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 Perhaps, additionally she was a victim of, ‘Shirley Temple Syndrome’ whereby the public’s fickle support is withdrawn from a child star when they inevitably grow up and are no longer the incarnation of, ‘cute’.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.