Helen Shapiro was the first British act to release two Top 10 singles while still at school. She was only 14 when she cut the specially conceived Don’t Treat Me Like A Child – a sure-fire hit.
Born in Bethnal Green, in London’s East End, on 28 September 1946, Helen took vocal classes at the Maurice Berman Academy while still attending school.
EMI Records’ producer, John Schroeder, chanced to be at one of the classes and was greatly impressed with such a strong voice soaring from a slip of a girl, barely in her teens.
Schroeder arranged for her to audition for Norrie Paramor from EMI’s Columbia label, and like Schroeder before him, Paramor refused to believe his eyes or ears.
Nonetheless, he signed Shapiro as a recording artist, leaving Schroeder to compose her debut release, Don’t Treat Me Like A Child.
A full promotional schedule backed the release, including television and radio spots, which helped push the single to #3 in the British chart in May 1961.
By contrast, the follow-up, also penned by John Schroeder (with Mike Hawker), titled You Don’t Know was a smooth ballad that, under any circumstances, would be alien to teenage interpretation. The combination worked perfectly.
Selling more than 40,000 copies daily, the single raced to the top of the charts, where it stayed for two weeks. International sales soared above one million by the end of 1961, as it became a top seller in most European countries.
Helen celebrated her fifteenth birthday on 28 September 1961. She left school and was free to concentrate fully on her career and fulfil her performing itinerary that included a season at the London Palladium.
Walkin’ Back To Happiness, again written by Schroeder and Hawker, with advance orders of 300,000, entered the Top Ten immediately. And while You Don’t Know descended, the new release rose to the top – a position it occupied for four weeks. Readers of the New Musical Express subsequently voted her Top UK Female Singer.
To date, the young songstress had been reliant on her composer’s choice of material, and indeed it had been entirely compatible with her vocal ability and range. But Shapiro had ideas of her own, as exemplified by a four-song EP comprising standard material that included Goody Goody, which elevated the disc into the EP chart.
In March 1962, after Helen had toured Britain for the first time, Tell Me What He Said was issued. Written by Jeff Barry, it soared to #2, thus denying Shapiro the distinction of enjoying three consecutive chart-toppers with her first three singles.
As if to push her preference for established tunes further, her debut album, Tops With Me, released in April 1962, featured her versions of several, including Lipstick On Your Collar, previously recorded by Connie Francis, who enjoyed a British #3 hit with it during July 1959.
From recording artist, Shapiro turned to actress to secure the starring role in It’s Trad Dad (1962), a British pop music movie. Let’s Talk About Love was lifted from the soundtrack to stall outside the Top 20, a dismal result from a young lady who was more familiar with the top end of the chart than the bottom.
Unbeknownst to her, this poor showing signified the start of the decline, beginning in August 1962 when Little Miss Lonely peaked at #8.
Despite being written by her hit-making duo of Schroeder and Hawker, this would mark Helen’s last Top 20 hit.
Due to her previous success on the big screen, Shapiro was included (albeit as a cameo appearance) in Play It Cool (1962), a movie starring Billy Fury. Her contribution was two songs, But I Don’t Care and Cry My Heart Out; neither was issued as a single.
Instead, the Bacharach/Hilliard composition Keep Away From Other Girls was released. Originally recorded by the American vocalist Babs Tino, it faltered in the Top 40 for Shapiro.
In February 1963, she once more headlined a British tour. This time, her support act was The Beatles, who gave her Misery, a composition written with her style in mind. Norrie Paramor turned it down, preferring Queen For Tonight as the next single.
Once again, Shapiro watched a single stagger into the Top 40. In May 1963, following a recording session in Nashville, Tennessee, Woe Is Me was issued, another staller in the Top 40.
Yet, with the proper guidance, Helen Shapiro could have been reinstated as a Top 10 artist because she recorded the original version of It’s My Party.
American teenager Lesley Gore took her version to #9 in the British chart in June 1963 and topped the US chart after sales of one million copies.
The second of Shapiro’s Nashville sessions was issued in July 1963. Titled Not Responsible, it was her first single not to receive a British chart placing. And when the Helen In Nashville album itself was issued in October, that too bombed.
Another track was taken early in 1964. Shapiro covered the Peggy Lee classic Fever.
This almost desperate move to save her career only reached the Top 40. It was her last British hit, and her recording career was over to all intents and purposes.
The remainder of 1964 was spent touring abroad, particularly in the Far East. In the spring of 1965, Helen performed Here In My Arms at the British Song Festival held in Brighton. That flopped. Nothing her management planned could rescue her from the decline, so in 1967 she moved to the stage to appear in I’ll Get My Man.
Two years on, Helen Shapiro joined Humphrey Lyttelton and his band on the Duke Ellington tribute album Echoes of the Duke and watched from the sidelines as compilations of her best material were issued, including The Helen Shapiro 25th Anniversary Album in 1986.
At the start of the 1990s, she participated in several gospel shows, including one with Cliff Richard.