Helen Shapiro was born 1946 in Bethnal Green, London. Her parents were second generation Russian Jews who lived in Clapton. Helen and her brother Ron were encouraged to take up music and Helen learned to play ukulele and banjo. As a very young girl she was in a school group called Susie and the Hula Hoops. Mark Feld (aka Marc Bolan) played in the school band. Big brother Ron had a jazz band and Helen later sang with them in East End clubs and pubs. She possessed a deep timbre to her voice which soon earned her the nickname ‘foghorn.’ Maurice Burman owned a singing school and when he heard Helen’s voice he was so taken he waived her tuition fees just to have her as a student. When an EMI, A & R man came to talent spot he heard Helen deep voice and signed her up immediate to Columbia Records. Helen was 14 years of age her music was produced by Norrie Paramor. Maurice Burmen became Helen’s manager and soon after she recorded her first single "Please Don't Treat Me Like a Child," which reached Number 3 in the UK charts.
Her unique voice made her an overnight sensation and in 1961 Helen went to number one, not once but twice, with You Don't Know and Walkin' Back to Happiness.
The singer did not like ‘Happiness’ and thought it was old fashion and rather corny. She was reluctant to record it but did so with such a plumb as to render the song one of the greatest pop songs of the sixties. Her follow up was "Tell Me What He Said" (written by Jeff Barry) and only missed the number one spot by the Shadows' "Wonderful Land."
In 1962 Helen appeared in Richard (Dick) Lester's debut feature film, It's Trad, Dad (1962). The single "Let's Talk About Love" which featured in the movie failed to impact on the charts.
She made a second pop movie in 1962 with Billy Fury, called Play It Cool (directed by Michael Winner).
Desperate for another hit she recorded Little Miss Lonely (written by John Schroeder and Mike Hawker, who had written Walking Back to Happiness) and her last chart success came with Burt Bacharach’s "Keep Away From Other Girls."
She continued to tour and headlined a national tour in 1963. One of the supporting acts (5th on the bill) was the Beatles. During the tour the artists got on well and Helen advised the Fab Four to release "From Me to You," as their follow up single to "Please Please Me."
Grateful for her interest and friendship, Lennon and McCartney were delighted when they were asked by Norrie Paramor to write a country and western style song for Helen’s forthcoming country album. They penned "Misery" but EMI decided not to record it with Helen and Kenny Lynch became the first UK artist to record a Beatles Song.
Helen went to Nashville and recorded a version of "It's My Party." Sadly EMI did not recognise the potential of the song refused to release it. Lesley Gore brought out her version which topped the U.S. charts.
Helen parted company with EMI in 1967 but by this time her pop career was well and truly over. The rise of the Mersey Sound and beat music had changed popular music for ever and Helen fate was sealed. Helen’s voice was unique and more suited to jazz than the pop styles of Lulu, Cilla and Dusty Sprinfield who followed her.
Very much in the Brenda Lee style, Helen remains one of the most outstanding UK girl singers of the pre-Beatle era. The talented and popular singer continued to work long after the hits dried up by re-inventing herself as a jazz then gospel singer. She toured with Neil Sedaka and much later Humphrey Littlelton as well as appearing in several stage musicals. She retired from show business in 2002 but continues to be active as a born again Christian.
Worth a listen
Don't Treat Me Like A Child (1961)
You Don't Know (1961)
Walkin' Back to Happiness (1961)
Tell Me What He Said (1962)
Let's Talk About Love" (1962)
Little Miss Lonely (1962)
No Trespassing / Not Responsible (1963)
Keep away from other girls