Happy Birthday Helen Shapiro! Walking Back To Happiness!

Some songs stay with you all of your life.

Some conjunction of their innate merit and the circumstances of your life when first heard sears that song into your memory for evermore.

Helen Shapiro’s ‘Walking Back to Happiness’ is such a song for me.

Every time I hear the song I get the same euphoric rush of delight.

Few things have proved so reliable for more than half a Century!

So, in honour of Helen’s 71st Birthday this week I am reblogging my tribute to her and taking the opportunity to wish her health and happiness for many years ahead.

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 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 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).

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Additionally Helen’s first pre-teenage group included the future glam rock star Marc Bolan (T Rex) and she headlined The Beatles first British nationwide tour in January/February 1963 (they were fourth on the bill!).

Lennon and MacCartney were inspired to write, ‘Misery’ for her and she 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Perhaps, she was also a victim of, ‘Shirley Temple Syndrome’ whereby the public’s fickle support is withdrawn from a child star when they inevitably grow up and are no longer the incarnation of ‘cute’.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 stood 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.

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Before The Beatles – Billy Fury! (Wondrous Place)

British Beat – Some Other Guys 2

John Lennon, with characteristic force, once famously observed that before Elvis there was nothing. When you consider the lamentable history of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Britain in the years preceding the advent of The Beatles it’s hard not to agree with my friend Barclay Butler who once regaled me, over several pints of beer, with a Shakespeare parody proclaiming that, ‘Before The Beatles, in this Sceptred Isle, this other Eden, this demi-paradise, this precious stone set in the silver sea – there was nothing, nowt, nada, Zilch!’

Now, I like a sweeping generalisation as much as the next man but as an old grey-beard I’ve also learned that the rule tends to be proved by the inevitable exception. So I feel it incumbent on me to say that Lonnie Donegan, the founder of Skiffle music in Britain, really did strum the first immortal chords of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the United Kingdom.

In addition,in the the process of recording fine records such as, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and, ‘Cumberland Gap’ he inspired every superstar British rocker who followed, from Paul McCartney to Mark Knopfler, to launch their careers in music.

There are also two other pre Beatles records, both featuring wonderful lead playing by disgracefully under appreciated guitarist Joe Moretti, which would fully merit their place on any roadhouse jukebox.

I urge you to spare some of your precious time to listen to 1959s magnificently kinetic, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ by the enigmatic Vince Taylor (the supposed model for David Bowie’s immortal creation Ziggy Stardust) and the thrillingly evocative film noir swagger and strut of, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates from 1960.

As is the way of things most people who know, ‘Cadillac’ know it from the properly rowdy cover by The Clash while, ‘Shakin’ found wide fame through inferior versions by, ‘Guess Who’ in North America and Normie Rowe in Australia. Sometimes the originals really are the best!

Everyone knows that The Beatles were from Liverpool and it was also from that great city on The Mersey that Billy Fury, Britain’s only remotely credible pre Fab Four rocker, hailed. He now has a permanent memorial there through a proud statue which adorns the Albert Dock – an appropriate location for a man who spent two years working as a deck hand on a Mersey tug boat The Formby.

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Billy as you can see from the image above was moodily handsome in the vein of James Dean, Chet Baker and Elvis. He also sported a mighty quiff and looked dynamite in neon coloured jackets! Moreover, in contrast to almost all his pre Beatles contemporaries, he had a sense of the creative energy and spontaneity at the heart of the revolutionary music sweeping all over the world from the American South.

Billy, like millions of us, had his head, his heart and his soul set aswirl by the epoch shattering sounds of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He also had affection for the folk art masterpieces produced by the Orpheus of Alabama, Hank Williams.

Perhaps it was Billy’s childhood experience of rheumatic fever resulting in a permanently damaged heart that gave him his fatalistic sense that he would die young, his aura of diffident vulnerability and a wounded charisma that was particularly attractive to his female fans.

His career proper began in 1958 in, ‘You wouldn’t dare make it up’ circumstances. Eighteen year old Billy attended a Birkenhead, Liverpool rock/pop revue concert featuring a series of artists promoted by the Svengali like show business manager Larry Parnes. Hearing the self penned songs Billy (then known as Ronald Wycherley!) was pitching to Marty Wilde and instantly recognising his marketability Parnes pushed the trembling Billy onto the stage and by the next morning Ronald Wycherley was rechristened Billy Fury and off on the road in the tour bus!

Girls liked Billy’s looks and his sometimes shy, sometimes shameless, performing manner while the male members of the audience had to admit that he really could rock out when he wanted to.

Both sides of the Fury persona were featured on the 10 song album, ‘The Sound Of Fury’ with every song written by Billy, that he recorded in a single day in April 1960. The, ‘not too far from Sun Studio’ lead rockabilly guitar was provided by Joe Brown and the solid drums by Alan White. The whole album is over in half an hour yet it had then and still now retains the visceral impact of true Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Listen here to Billy bring some heat and style into the grey 1950s London with his own, ‘Turn My Back On You’

Now, hear his heart stilling, heart breaking, blood on the tracks ballad, ‘You Don’t Know’

Billy on record at least never really approached the kind of ecstatic abandon Elvis and Jerry Lee reached (who ever has?) but uniquely for Britain at the time he embodied an affecting personal engagement with his material and vocals that I still find admirable and moving.

His recurring poor health, lack of driving ambition and the erratic tides of popular taste left his career as a Rock ‘n’ Roll star effectively marooned once the Beatles led beat boom hit its stride in the mid 60s .

Yet amazingly, it turns out he had as many 60s hits (24) in Britain as his fellow Liverpudlians though their sales both in Britain and worldwide would, of course, have dwarfed his. Though he continued to write and record and always had a core of life long devotees he became one of those, ‘Whatever happened to’ figures so plentifully present in music history.

Billy, whose health was never robust, finally succumbed to his heart problems and died in 1982 aged only 42. Looking back, few who listen carefully will ever forget his look and his alluring voice. There is a poignancy about him that clutches at the heart.

To my mind Billy’s ability to inhabit a mysteriously powerful vulnerability reached its zenith with a record that haunted Billy (he recorded it three times) and will surely haunt you too – ‘Wondrous Place’.

This is one of those songs where you feel like you are eavesdropping, in an unsettling yet addictive way, to a very intimate psychic drama. Billy seems to be singing to himself as he walks alone in the pre dawn early morning hours down some lonesome moonlit road; perhaps some Merseyside dockland version of Hank Williams’ lost highway.

There is a sleepy reverie suggested by the slow river drifting tempo and the heartbeat percussion. Billy’s lovely humming breaks and artful hesitations combined with his tender, airy vocal seems that of a man trying, not entirely successfully, to persuade himself that the wondrous place he hymns is his to revisit when he wills. There is more of the wistful goodbye to love lost in this performance than a celebration of a continuing relationship.

‘Wondrous Place’ lasts less than two and a half minutes but as you listen you feel it lasts a much longer time. Somehow it makes you aware of all the individual breaths of life that fill all the seconds, all the minutes of all the days and nights you have left to you.

And, perhaps all of us carry memories; recalled on moonlit walks or quiet moments snatched from the hourly burly of everyday life of a wondrous place that we can never quite recapture though we can revisit it in the echoing halls of our imaginations – especially when a singer like Billy Fury shows us the way.