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Helen Shapiro

Dutch postcard by De Gruyter, nr. 8.


From 1961 until 1963 Helen Shapiro (1946) was England's teenage pop music queen, at one point selling 40,000 copies daily of her biggest single, Walkin' Back to Happiness, during a 19-week chart run. The singer and actress was only 14 when she was discovered. Shapiro had a rich, expressive voice properly sounding like the property of someone twice as old, and she matured into a seasoned professional very quickly.


Helen Shapiro was born in Bethnal Green in the East End of London in 1946. She is the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She grew up in London's East End. Her parents, though not affluent, encouraged musical aspirations in both her and her brother Ron. Her parents were too poor to own a record player but they encouraged music in their home. She was performing with a ukulele at age nine as part of a school group — supposedly called Susie & the Hula Hoops, whose members included a young Mark Feld (aka Marc Bolan) — that used to sing their own versions of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs. She subsequently sang with her brother Ron Shapiro's trad jazz turned skiffle outfit at local clubs before enrolling in classes at Maurice Burman's music school in London. She had a deep timbre to her voice, unusual in a girl not yet in her teens. School friends gave her the nickname ‘Foghorn’. Maurice Burman was so enamoured of Helen’s talent that he waived the fees to keep her as a student. He wrote to several record labels to promote interest in his students. EMI Records sent producer John Schroeder, who heard her at one of the classes and was impressed enough to record her and play it back for top EMI producer Norrie Paramor (responsible for signing Cliff Richard & the Shadows). Shapiro's voice was so mature that Paramor refused to believe from the evidence on a tape that it belonged to a 14-year-old. Helen came to his office wearing her school uniform with her satchel over her shoulder and belted out St. Louis Blues. She cut her first single, Please Don't Treat Me Like a Child, composed by John Schroeder and Mike Hawker, a few weeks later. It made number three in the UK charts in May 1961, and the record company’s publicity department made great play on the novelty value of her age.


Helen Shapiro’s second release, the ballad You don’t know, was issued three months later. In August 1961, it made 14-year-old Helen the youngest female artist to reach number one. The song stayed at the top of the charts for two weeks and eventually sold over a million copies. In September that year she turned 15 and left school to pursue her career in earnest. Live appearances, including a headliner spot at the legendary London Palladium – virtually unheard of for such an unseasoned entertainer – showcased Helen’s assuredness as a performer. Then she had her second number one hit in the UK: Walkin' Back to Happiness. Her execution of the song lifted it above the corniness she had initially feared and it is now considered her signature tune.Her mature voice made her an overnight sensation. The song also gave her some chart success in the rest of Europe and inspired an attempt to crack the American market. However, despite an appearance on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, the record just scraped into the US top 100. In 1962 she made her debut feature film, It's Trad, Dad! (1962, Richard Lester) and confirmed the breadth of her talent. Her second film appearance was in the Billy Fury film Play it cool (1962, Michael Winner). Before she was sixteen years old, Shapiro had been voted Britain's 'Top Female Singer', and when The Beatles had their first national tour (The Helen Shapiro Tour) in 1963, it was as her supporting act. During the tour the Beatles hit big and replaced Helen as top of the bill. Helen later found out that it was around this time that Lennon and McCartney penned Misery for her, but Paramor declined the offer without informing her. He preferred to release Queen for tonight, a firm fan favourite and a much-requested song, but slightly out of step with current trends. It reached a disappointing 33 in the UK charts. In early 1964, her cover of Fever proved her last top 40 hit.


By the time Helen Shapiro was in her late teens, her career as a pop singer was on the wane. Undaunted, she branched out as a performer in stage musicals, a jazz singer, (jazz being her first love musically), and more recently a gospel singer. She also began to concentrate more on stage work. In the early 1980’s she played the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart's musical, Oliver! in London's West End. Various other musicals, pantomimes and revival concerts followed. She also continued to tour, especially in mainland Europe and the Far East, where she remained in demand. Throughout the 1980’s she made guest appearances on many TV variety shows, either singing her old songs or promoting the odd new release. Shapiro has also appeared in British television soap operas; in particular Albion Market (1985) where she played one of the main characters up to the time it was taken off-air in August 1986. In August 1987 Shapiro became a committed Christian (Messianic believer). She has issued four Messianic albums since then, as well as appearing in a number of special Gospel Outreach evenings, singing and telling of how she found Jesus (Yeshua) as her Messiah. Shapiro retired from showbusiness at the end of 2002 to concentrate on her Gospel Outreach evenings. She is married to John Judd, an actor with numerous roles in British television and cinema. Her autobiography, published in 1993, was entitled Walking Back to Happiness. Shapiro is also mentioned in the BBC scifi comedy series Red Dwarf, because of her beehive hairstyle. She was married three times: Duncan C. Weldon (1967-1971), Morris Gundlash (1972-1977) and John Judd (1988-).


Sources: Graham Welch (Ready Steady Girls), Bruce Eder (All Music Guide), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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Taken on April 3, 2009