On The Bus with The Beatles – Helen Shapiro!

Sometimes cultural earthquakes and revolutions, like their political equivalents, can turn the world upside down with staggering rapidity. Looking around after the initial shock new figures, previously hidden, become prominent and established seemingly impregnable careers and reputations may lie buried or broken in the settling dust.

The emergence of The Beatles, in 1963 in Britain and the following year in America, as joyous rock ‘n’ roll revolutionaries, signalled that the times really were a changin’ and that all our maps would need need to be hastily and radically redrawn to reflect a new reality (if you want to be fancy a new paradigm).

Today’s tale on The Immortal Jukebox concerns a British early 1960s pop phenomenon, Helen Shapiro, now largely forgotten- except by faithful greybeards like me. Yet, this is an artist with a thrilling and wholly distinctive voice who began recording at the age of 14 and whose first four four records included two British number 1 smashes and two further top 3 hits (as well as once grazing the Billboard Hot 100 following two Ed Sullivan Show appearances).

An artist whose first pre-teenage group included the future glam rock star Marc Bolan (T Rex) and who headlined The Beatles first British nationwide tour in January/February 1963 (they were fourth on the bill!). An artist who inspired Lennon and MacCartney to write, ‘Misery’ and who recorded, ‘It’s My Party’ in Nashville before Leslie Gore had ever heard the song.

Despite all this Helen Shapiro was overtaken by a cultural tsunami and was effectively spent as a pop star before she was old enough to drive a car or vote! Perhaps, additionally she was a victim of, ‘Shirley Temple Syndrome’ whereby the public’s fickle support is withdrawn from a child star when they inevitably grow up and are no longer the incarnation of, ‘cute’.

On a personal note I should add that her, never to be forgotten once heard, 1961 signature hit, ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ (below) is among the first songs I ever remember begging my parents to buy for me and probably the first pop song I could enthusiastically sing, word perfect, as the vinyl spun around at 45 revolutions per minute on our treasured Dansette record player (Helen Shapiro’s parents didn’t even own a record player when her first single was issued!)

If you can screen out the dated backup chipmunky ‘Yeh Yeh Yeh’ background singers you will hear an astonishingly confident and powerful singer singing her heart out and generating emotion at power station levels. ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ is pure pop champagne – bubbling over with fizzing life every time it is played. Listening to it since invariably rekindles the ecstasy I felt as a 6 year old hearing it for the first time. That’s quite a gift and one I will always be grateful to Helen Shapiro for.

The material and production on many of Helen’s records too often reflected the safety first, by the music business play book, of old school pre rock ‘n’ roll professional Norrie Paramor. It was probably deemed not sensible for Helen to risk her moment(s) of fame by recording songs by, ‘unproven’ writers and in styles not yet fully appreciated (or heard) in Britain. So this fine voice rarely flew unfettered.

Astonishingly, Helen’s management did not take up the offer to record The Beatles, ‘Misery’ and become the first artist to cover a Lennon/MacCartney original composition. This was compounded by the later failure to issue her take on, ‘It’s My Party’ as soon as she had recorded it!

Still, as you can hear in her number 1 hit, ‘You Don’t Know’ there was always a quality of poignancy and direct emotional heft in Helen’s voice which still reaches out across the decades. In all her records, from every era of her career, you can detect an artist who simply loves to sing, to make songs come alive for the audience as she becomes more alive singing them.

It is important to remember that the Britain that Helen toured with The Beatles in 1963 during one of the coldest winters for many centuries was emphatically not the, ‘Swinging Sixties’ Britain that would bloom later in the decade. Though the nation was finally, after more than a decade of post war austerity beginning to enjoy economic uplift it would be a country unrecognisable to my own children: as alien in many ways as a distant planet.

In common with many working class families of the time I lived in a monochrome world of Without! Without a telephone, without a car, without central heating, without a bathroom (I bathed in a tin bath), without a refrigerator. Crucially we did have a radio and a tiny black and white TV with a 12 inch screen that seemed to work best when firmly disciplined by means of heavy slaps to the frame.

