H E L E N S H A P I R O
By Jim Dawson
British vocalist Helen Shapiro keenly remembers opening the pages of Melody Maker on a tour bus in February 1963 and being greeted by the headline: "Is Helen Shapiro a 'Has-Been' at 16?"
"I was still getting in the charts, but not necessarily the top five, or even the top ten," she wrote in her 1993 autobiography, Walking Back to Happiness. "I'd been a novelty at fourteen but I suffered from the Shirley Temple syndrome. I'd grown up. Suddenly I was beginning to look a little bit passe in spite of topping the bill."
A member of one of the opening bands leaned over her seat to assure her, "You don't want to be bothered with that rubbish. You're all right. You'll be going on for years."
John Lennon's words were comforting, but that moment was a milestone for her, "the beginning of change; not just for me but for a lot of solo singers."
Indeed, the rest of 1963 was a series of missed opportunites for Helen Shapiro. Her management didn't let her record "Misery," the song that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written for her. Her record company, Columbia, didn't release "It's My Party," the song she recorded in America before Leslie Gore got hold of it. And the burgeoning "beat group" revolution, spearheaded by the Beatles (whose "Please, Please Me," went to No. 1 on February 23, just days after they left the Helen Shapiro tour), made her irrelevant. She would continue to make good records for the next several years, but her time on the charts was nearly over. She was, in fact, a has-been at sixteen. But John Lennon was right about one thing. Helen would continue to go on for years, as a stage actress, blues singer, jazz chanteuse, gospel artist, and pop music echo from the '60s.
|Helen joins the Beatles, Dusty Springfield and host Keith Fordyce on Ready, Steady, Go! in October 1963.
Helen Shapiro was born September 28, 1946, in the East End of London, the granddaughter of Polish Jewish immigrants. Her parents, piece-workers in the garment industry, were too poor to own a record player, but they encouraged music at home. Helen grew up playing banjo and singing at neighborhood get-togethers. She sang with her older brother's high school jazz combo when he allowed it, and performed Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs in a junior high school rock 'n' roll band with fellow student Mark Feld, who would later become Marc Bolan of T-Rex. Nobody failed to notice that Helen had a deep, unusual voice for a girl not yet in her teens. Schoolmates dubbed her "Foghorn," a sobriquet that would later dog her when music critics needed to describe her in a word.
At thirteen, Helen became a pupil of respected voice coach Maurice Burman, whose connections eventually led her to a young Columbia Records A&R man named John Schroeder. Schroeder recorded a demo of Helen singing "Birth of the Blues" and played the tape for his boss, Norrie Paramor, who was already producing rock 'n' roll hits for Cliff Richard and Gene Vincent. Paramor's first question was, "Who's the boy?" Apprised that she was a 14-year-old girl named Helen Shapiro, Paramor, mindful of public bias against Jewish entertainers, reputedly said, "Shapiro? We'll have to change that." But Helen disputes that account, claiming that "Norrie thought it sounded distinctive and pointed out that most people wouldn't know about [Shapiro] being Jewish." In any event, for better or worse, her name would remain unchanged.
As soon as he met the dark-eyed, teenage Cockney with the preternatural voice, Paramor envisioned her as a pop singer like Connie Francis and began grooming her accordingly. She already wore her auburn hair in a bouffant--"held in place with tons of lacquer," she later said--so Paramor completed her wholesome, ultra-feminine image by decreeing a wardrobe of petticoats and gingham dresses. Rather than simply have her cover American hits like so many other female British artists, John Schoeder teamed with Mike Hawker to write original material for her, beginning with a mild protest song called "Don't Treat Me Like a Child." Helen recorded it at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in January 1961. When she received a white-label promotional record a week later, she ran to a neighboring tenement to hear it for the first time, because her parents still didn't own a record player. As the single ascended to No. 3 on the charts, she bought them one.
Barely adolescent girls were hot in England in early 1961. Hayley Mills, just a few months older than Helen, was a popular singing actress whose "Let's Get Together" turned out to be one of the year's big hits. But Helen's main competition was American singer Brenda Lee, "Little Miss Dynamite," who had been having hits in Great Britian since early 1960. Like Brenda Lee, Helen had a surprisingly big voice to go with her surprisingly big hair. What set them apart, however, was that Brenda Lee was cute and precocious, with a nasal twang, whereas Helen Shapiro was an almost otherworldly beauty who sounded like a, well, a foghorn. The only female singer vocally comparable to her was another American currently on the British charts, Timi Yuro.
Helen's next two singles, "You Don't Know" and "Walking Back to Happiness, both went to No. 1 for a total of seven weeks and made her England's top recording star, but already she was beginning to chafe under Paramor's artistic direction. Though "Walking Back to Happiness" was her biggest hit ever, she disliked the corny arrangement of strings and "yeah-yeah" female accompaniment. She preferred the bluesy "You Don't Know," one of her favorites even today, because it displayed her ability to create a bittersweet mood that belied her youth. Paramor came up with a company plan to mollify his prize talent and appeal to different markets at the same time. Helen's singles would be well-crafted pop tunes with a beat, written exclusively for her. On the other hand, a couple of EPs would showcase the teenager's amazing ease with jazz songs and standards, such as "The Birth of the Blues" and "Blues in the Night." And on her first album, 'Tops' With Me (as well as on her 1964 Helen Hits Out LP), she would sing remakes of American rock 'n' roll hits, including Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothin's" and Connie Francis' "Lipstick on Your Collar." Interestingly, none of Helen's 1961-62 hits appeared on LP until her fifth album, a 1965 "best of" package.
|A scene from It's Trad, Dad! - released in the U.S. as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm.||Helen sings "Sometime Yesterday" in
It's Trad, Dad!
