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 and ALF, and was used in the movies Reservoir Dogs, To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday and Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. In the first episode of the TV series Friends, the song gets a mention when Ross says to Joey, "Do the words 'Billy don't be a hero' mean anything to you?"
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.