a hero, which is specifically what she asked him not to do.
  • This song sold more than 3 million copies and earned a gold record. Four more Top 40 singles followed for Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods: "Who Do You Think You Are," "The Heartbreak Kid," "House on Telegraph Hill" and "Our Last Song Together."
  • This song was mentioned in Stephen King's book The Stand, in the TV shows Get A Life, ALF, and Friends, and was used in the movies Reservoir Dogs, To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday and Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
  • This was originally recorded by Paper Lace after they won the British TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. It topped the UK charts and Paper Lace went on to record two more UK Top 20 hits, one of which was "The Night Chicago Died," which also reached #1 in America.
  • Peter Callender and Mitch Murray wrote both this and "The Night Chicago Died." Among the other songs the duo wrote together were Vanity Fare's hit "Hitchin' a Ride" and Georgie Fame's UK chart-topper "The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde."
  • Callender and Murray originally wrote this song about a cabin boy called Billy, before changing the setting to the American Civil War. Murray wanted to give the song to a major artist, but Callender's wife, Connie, saw Paper Lace win Opportunity Knocks and told Peter about them.
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Comments: 10

I've heard it mentioned before, and see it mentioned here, that the Billy in this song was sent to Vietnam. Although the timing of this song fit with the Vietnam War (near the end) and obviously was banking on anti-war sentiments for its popularity, it's obviously NOT about Vietnam, specifically. It can be taken as a corollary, sure, and a cautionary tale and de-romanticism of war in general regarding *any* war, but the lyrics show it obviously does not relate to a 20th century war. Billy "rides out" for extra men. Surely during Vietnam, "extra men" would have been summoned via walkie-talkie - how many stories of 'Nam do you hear where a soldier was ordered to jump up on a horse and ride out? ;) Billy admires and joins the "soldier blues" at the parade; blues = the Union. The fiance receives a letter that Billy died. In the 60s and early 70s, people heard about deaths a bit quicker than that, generally, often via a solemnly hand-delivered telegram, but the song says "letter." A fife and drum are featured at the beginning of the song, not exactly the way U.S. soldiers crept up on the VC...the fife and drum are iconic to the U.S. Civil War. Also, I don't think it was normal during Vietnam for young boys to simply fall in behind soldiers marching down the street in order to join the Army. My father joined the Army in 1962, getting in was rigorous and he wasn't even allowed on the lines due to being flat-footed and color blind - and then later, boys were drafted, not allowed to float in during a parade. They didn't march soldiers through town in order to drum up volunteers.Mel - Los Angeles
On May 11th 1974, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods performed "Billy Don't Be a Hero" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
At the time the song was at #38 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; twenty-nine days later on June 9th, 1974 it would peak at #1 {for 2 weeks} and spent 19 weeks on the Top 100...
And on July 6th, 1974 it also reached #1 {for 1 week} on the Canadian RPM Top Singles chart...
Between 1972 and 1975 the Cincinnati, Ohio septet had five Top 100 records; their next biggest hit was "Who Do You Think You Are?", it peaked at #15 in 1974.
Barry - Sauquoit, Ny
On April 21st, 1974, "Billy Don't Be A Hero" by Paper Lace entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 at position #99; it only remained on the Top 100 for three weeks, peaking at #96...
Five weeks after it fell off the chart the quintet's "The Night Chicago Died" entered the Top 100 at position #98; and on August 11th it peaked at #1 (for 1 week) and stayed on the Top 100 for 17 weeks...
They had one other Top 100 hit, "The Black-Eyed Boys", it reached #41.
Barry - Sauquoit, Ny
This song is unfairly maligned by critics & DJ's alike. I don't know why. The message is clear: war is bad, and should never be glorified. It's set to a tuneful melody, with easy-to-sing-along-with, if not particularly profound, lyrics. Too many soldiers went off to war, full of delusions of heroism and glory, only to come back maimed or mentally damaged, or not at all. They're still doing it today; when will they learn?Matthew - Toronto, On
I rememember hearing on the radio that this song was about the Civil War.David - Flatwoods, Ky
I thought this song was about Vietnam actually. It fit the timeline...Karen - Silver Spring, Md
This song was also metioned on The Family Stone. When there sitting around playing charades, it's a clue.Christina - Cape Cod, Ma
I don't recall any specific American Civil War references. But I would guess the lines that say "the soldier blues..." could refer to the blue uniforms of the union army of the North. Also, the sergeant needing a rider to go get more men would indicate those times of no radio.Jim - Colesville, Nj
I don't know for sure, but when this song first came out and again when I bought a 1970s mixed CD about 5 years ago, I heard mentions of the American Civil War in reference to this song. Am I right or am I mistaken?Darrell - Eugene
The song was a number one hit in the UK for Paper Lace in the same year. They used it to win TV talent show "Opportunity Knocks" and went on to have 3 more chart hits.Mark - London, England