Helen Shapiro won many of England's top music awards and her first eight singles charted. She also starred in a 1962 film called It's Trad, Dad! (released in America as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm), written and produced by Hollywood hack Milton Subotsky, who had created the 1956 Alan Freed film Rock, Rock, Rock; and subversively directed by Richard Lester, who would use It's Trad, Dad! to practice his surreal japes for A Hard Day's Night two years later. Helen also performed two songs in Play It Cool, starring Billy Fury. But her recording career was beginning to cool off. In February 1963, after wrapping up her tour with the Beatles, she flew to America to record her third (and best) album, Helen in Nashville, with help from the Jordanaires. Columbia decided to release two of these Nashville tracks on her next single. The A-side was a Buddy Holly-esque number called "Woe Is Me," written by Americans Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon. The B-side was a bluesy song from one of Timi Yuro's writers, Joy Byers, called "I Walked Right In," with a simple arrangement based on Ketty Lester's "Love Letters Straight From Your Heart." It remains one of Helen's more powerful performances. But the single was only a modest hit. By the time Columbia was ready to release a follow-up, "It's My Party," also from the Nashville album, Leslie Gore's version of the song was already booming up the American and U.K. charts, so the company replaced it with "Not Responsible," a catchy rocker which nonetheless turned out to be Helen's first non-charting single.
Helen with her Nashville producer, Owen Bradley.
Look Who It Is . . .
John Ringo George
The writing was on the wall in October when she lipsynched her next single, "Look Who It Is," to a mugging John Lennon, sheepish Ringo Starr and playful George Harrison on BBC-TV's Ready, Steady, Go! Despite such prime exposure with three of the Fab Four, the record reached only No. 47. Turning seventeen, Helen had become a prepossessing young woman, which was all well and good, but to her fiercest fan base--girls near her own age--she was now a rival instead of a surrogate girlfriend, and like so many other traditional pop artists she was swept aside by Beatlemania.
The irony is that as good as she had been during her hit-making years--excusing some of the lightweight musical arrangements and her own brief infatuation with Bobby Darin's annoying vocal affectations--Helen Shapiro's later singles were sometimes stunningly good. On the rousing "Look Over Your Shoulder" (1964), which sounded like a Brill Building gem from Leiber and Stoller, she was all confidence and vocal power. Its flipside, the guitar-driven "You Won't Come Home," was a blueprint for everything Chrissie Hynde would record twenty years later. (One person I played it for thought Helen was Chrissie Hynde.) On "I Wish I'd Never Loved You" (1964) and Joy Byers' "Just a Line" (1965), Helen crooned with cool, understated drama. On "Here in Your Arms" (1965), written for her by Tom Springfield, Helen was as smoky and seductive as Springfield's sister Dusty (who, after getting her first hits with ex-Shapiro songwriter Mike Hawker, would follow Helen's Tennessee pilgrimmage in 1968 for her own Dusty in Memphis album). Even on "In My Calendar" (1966), a baroque flower-power song dressed up with trumpets and a harpsichord, she chanted in a choirgirl contralto that could break your heart. Some of her other great recordings include "He Knows How to Love Me" (1964), "Without Your Love" (1964), "Remember Me" (1964) and "A Glass of Wine" (1969, for Pye Records), as well as her remakes of "Fever" (her last charting single), "Walk on By" and "All Alone Am I"--all from 1964. Though she lacked the vocal elasticity of fellow British pop singer Glenda Collins on hard rocking material, Helen could deliver ballads so soulfully that some of her mid- to late-'60s recordings, especially her final Columbia single, "Stop and You Will Become Aware" (1967), are now prized by England's "Northern Soul" collectors.
Despite Helen Shapiro's chart success all over the world, she never clicked in the United States. Columbia's parent company, EMI, made a deal with Capitol Records in 1961 to release her music in North America, and Helen flew to New York to introduce herself on The Ed Sullivan Show, but her multi-million-seller, "Walking Back to Happiness," hit the outer wall of the U.S. charts, at No. 100, in December 1961, and was gone a week later. Capitol gave up after four releases. Two 1962 singles on Epic Records and a later single on Tower Records likewise went nowhere.
Helen Shapiro continued as a popular performer, starring in a couple of West End stage productions of Oliver! and Cabaret, touring and recording with jazz bands, and eventually moving into gospel music after she became a Jew for Jesus in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, her later recordings lacked the magic of her best pop material and her maturing contralto voice lost some of its resonance. A couple of pop albums in 1978 and 1983 suffered from disco-flavored arrangements and the enervating presence of synthesizers. And despite the excellence of her early, teenage jazz performances, such as "Teenager Sings the Blues" and "St. Louis Blues" (both 1961), her two 1980s jazz albums were more slick than soulful, with Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" perhaps the exception. In late 2003 she finished her much-publicized "farewell tour" throughout the U.K. and Europe, performing a mix of pop, jazz and gospel concerts at mid-level venues. She currently restricts herself to performing gospel music, though a jazz album is reportedly in the works. We can only hope that someday she'll do another pop album with a savvy producer (no "keyboards," please) and a cache of great songs (maybe she should finally get around to recording "Misery"). But no matter where she goes from here, Helen Shapiro will always be an iconic figure who, like Buddy Holly, visually and musically sums up, and summons up, a distinctive time and place.
(An abridged version of this article ran in the August 23, 2002, edition of Goldmine magazine.)
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