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Interview: Helen Shapiro

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Helen Shapiro and Amy Winehouse had a few things in common. In my interview with Helen in today's Wall Street Journal (go here), we touched on what life was like for her at age 14 in 1961, when she had two No. 1 hits and a No. 3 hit on the British pop charts. In 1962, more hits followed along with two teen movies, a world tour and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that October. Then came a pop package tour of the U.K. in February and March 1963 called The Helen Shapiro Show, when the Beatles opened for her.

All during this time, Helen was the target of the British tabloids. They hounded her and tried every trick in the book to get into her home and invade her private life in search of dirt. Even after her family invited a reporter in for a home-cooked lunch, the writer wrote a scathing piece about her in his paper. At this point she was only 15, and she soon had to leave school. Her celebrity was too disturbing and disruptive for the rest of the grade.

On her 1963 tour, she learned that the Beatles had written Misery for her, but Columbia, her label, turned it down. When the Beatles' Please Please Me reached No. 1 on some of the British charts, the Fab Four was on par with Helen in popularity. At hotel stops, Helen's fans and the Beatles' fans were screaming for them, as they flung signed publicity stills out the windows and into clutching hands. Through the remainder of 1963, Helen continued to record hits. In October, she was on Ready Steady Go! with three of the Beatles hamming around during one of her hits.

Then Capitol in the U.S. released I Want to Hold Your Hand in December, in advance of the Beatles' February arrival in New York. By then, any hope Helen had of being part of the new British Invasion were dashed. English rock in the U.S., for the most part, meant boy bands, and Helen, like many other British female pop singers at the time, didn't make the leap.

Though Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield became huge in the States, as did Shirley Bassey to some extent thanks to the Goldfinger theme, most English pop singers weren't part of the Invasion. Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Lulu had hits here, but they never really became household names. Others on the long list include Alma Cogan, Anita Harris, Billie Davis, Carol Deene, Jackie Trent, Julie Grant, Julie Rogers, Kathy Kirby, Susan Maughan and Twinkle. And those were just the ones who were highly popular in Britain. The less-popular list is even longer.

Part of Helen's problem was that once the Beatles hit, she was considered yesterday's news. To the record-buyer, she was the pre-Beatles teen with the bee-hive hairstyle and songs about not wanting to be treated like a child. By 1964, girls in the U.S. had grown up to a point where young adult males were hot. As Helen confessed to me in London, “I had a huge crush on John during that tour, even though he was married at the time. All of the Beatles were older and much more confident than boys of our age."

Like Winehouse, Helen was Jewish and had refused to change her last name, though she was under pressure to do so. Also like Winehouse, Helen had a prematurely deep voice and a deep and enduring love for jazz. In her later years, Helen sang extensively with English trumpet star Humphrey Lyttelton.

The difference, of course, is that Helen didn't have the same kind of runaway fame that Winehouse did in the U.S. Also, the British media was a bit gentler and kinder toward Helen—it was a different era. And Helen was more grounded, surrounded by family that actually provided her with a safe haven. As she told me in London, “I lived at home for a long time while I was recording hits. This helped me with my confidence and I avoided things that would have been bad for me. If I had made it in America, I might not be here today."

When Winehouse died on Sunday, I emailed Helen for her thoughts:

“I was very shocked and extremely sad to hear about Amy's death. I never met her, but she grew up close to the area in London that I did. I actually know a relative of hers.  Occasionally, press people have drawn similarities between us, citing background, looks, and voice. I suppose because of that, I somehow felt a connection with her. Her passing is a great tragedy.  She was a great talent."

JazzWax tracks: Hands down, the finest collection of Helen's recordings is The Ultimate Helen Shapiro (EMI), a three-CD, 90-track remastered set. It's available here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Helen with the Beatles in October 1963, just months before the Invasion. Harboring a secret crush on John, Helen's expression says it all as walks away from him and on to Ringo...



Here's Helen's cover of Shop Around...



Here's Helen's cover of Stay...



And here's Carole King's It Might As Well Rain Until September...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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