Through the TV and the radio I became dimly aware there was a wind of change stirring and that it was likely I was young enough to be a lucky recipient of its transformative power. The TV and radio also introduced me to records that sketched out new vistas of emotion and identification for me. I then bought my records (more accurately had them bought for me) from a stall in the street market that literally took place outside our front door.

The riot of colour and glamour that would characterise the,’Swinging Sixties’ was still securely stoppered in the genie’s bottle as Helen, The Beatles and 9 other acts boarded the coach in early February 1963 to visit Bradford, Doncaster, Wakefield, Carlisle and Sunderland on the first leg of the fourteen date tour they shared. The Beatles had just issued, ‘Please Please Me’ and they were yet to record first LP. That would happen on 11 February during a break on the tour. The impact of that LP would change everything and turn a raw bunch of provincial rockers into world wreckers.

You can see something of the joshing elder brother/adoring kid sister relationship The Beatles and Helen Shapiro developed on the bus in a clip (sometimes available on Youtube) from the TV show, ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ from October 1963 when Beatlemania was an established reality.

By 1964 Helen Shapiro was effectively an ex pop star. For many that would have been a devastating and embittering fate. Not for Helen Shapiro. Helen Shapiro’s truest ambition was never to be a pop star. She had a vocation as a singer so when the caravan of fame passed on she was not emotionally defeated rather she carried on singing – carrying out what she came to regard as her god given vocation.

A careful comb through her record catalogue yields a number of, ‘how that did that one get away’ gems and displays her passion and versatility as a singer. Among those the one that holds my heart is, ‘I Walked Right In’. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Helen had been born in Brooklyn rather than Bethnal Green!

Helen Shapiro was always a lot more than the cute teenager with the Beehive hairdo, the gingham, the lace and the train-stopping voice. In the half century since her 60s supernova moment Helen has continued to honour her gifts. This has included playing the role of Nancy in the musical, ‘Oliver’ and a dozen years or so proving her jazz chops live and in recordings with the wonderfully swinging Humphrey Lyttleton Band (Humphrey, a true gentleman maintained no prejudices except one in favour of real talent for which he had an unerring eye and ear). These days Helen’s gifts are directed through gospel outreach evenings in the service of her faith which became central to her life from 1987.

Even in this context she still sings, ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ though now as a mature reflection rather than youthful impulse.

She has certainly earned that right.

The Avett Brothers, Mahalia & Randy : A Closer Walk

‘When one is a child, when one is young, when one has not yet reached the age of recognition, one thinks the world is strong, that the strength of God is endless and unchanging.

But after the thing has happened – whatever that thing might be – that brings recognition, that one knows irrevocably how very fragile is the world, how very, very fragile …’ (Russell Hoban from the Novel, ‘Pilgermann’)

‘Pilgrims are persons in motion … Seeking something we might call contemplation, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way’ (Richard Neibuhr)

‘Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of joy to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.’

(Sir Walter Raleigh)

Solvitor Ambulando! (It is solved by walking!)

We are all pilgrims. Between the moments of first drawing breath and breathing out for the last time last we all conduct our own pilgrimages.

For some of us this will involve solitary, epic journeys, for others the daily accumulation of quiet thoughts and unnoticed actions among friends and family close to home.

We all find, one way or another, our own road to walk the way.

The song featured on The Immortal Jukebox today, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ is a traditional gospel song that has lifted, comforted, and accompanied many a pilgrim on their walk through life as well as galvanising many fine musicians in many genres to produce inspirational performances.

Of course, the song has often (especially in New Orleans) been played as a cortege song as many a coffined pilgrim makes their final earthy journey : and who is to say it does not comfort them at that moment every bit as much as the weeping mourners?

With no further ado I’ll kick things off with a barn-burning performance from a band, North Carolina’s The Avett Brothers, who have regularly commanded audiences to their feet with their fervent encore performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (Warning: once heard this version will echo in your mind for months to come!)

