Despite having a run of chart hits that lasted just three years, singer Helen Shapiro remains one of Britain’s best-known and most affectionately remembered pop stars of the 1960s.
She was born in Bethnal Green in the East End of London on 28 September 1946, of Russian Jewish heritage. Her parents, though not affluent, encouraged musical aspirations in both her and her brother. She played banjo as a child and sang with her brother’s jazz group. One of her early band mates was the young Marc Bolan, later of influential glam-rock outfit T-Rex.
While still at school, Helen persuaded her parents to pay for singing lessons with the Maurice Berman Academy (Berman was so enamoured of Helen’s talent that he waived the fees to keep her as a student).
Berman wrote to several record labels to promote interest in his students. EMI Records sent producer John Schroeder, who heard her strong, deep timbre (she was nicknamed Foghorn at the time) at one of the classes and was impressed enough to record her and play it back for top EMI producer Norrie Paramor. He, in turn, thought her good enough to record and Helen turned up wearing her school uniform with her satchel over her shoulder to sign her contract and begin her ascent into 1960s pop history.
Finding the right tune to introduce her to the nation proved difficult. Don’t treat me like a child, composed by Schroeder and Mike Hawker, was ultimately picked as her first single. 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.
Her second release, the ballad You don’t know, was issued three months later and sold in excess of 40,000 daily. 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, including a headliner spot at the legendary London Palladium – virtually unheard of for such an unseasoned entertainer – showcased Helen’s assuredness as a performer.
The hard work paid off. Helen had built up such a fan base that her third single, Walkin’ back to happiness, had orders in excess of 300,000 prior to its release and its place at the top of the charts in October 1961 was assured. It was a song Helen was reportedly dubious about recording as she thought it a bit silly – she has said that it reminded her of the traditional song Camptown races. She was assured that by the time the big studio orchestration was added, it would sound a lot more substantial. In any case, she had little say in her choice of material at the time, with Paramor making all the decisions. However, her execution of the song lifted it above the corniness she had feared and it is now considered her signature tune.
The song also proved successful 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 just scraped into the US top 100.
Tell me what he said, a cover of a Playmates recording penned by Jeff Barry, was released in February 1962 and made it to number two in the UK charts. The song was also translated into French and German to capitalise on her popularity in mainland Europe.
At home, Helen was also voted best female singer in NME magazine’s music poll that year.
In 1963 she headlined a tour that included the up-and-coming Beatles in support. Helen got on well enough with them that when she appeared on Ready steady go! to sing Look who it is, she had the Beatles minus Paul (there were only three verses) provide non-singing back ups.
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. 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 a musical departure, the EP Teenager sings the blues, also issued in 1963, allowed her to showcase her jazz influences on such classics as Blues in the night and St Louis blues.
The arrival of the beat boom caused problems for Helen. Although her cover albums, 1962’s Tops with me and 1964’s Helen hits out, showed she could take on various styles effortlessly, and movie appearances in Richard Lester’s It’s trad, Dad and the Billy Fury film Play it cool, both released in 1962, confirmed the breadth of her talent, her chart success became erratic. She had enjoyed her last top 20 hit in the summer of 1962 with Little Miss Lonely, but subsequent singles, including Keep away from other girls and the Jackie De Shannon-penned Woe is me, made only the lower reaches of the top 40. In early 1964, her cover of Fever proved her last top 40 hit.
She could have had a needed injection of chart success if EMI had issued It’s my party – included on the 1963 critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Helen in Nashville album – before Lesley Gore. It is said that Gore’s version was rush-released when her record label learnt that Helen had recorded the song first. Gore’s disc topped the US charts and reached the top ten in the UK.
By now, the schoolgirl novelty factor pushed by Helen’s publicity machine at the beginning of her career was wearing thin. A change of producer might also have helped her chart career endure longer.
However, she continued to release top quality singles at a rate of about two or three a year throughout the rest of the decade. Perhaps unexpectedly, Helen’s die-hard fans cite the mid to late 1960s chart drought period as a rich one for their favourite recordings. Freed of the shackles of twee pop, Helen’s performances excelled and these records now command a tidy sum on the collectors’ market.
Highlights include Look over your shoulder (backed by the equally popular You won’t come home) and her version of the Miracles’ Shop around (with the excellent self-penned He knows how to love me on the reverse), both of which were issued in 1964. The baroque 1966 single In my calendar is also considered a fan favourite, while the pounding Stop and you will become aware, a version of a song by British singer-songwriter Earl Okin and issued as a B-side to She needs company in 1967, later found favour on the northern soul dance scene.
You’ve guessed, backed by Take me for a while, became her final single of the 1960s.
During the 1970s, free of company restraints on music choices, she rekindled her love of jazz and began a long association with Humphrey Lyttelton on stage and record. She also began to concentrate more on stage work, including a run as Nancy in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in the early 1980s, various other musicals, pantomimes and revival concerts. She continued to tour, especially in mainland Europe and the Far East, where she remained in demand.
Throughout the 1980s she made guest appearances on many TV variety shows, either singing her old songs or promoting the odd new release. A few disco-styled recordings did little to showcase her talent, though the album Straighten up and fly right, released in 1983, was a quality jazzy affair featuring a host of standards and stage tunes. There was also a stint on the short-lived TV soap opera Albion market, which ended in 1986.
August 1987 saw Helen become a committed believer in Jesus and in 2002 she retired from show business to devote herself more to the gospel outreach programme she now promotes. She has recorded four albums of gospel music to date, and in 1993 she published an autobiography.
When asked recently if she had any regrets, Helen replied she wished she’d learnt to play the piano – very self-deprecating for someone who, arguably, deserved more time in the spotlight.
With thanks to George Georgiou for contributing this profile.