We have all seen the television pictures of when Beatlemania was at its height in the mid- Sixties: John, Paul, George and Ringo waving from the steps of aeroplanes as hysterical fans held up messages and tried to breach the security fences; the four band members squeezing their way through pushing and shoving crowds as policemen linked arms to try and create a safe corridor for them to a hotel or theatre; the group performing on stage when their words and music were almost drowned out by the noise of screaming girls. And yet, only a few years before these crazy scenes, The Beatles were virtually unknown outside their native Liverpool. Their first hit record, “Love Me Do”, was only a moderate success ( number 17 in the UK charts in October 1962), and although the follow- up “Please Please Me” would shortly give the group their first number one and set The Beatles on the trajectory that would change pop music for ever and ignite that astonishing fanfrenzy around the world, when they embarked on their first UK tour in February 1963 they were still very much a support act.
As the tour bus travelled the roads of England, where theatres in Wakefield, Bedford, Carlisle and Sunderland were among the first venues, it seems incredible now — knowing what was to come — that The Beatles shared the same status on the tour as now- forgotten acts such as The Honeys, The Kestrels and the Red Price Band. Even more incredible was the fact that topping the bill, and above The Beatles in the pecking order — for a few weeks, at least — was a 16- year- old girl from Bethnal Green in London.
By the time the first show of the tour opened at the Gaumont, Bradford, on 2nd February, Helen Shapiro, the schoolgirl with a voice unusually deep for one so young, had already had five Top Ten hits ( including two singles that reached number one), been voted Britain’s “Top Female Singer” and caused a sensation when she became the youngest girl to top the bill at the London Palladium.
Helen was born on 28th September 1946, into a poor but hard- working and loving family. Her parents, piece- workers in the clothing industry, were descended from Russian Jewish immigrants and attended the local synagogue. Although there was little money to spare for luxuries, happy family gatherings of aunts, uncles and cousins, where there would be a lot of laughter, singing and music making, more than compensated for any lack of material possessions. As a child Helen displayed the gift that would soon lead to stardom, playing banjo and singing in a group at her school ( with a guitarist who went on to find fame as Marc Bolan in the glam- rock group T- Rex) and performing with her brother Ron’s skiffle and jazz bands.
When she was 13 Helen started having singing lessons at the Maurice Berman Academy in Baker Street. This eventually led to a tape of Helen singing “Birth of the Blues” landing on the desk of top EMI producer Norrie Paramor who was so impressed with the schoolgirl’s unusually mature and powerful voice that he offered her a recording contract.
The record company’s publicity machine and national press quickly latched onto Helen’s novelty value and photographs soon appeared of her attending recording sessions in her school uniform, complete with satchel. However, there was no denying the quality of her voice and delivery and in March 1961 her first single, “Don’t Treat Me Like A Child”, reached number three in the UK charts. This was followed by the million sellers, “You Don’t Know” ( number one in June 1961) and “Walkin’ Back To Happiness” ( top of the UK charts in September 1961, a hit in Europe, and the song for which she will always be remembered). A number of live performances followed, including that ground- breaking appearance at the Palladium, the obligatory slot for UK artists hoping to break into America on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, and further hit singles: “Tell Me What He Said” ( number two in February 1962), “Let’s Talk About Love” ( number 23, May 1962) and “Little Miss Lonely” which charted at number eight in July 1962 and proved to be Helen’s final Top Ten hit.
During that countrywide tour with The Beatles, Helen became very close to the Fab Four ( particularly John Lennon) who looked after her as they would a
younger sister. John and Paul even wrote a song specially for her, “Misery”, but the idea of Helen recording the number was vetoed by Paramor. John and Paul would go to the back of the bus to write songs, and it was during those hectic few weeks that the pair picked up their guitars and asked Helen to listen to their latest composition and tell them what she thought of it. The new song was “From Me To You”!
Looking back on that tour, Ringo acknowledged that “Helen was the star”, but by the time they played the final few dates everything had changed with The Beatles’ release of their debut LP, Please Please Me ( which included “Misery” as one of the tracks), ensuring that they were now the act that most of the audience wanted to see. The sudden flowering of pop music in Britain also ushered in a new wave of female singers — Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Dusty Springfield etc. — who suddenly seemed much fresher and more original.
Was Helen upset by the sudden shift in fashion and change in fortune? Not at all. Speaking many years later, she observed: “I’ve never been a showbizzy person, for me it’s always been about the music, and I consider myself blessed to have had the career I’ve had.”
Helen continued to release singles — songs that many of her die- hard fans regard as better than her hits — and make cabaret appearances where she could indulge in her real musical love: jazz. This led to an extensive tour with Humphrey Lyttelton and a one- woman show, Simply Shapiro. She also played the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in London’s West End and has appeared in numerous other musicals and pantomimes.
In recent years, Helen ( a devout believer in Jesus who is married to actor John Judd) has been recording gospel music and hosting “Gospel Outreaches” to talk about her faith and answer questions about her life.
And what a life!
A poster publicising Helen’s 1963 tour of the UK and a record sleeve with an unfortunate error! Opposite: A more recent poster which shows how Helen’s career has changed direction.