« 4-in-1 Printer Cleaning Paper | Home | Vintage Cassette Case for iPhone 4 »

July 27, 2011

Helen Shapiro — Once upon a time she was so big the Beatles opened for her


What a fascinating story by Marc Myers in today's Wall Street Journal about Helen Shapiro.

Excerpts follow.

Settling in for tea at the posh Langham Hotel here, Helen Shapiro put both elbows up on the table and flashed the same smile she made famous on British television back in the early 1960s. "How did you ever hear about me?" the 64-year-old asked, mystified that anyone from the U.S. would know of her earlier fame in Britain or even care.

Fifty years ago this summer, Ms. Shapiro was a 14-year-old pop sensation in the U.K. The singer—with her upbeat manner and swinging, soulful delivery—was more popular than the Beatles in Britain prior to their 1964 arrival in the U.S. So big that during a joint tour of the U.K. in early 1963, the Fab Four opened for her.

But as the British Invasion unfolded in the '60s, Ms. Shapiro was left behind. With a beehive hairdo, young face and Jewish last name that she refused to change, Ms. Shapiro lacked the willowy maturity of Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, who swept the U.S. charts.

Ms. Shapiro first formed a band at age 10 in 1956 with a cousin and a couple of friends, including Mark Feld—who later became Marc Bolan of T-Rex.

By 1960, Ms. Shapiro came to the attention of Norrie Paramor, a powerful Columbia Records executive in London who had produced hits for British pop star Cliff Richard. At first listen, Paramor thought Ms. Shapiro was a boy, given her basso-profundo voice on a demo of "Birth of the Blues." Signed to a six-month contract, she recorded "Don't Treat Me Like a Child" in January 1961. After her appearance on a British TV show, the tune shot to No. 3 in May.

Her U.K. follow-up, "You Don't Know," was released in June, hitting No. 1 by August and selling 500,000 copies. Promoted as the British Brenda Lee, Ms. Shapiro became red meat for the London tabloids.

Ms. Shapiro's third single, "Walkin' Back to Happiness," came out that September and rocketed to No. 1 in October.

After Ms. Shapiro's next single, "Tell Me What He Said," sailed to No. 2 in March 1962, she was cast in two teen-rocker films. A subsequent summer concert tour of Australia, New Zealand and Canada was a success, capped by an "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance in October.

A pop tour of the U.K. was arranged for February and March 1963, featuring five other acts, including the Beatles, who were billed last.

But Ms. Shapiro's good fortune was already getting wobbly. Halfway into the tour, the Beatles' "Please Please Me" hit No. 1 on several U.K. charts, putting the band on equal footing with Ms. Shapiro. "It was all just good fun," she said.

As the British Invasion unfolded without her in the U.S., Ms. Shapiro continued to record singles in the U.K. When pop-rock cooled in the late '60s, she performed on the stage in London's West End, sang with English jazz stars and toured world-wide.

One last question for Ms. Shapiro [below, c. 1967, about 20]:


Why was the charismatic Mr. McCartney missing from her October 1963 appearance on the British TV show "Ready Steady Go" [top]? On the YouTube clip, Ms. Shapiro is seen singing her hit "Look Who It Is" to only three of the four Beatles, whose backs are to the camera until she motions for each to turn around.

"The song had just three verses, so only three of them could appear," she said. "They flipped a coin or something to see who would be on, and Paul came up short."

July 27, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Helen Shapiro — Once upon a time she was so big the Beatles opened for her:


And, who could forget her contemporary, Lulu? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lulu_(singer)

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jul 27, 2011 5:01:54 PM

That was a classic.

John was a class act then, as always.

Posted by: Joe Peach | Jul 27, 2011 4:58:54 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.