Sunday, December 14, 2008

Helen Shapiro: You Don't Know

No moving pictures this week, just some photographs and a recording by the most inexplicably unfulfilled talent of British pop music.

"Walking Back to Happiness" was cheesy, "Don't Treat Me Like a Child traded too obviously on her youth, but this is a very good record. And it was made when Shapiro was only 14.

More than that, Shapiro enjoyed phenomenal popularity early in her career. As Wikipedia tells it:

In 1961, at the age of fourteen, she had two number one hits in the UK: "You Don't Know" and "Walkin' Back to Happiness"; and, indeed, her first four single releases all went into the top three of the UK Singles Chart. Her mature voice made her an overnight sensation, as well as the youngest female chart topper in the UK ...

Before she was sixteen years old, Shapiro had been voted Britain's 'Top Female Singer', and when The Beatles had their first national tour in 1963, it was as her supporting act.

She also starred in the film It's Trad, Dad.

After that, though Shaprio is still performing today, it was all downhill. Yet listening to this record Shaprio was a better singer than many British women (Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black) who enjoyed successful solo careers in the 1960s. So what went wrong?

The opening of an article on Shapiro's career gives some of the story:

British vocalist Helen Shapiro keenly remembers opening the pages of Melody Maker on a tour bus in February 1963 and being greeted by the headline: "Is Helen Shapiro a 'Has-Been' at 16?"

"I was still getting in the charts, but not necessarily the top five, or even the top ten," she wrote in her 1993 autobiography, Walking Back to Happiness. "I'd been a novelty at fourteen but I suffered from the Shirley Temple syndrome. I'd grown up. Suddenly I was beginning to look a little bit passe in spite of topping the bill."

A member of one of the opening bands leaned over her seat to assure her, "You don't want to be bothered with that rubbish. You're all right. You'll be going on for years."

John Lennon's words were comforting, but that moment was a milestone for her, "the beginning of change; not just for me but for a lot of solo singers."

So Shaprio was seen as a novelty act, which made it all the harder to adjust to the changes that were about to take place in the British music scene. But surely she had the talent to adjust to those changes?

The real problem seems to be that Shapiro's career was very badly managed. Lennon and McCartney wrote a song - "Misery" - for her, but the record company declined to release it as a single. And it also delayed releasing her version of "It's My Party" until Lesley Gore had already had a hit with it.

The truth is probably that Helen Shapiro found fame a couple of years too soon. If she had been a fresh face in 1964 she would surely have been an important part of the sixties scene. As it was, with that semi beehive hairdo, she even looked like a survivor from the 1950s.

And it is worth remembering just how young Shapiro was in the sixties. In an interview she remembers a schoolfriend from the 1950s:

Q - He was nine and the rest of us were ten. We went to the same school. We had this little group. None of us could really play the instruments. I played on a little plastic toy guitar, tuned to a ukulele. Marc had a sort of beaten up guitar and this other guy had a smashing, lovely guitar. In those days, to have a guitar, I'm talking 1956 or there abouts, was like a big deal. Not like now. We used to sing Elvis songs and a little bit of Buddy Holly. Yeah, we just kind of sang songs together.

Q - Did you ever perform anywhere?

A - A couple of times we went to a couple of local cafes and we said "Hey Mister, can we sing in your cafe?" And we did. Then they gave us a cup of tea each and kicked us out. We did play in the school once, during the summer break when some of the kids would still go to the school for meals, because their parents were working. It was a poor area. And we would go and play and sing for them.

Marc, in those days was called Mark Feld. He grew up to be Marc Bolan and did not find fame himself until the sixties were just about played out and psychedelia was descending into glam rock.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

ISTR that Humph came to the rescue and took her under his wing when she was converting herself into a singer of standards. IMO she also had some intonation problems in the early days of this process.

However, she has survived. One wonders whether Amy Winehouse will do as well.