Wow! Brothers Seth and Scott Avett know only one way to play – with lung busting, nerve shredding, whole hearted, heart bursting, total fraternal commitment: so that you are breathlessly swept away by the tidal wave irresistibility of their performance.

I’m convinced that if, at the end here, they had kept on playing and said,’Come On! Let’s walk together to the end of the earth (wherever that might be) the whole audience would have joined them!

So where did this great song come from?

As so often we have to rely on conjecture and guesswork as much as documentary evidence. It is surely true that the song emerged out of the African-American encounter with slavery and the soothing sonorous cadences of the Bible.

The idea of the suffering pilgrim being accompanied on their daily travels and eventual journey across the Jordan by a compassionate saviour runs very deep.

Late in the 1800s Martha Lankton and William Kirkpatrick published, ‘Closer Walk with Thee’. Sometime in the early 20th century the Reverend Elijah Cluke from Atchinson, Kansas seems to have come up with something very close to the song we have today though gospel publishing luminary Kenneth Morris had a hand in the process too.

Gospel choirs, quartets and soloists recognised the strength of the song and it became in the 1930s a staple of the sacred repertoire. Still, it was just two months before Pearl Harbor when it was first recorded by the Selah Jubilee Singers.

Since then there is no counting the number of versions that have been recorded (I’ll point to some superior versions in my Notes).

When Van Morrison, in his endlessly absorbing song of pilgrimage and contemplation, ‘Common One’ was looking back at the voices that had stirred his soul, calling forth his own voice and setting him off on his continuing journey towards Avalon he reached down deep to exclaim, ‘The voice of Mahalia Jackson came through the ether’ to acknowledge the spiritual power and inspiration that the, ‘Queen of Gospel’ has exercised on generations of her fellow citizens in the United States and on singers and musicians all over the world.

When you listen to the awesome, regal power of her performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (a song she sang for her whole life) you will surely agree with Martin Luther King that such a blessed voice comes along not once in a century but rather once in a millennium.

Mahalia, when she sang, was clearly filed to the brim with the Spirit and her gift was to honour and glorify that Spirit through the stately magnificence of her performances.

There is an unquestionable healing power in her singing which seems to accept and contain, unafraid, the inevitable pain of life even while her voice is uplifted by a faith which insists that no journey of pain has to be walked alone.

The penultimate version featured is by Randy Travis perhaps the greatest singer country music has produced in the last 40 years or so.

Randy’s voice has a manly, burnished elegance such that when he has a song worthy of his talent he can touch your heart and soul as few singers have ever done.

As a man he remains a pilgrim whose life has provided him with glittering triumphs along with devastating bouts of addiction and illness.

I am pleased to read only today that he is continuing to recover from a debilitating stroke and that he has just got married.

The restrained, strangely moving, inner-lit, fervour of his performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ must owe something to his hard won understanding that those to whom great gifts are given are not exempt from experiencing how fragile, how very, very fragile life can be.

I wish him well in the miles he has yet to walk.

To conclude today I turn to the magnificently named New Orleans native, Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffin, accompanied by the Rebirth Band who returns, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ to its incarnation as a song to steady the heart and lift the spirit as another brother or sister is carried away on the day of their burial.

Kermit has indeed played this song hundreds of times at New Orleans funerals and this shows in the relaxed authority he brings to it below.

I hear this version as an affecting, consolatory amalgam, of defiant vitality, unashamed sorrow, purposeful dignity and heart-shadowing grief.

‘Just a Closer Walk’ is a song which will always live because it speaks to our bone deep understanding that nothing in this world is permanent and that each step we take is a further step on our path to a destination far beyond the grasp of our limited human senses.

Yet each of us may feel our burdens eased when shared and our load made lighter by melody and song guiding us gently to some farther shore.

Notes:

The Avett Brothers – I was tremendously cheered when I first discovered them because they gave me, once again, that sense that I had found, ‘My band’ – one I could commit to without snarky reservation.

I was bowled over by their sheer joy in making music and their seeming indifference to the dictates of what they should do according to the music business moguls and analysts.

