Hit Pa­rade

Bill Bax­ter

Evergreen - - Contents - BILL BAX­TER Fur­ther In­for­ma­tion He­len’s web­site can be found at www. man­na­mu­sic. co. uk Walk­ing Back to Hap­pi­ness: An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ( Fount, 1994).

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.

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