This time the focus is on a singer who, at the beginning of the 1960s, was voted the UK’s top female singer. She had more than one record that made it to number one in the hit parade, as well as a few other mega-hit records. And she became a super star at the age of 14.
The lady in question is Helen Shapiro. On 8th June we organised a tribute concert to celebrate her achievements. I booked the Raw Cats to perform for us. Regular readers of this column will remember my glowing comments about them, in particular their leader Valery Setkin. As lead vocalist and keyboard player, it is he who makes the Raw Cats special. He’s one of the legends of Russian rock’n’roll, a larger than life character with a colourful history. I’ve told you some wild true stories about him in earlier columns. Some others are best not published in view of their adult nature, but take it from me he’s a real character as well as a real nice guy. The concert in June was a great success, thanks in large measure to Valery’s performance.
Helen Shapiro was born into a London Jewish family. She had a working class upbringing, living most of her childhood in a council house in Hackney. A key inspiration for her future singing career was that her family was very musical; not in a professional sense, but there were lots of singing in the family and Helen was encouraged by her parents in this endeavour.
You have only to listen to her records to see how unusual her voice was for a girl her age. It was much deeper than that of other teenage girls. It was also rich and seductive. Added to her good looks, it wasn’t surprising she found fame at such an early age.
Of course at the comprehensive school she attended, her school friends had a much less polite description of her voice. They called her “Foghorn” or “Queen Mary” after the foghorn sound the old Queen Mary ship would make. She along with some of her school friends founded a band. Some of them had instruments, including a boy called Mark Feld who had a guitar, who Helen described as “a chubby little boy who couldn’t play it anyway”. They would perform all the famous rock’n’roll songs of the day, especially Elvis numbers like “Hound Dog”, “Got a Lot of Living To Do”, “Teddy Bear”, etc. And the “chubby little boy ?” – the boy called Mark Feld later had a career in pop music; he changed his stage name and became Mark Bolan!
Her family saved up some money for her to attend a School of Modern Pop Singing once a week. The owner of the school Maurice Burman managed to interest one of his contacts in the business, John Schroeder from Columbia Records, in Helen. Columbia agreed to give her a chance. Her first single was released in February 1961, when she was still only 14 years old. It was entitled “Don’t Treat Me Like a Child.” For those of you familiar with the lyrics of the song, it is not difficult to understand why it became such a smash hit amongst the youth of that period. The lyrics told of the social “rebellion” amongst the rock’n’roll generation. The record very quickly made it to number 3 in the charts and Shapiro, at the age of 14, was now a huge star and the country’s most popular female singer. Before the year was over, she had two records which made it to number one, “You Don’t Know” and “”Walkin’ Back to Happiness”.
And because of her age, she was still attending comprehensive school during all this success. She describes this “dual life” at that time as follows: “Everyone seemed to find it so strange that I’d be on stage at some major venue at night and back at my school desk the next morning. I took it all in my stride. Somehow I was able to keep the two worlds separate. When I was at school I was just one of the girls. I never saw myself as anything different.”
To give an idea just how big she was in terms of success, in 1963 the Beatles had their first national tour, as a SUPPORTING Act for Helen Shapiro!
While still a teenager, she married her manager. The marriage did not last too long, although their separation was fairly amicable. By the time she was still in her late teens, her stardom was on the wane. It sounds amazing given how young she still was. But the advent of the Beatles’ generation and the era of British beat music made her look a bit old-fashioned, with her bee-hive hair style and pre-Beatles singing style. Newer female singing stars came along in the 1960s, the likes of Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Lulu, who seemed more in tune with the new 1960s’ style and culture.
But Shapiro’s career was definitely not over. She turned to cabaret, performing in various clubs throughout the country. This lasted until the early 1970s, at which stage her career took another turn. She began performing in theatre, especially stage musicals. She really loved this work and said it was even more thrilling and exciting than the mega-stardom she had enjoyed in the early 1960s. Then from 1984, for the following twenty years, she toured extensively with Humphrey Lyttleton’s jazz band. She had always loved singing jazz and she considered Lyttleton’s invitation to join with his band as another wonderful event in her life. During all this period, she continued performing with her own band whenever time permitted. In the late 1980s she married the actor John Judd.
1987 was a pivotal year in her life. If you have a good memory and are a regular reader of this column, you might remember my article on the great Little Richard. It included some details about his religious life and how important it was to him, following his conversion to Christianity. Something sort of similar happened to Helen. She had been born and raised into a Jewish family, but in 1987 she turned to Christianity. As she had no wish to completely forsake her Jewish roots, she became a “Messianic Jew” i.e. one who believes in Jesus as the Messiah. This faith became crucially important in her life and from then on a large part of her performances involved singing gospel songs and speaking about her faith, not dissimilar to the way Little Richard had done.
It’s strange to think of someone’s rockin’ career being on the wane when still a teenager, but this is what happened to her. But as you can see above, she moved on to other styles and interests which gave her great personal success and happiness. So here’s to Helen Shapiro, Britain’s first ever female rock star !