I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their records but I particularly recommend:

‘Mignonette’ (2004), ‘The Gleam’ (2006), ‘I and Love and You’ (2009) and ‘Live Vol 3’ (2010).

Recommended versions of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Van Morrison
Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash
Dr John
Louis Armstrong
Patsy Cline
Harry Dean Stanton (a cameo performance in the Paul Newman film, ‘Cool Hand Luke’)
Corey Harris
Allen Toussaint

The Beatles & Bowie agree: The Merseybeats are Fab!

British Beat – Some Other Guys 1

The Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th 1964, viewed by some 73 million people (!) was an epochal moment in the history of popular music and indeed of global popular culture. The world would never be quite the same again. Additionally, their Sullivan show debut red letter marked a new, wholly unanticipated, chapter in the, ‘Special relationship’ between the peoples of Britain and The United States Of America.

Following in the wake of The Beatles overwhelming chart triumphs and virtual colonisation of the hearts and imaginations of an entire generation of American youth battalions of British Beat groups began packing their bags and stared dreamily at their atlases as they wondered what the fabled cities of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco were really like. Could it true that they were on their way there and that when they arrived they would be screamed at by hordes of gorgeous young women, celebrated for their ‘cute’ accents and garlanded as members of a wholly welcomed invasion?

For some like the Rolling Stones and The Who, Field Marshalls of the Invasion, this was indeed the case and they would go on over the following half century to pursue storied careers now commemorated in DVDs, Box Sets and epic myth making tours. But while the Generals and Staff Officers of any army always grab the lion’s share of the glory and the headlines, others in the ranks – the regulars, the foot sore infantry, sometimes have their fleeting moment(s) in the sun too.

The, ‘Some Other Guys’ series will feature posts on the lesser lights of the British Beat era who nevertheless made some great records that endure as fine music as well as being emblematic of the times.

So, today I showcase The Merseybeats/Merseys – a group who played hundreds of times at Liverpool’s legendary Cavern club in the early 1960s, alternating as headliners with the Beatles. In many respects they were like younger brothers of The Beatles – sharing their enthusiasms if not the overwhelming charisma and depth of talent of the Fab Four (but then who did!).

They did however produce a classic record in 1966, ‘Sorrow’. Both The Beatles and David Bowie were fond of the group and, ‘Sorrow’ in particular. The Beatles directly quoted from the song in their, ‘It’s All Too Much’ and former fan club member Bowie had a substantial hit with his sometimes camp, sometimes impassioned, wholly Bowiesque, version of the song which appeared on his early 70s covers album, ‘Pin Ups’.

The Merseys version, below, intimates that that the unreachable beauty, the longed for lover with the long blonde hair and the eyes of blue, may well turn out to be not an angel but the Devil’s daughter and the cause of long lasting sorrow as well as momentary joy. Or so it so often seems in the overheated imaginations of hormonally ravaged, emotionally immature, teenage boys! Later, spurned, the young man may come to realise that thinking about his fate might well be an illicit pleasure in its own right and cue up, ‘Sorrow’ time and again until the next love of his life appears.

The charmingly morose vocals are by the key duo of the Merseybeats/Merseys – Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley who also respectively played rhythm and lead guitar. The record label assures us that the track was produced by Kit Lambert (then manager of The Who) though I am inclined to hear more profoundly the influence of John Paul Jones (later of Led Zeppelin fame) who played the opening bowed bass figure and surely arranged the horns which feature so effectively.

The great Clemente Anselmo Arturo ‘Clem’ Cattini, the doyenne of UK session drummers, plays with the professional expertise he brought to over 40 British number 1 singles. ‘Sorrow’ will take up permanent residence in your musical memory. I’d like to feature two more songs to illustrate the worth of the Band. First, the Merseybeats 1964 million selling ballad, ‘I Think Of You’ which in addition to the aforementioned Crane and Kinsley has Aaron Williams on guitar and the late John Banks behind the drum kit.

