19 July 2012

Helen Shapiro

From 1961 until 1963 Helen Shapiro (1946) was England's teenage pop music queen. At one point she sold 40,000 copies daily of her biggest single, Walkin' Back to Happiness, during a 19-week chart run. The singer and actress with her deep timbre and beehive hairstyle was only 14 when she was discovered, but she matured into a seasoned professional very quickly.

Helen Shapiro
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam.

Helen Shapiro
Dutch postcard, no. 262.

Helen Kate Shapiro was born in Bethnal Green, London in 1946. She is the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and her parents, who were piece-workers in the garment industry, attended Lea Bridge Road Synagogue. They were too poor to own a record player but encouraged music in their home. At age 9, Helen performed with a ukulele in the school group Susie & the Hula Hoops, whose members included also a young Mark Feld aka Marc Bolan). Reportedly, they performed their own versions of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs. She subsequently sang with her brother Ron Shapiro's trad jazz turned skiffle outfit at local clubs before enrolling in classes at Maurice Burman's music school in London. Shapiro had a deep timbre to her voice, unusual in a girl not yet in her teens. School friends gave her the nickname ‘Foghorn’. Maurice Burman was so enamoured of Helen’s talent that he waived the fees to keep her as a student. He wrote to several record labels to promote interest in his students. EMI Records sent producer John Schroeder, who heard her at one of the classes and was impressed enough to record her and play it back for top EMI producer Norrie Paramor , who had signed Cliff Richard & the Shadows. Helen Shapiro's voice on the rape was so mature that Paramor refused to believe that it belonged to a 14-year-old girl. So, Helen came to his office in her school uniform and sang St. Louis Blues. Only a few weeks later, she cut her first single, Please Don't Treat Me Like a Child, composed by John Schroeder and Mike Hawker. It made number three in the UK charts in May 1961, and the record company’s publicity department made great play on the novelty value of her age. Shapiro’s second release, the ballad You don’t know, was issued three months later. In August 1961, it made 14-year-old Helen the youngest female artist to reach number one. The song stayed at the top of the charts for two weeks and eventually sold over a million copies. In September that year she turned 15 and left school to pursue her career in earnest. Live appearances showcased Helen’s assuredness as a performer. She even headlined at the legendary London Palladium, virtually unheard of for such a young, inexperienced entertainer.

Helen Shapiro
Dutch postcard by De Gruyter, nr. 8.

Helen Shapiro
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam.

Helen Shapiro
German postcard by Krüger, nr. 902/176. Photo: EMI, London.

A Little Dynamo
Helen Shapiro had her second number one hit in the UK with Walkin' Back to Happiness. It is now her signature song. Her mature voice made her an overnight sensation. The song also became a hit in the rest of Europe and inspired an attempt to crack the American market. However, despite an appearance on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, the record only reached # 100 in the US charts. In 1962 she made her debut feature film, It's Trad, Dad!/Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (1962, Richard Lester). This musical comedy was one of the first films put out by predominantly horror company Amicus Productions, and director Richard Lester's feature debut. Shapiro and singer Craig Douglas play two teenagers who, along with their friends enjoy the latest trend of traditional jazz. However, the mayor as well as a group of adults dislike the trend and move to have a coffee shop jukebox taken away. Helen and Craig decide to organize a music festival in their small town, and the film comprises musical numbers by Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, and Gene Vincent. Jeff Stafford at TCM: "Any Richard Lester fan can look at It's Trad, Dad and see the fresh and distinctive techniques that would fully emerge in Lester's A Hard Day's Night. For one thing, Lester's playful editing style keeps the viewer constantly engaged while also paying tribute to the musicians on display. (...) Douglas is a pleasant but unremarkable light pop vocalist but Shapiro is a little dynamo with a powerful voice comparable to Brenda Lee." Shapiro then starred in another teenage musical, Play It Cool (1962, Michael Winner) featuring Billy Fury and the Satellites and Bobby Vee. Before she was sixteen years old, Shapiro had been voted Britain's 'Top Female Singer', and when The Beatles had their first national tour (The Helen Shapiro Tour) in 1963, it was as her supporting act. During the tour The Beatles hit big and replaced Helen as top of the bill. Helen later found out that it was around this time that Lennon and McCartney penned Misery for her, but Paramor declined the offer without informing her. He preferred to release Queen for tonight, a firm fan favourite and a much-requested song, but slightly out of step with current trends. It reached a disappointing 33 in the UK charts. In early 1964, her cover of Fever proved her last top 40 hit.

Helen Shapiro
Dutch postcard by Takken, Utrecht, no. 4906. Photo: Columbia.

Helen Shapiro and Rudi Carrell
Helen Shapiro and Rudi Carrell. Dutch postcard by Sparo (Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam). Sent by mail in the Netherlands in 1966. Photo: Columbia.

Helen Shapiro and Peter Kraus
Helen Shapiro and Peter Kraus. Dutch postcard, nr. 6357. Sent by mail in the Netherlands in 1965.

Musicals, Jazz, Gospel
By the time Helen Shapiro was in her late teens, her career as a pop singer was on the wane. Undaunted, she branched out as a performer in stage musicals, a jazz singer (jazz being her first love musically), and more recently a gospel singer. She also began to concentrate more on stage work. In the early 1980’s she played the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart's musical, Oliver! in London's West End. Various other musicals, pantomimes and revival concerts followed. She also continued to tour, especially in mainland Europe and the Far East, where she remained in demand. Throughout the 1980’s she made guest appearances on many TV variety shows, either singing her old songs or promoting the odd new release. Shapiro also appeared in British television soap operas; in particular Albion Market (1985) where she played one of the main characters up to the time it was taken off-air in August 1986. In August 1987 Shapiro became a committed Christian (Messianic believer). She has issued four Messianic albums since then, as well as appearing in a number of special Gospel Outreach evenings, singing and telling of how she found Jesus (Yeshua) as her Messiah. Shapiro retired from showbusiness at the end of 2002 to concentrate on her Gospel Outreach evenings. In 1993, she published her autobiography, Walking Back to Happiness. She was married three times: Duncan C. Weldon (1967-1971), Morris Gundlash (1972-1977) and John Judd (1988-), an actor with numerous roles in British television and cinema. The couple lives in Kent.

Helen Shapiro sings Queen For Tonight (1963). Source: SirBasildeBrush (YouTube).

Helen Shapiro sings But I Don't Care in Play It Cool (1962). Source: FlashHarry621 (YouTube).

Helen Shapiro sings Walking Back To Happiness in the British TV show Blue Peter (1989). Source: Drumtuition (YouTube).

Sources: Jeff Stafford (TCM), Graham Welch (Ready Steady Girls), Bruce Eder (AllMusic), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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