This swooner with its attractive guitar figure was surely meant to play as the mirror ball scattered its indiscriminate temporary glamour over local dance floors. Perhaps many of the dancers as this song played thought of, ‘the one who got away’ even as they held close the one they were dancing with that night. The record is contained and contentedly wraps us up in satisfying angst. Finally a more dramatic and weighty performance from 1965, their version of Tony Colton and Ray Smith’s magnificent cri de couer, ‘I Stand Accused’ (later to be given a thrilling, amphetamine rush version by Elvis Costello). Tony Colton, as secret hero of the UK Music scene, will feature later in this series.

The above performance reveals an altogether grittier, sweatier, side to The Merseybeats. This, surely, is how they would have sounded in stygian gloom of The Cavern as the crowd, packed way beyond capacity, urged them on for chorus upon chorus before they all needed to groggily come up for air.

Few glossily illustrated, footnoted tomes will be written about the Merseybeats yet they surely left their mark on the 60s musical landscape and with, ‘Sorrow’ that mark is likely to prove indelible.

Notes: The original version of, ‘Sorrow’ was written and produced in 1965 in a hazy folk-rock style by the New York City wise guy team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer for The McCoys which featured guitar wunderkind Rick Derringer. Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer issued records under the name The Strangeloves including the garage rock staple, ‘I Want Candy’.

Richard Gottehrer is very likely to feature here on The Jukebox later as he went on to be an important figure in the New York New Wave scene (producing records for Richard Hell and Blondie) and co-found Sire Records.

‘Some Other Guy’ a raucous 1962 R&B by Richard Berry (written by Leiber & Stoller) has, as the the more astute among you will have already figured out, provided the inspiration for the, ‘Some Other Guys’ series. It was frequently played live by The Beatles in their Cavern days.

Van Morrison : Carrickfergus (Elegy for Vincent)

The Unfinished conversation:

‘There you are …… ‘

‘Grand, Grand ….’

‘Isn’t there a fine stretch in the evenings now’

Aye – there’s a fair dazzle of daffodils over the old road’

‘Did you hear that McCoy’s retiring! And didn’t he drive in a 14/1 winner, at the front every step of the way, at his last Cheltenham.’

‘Sure, many a time I’ve seen him near lift an animal over the line to get a winner’ – we will not see his like again.’

‘If you had to guess who, in their seventies, would record an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra and pull it off who would you pick?’

‘Not Bob! But after the Christmas record who could ever be surprised again!’ We will not see his like again’

‘You’d hardly recognise the lad now – he’s up to my shoulder’

‘God bless him – isn’t it natural. Before too long it’s you that will be looking up at him’

‘Well I can see you need to be on your way. I’ll see you further on up the road’

‘Aye, but take your time, take your time – there’s plenty of road.’

In memory of my friend, Vincent Roche (RIP) who was one of nature’s gentlemen. A craftsman, a scholar of music and horseflesh and a man of wry humour and quiet dignity. Vincent was a proud Irishman from Foxford in the County of Mayo.

We often traded lines from the great ballads of the Irish tradition as opening salvos or payoff lines in our conversations:

‘… And we made a football of his rowdy-dow-dow’

‘… He never tried to go railing from Ennis as far as Kilkee’

‘… One star awake as the swan in the evening moved over the lake’

‘… Down by the sally gardens my love and I did meet’

‘… The pale moon was rising above the green mountain’

‘… And I said let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’

Today, in his honour, I feature a luminous performance of, ‘Carrickfergus’ by the greatest singer Ireland has ever produced, Van Morrison, accompanied by the legendary Chieftains who provide the sympathetic melodic and rhythmic ground against which Van weaves his profound magic.

Van makes emotionally real the knowledge we have in our bones that our relations and dearest friends are all bound to pass on like the melting snow. Treasure them while you share the same stretch of road.

Wherever we wander most of us keep an image in our hearts of the home place and all of us are mesmerised by the waves of the salty sea ebbing and flowing as they have done for millennia before we were born and as they will do long after we are gone.

P.S. Those of you interested in my more literary efforts and Ireland might like to look up the, ‘Once In A Blue Moon A Poem’ post below.