[I’d been wanting to do this story for some time, and I figured the best time for it was a Friday, for, um, obvious reasons.]
How big was Helen Shapiro? About five foot two. More to the point, in 1961, when she was fourteen, she recorded a song called “Don’t Treat Me Like a Child,” which she sang in an amazingly grown-up voice. It made #3 on the UK charts, and was followed by two #1s and a #2.
How big was Helen Shapiro? The Beatles opened for her in 1963. She recorded for UK Columbia, an EMI label, which meant that in the States, Capitol Records got the first shot at releasing her records. They put out all four of those tracks, though they went nowhere in a hurry. (Well, “Walkin’ Back to Happiness,” the third single, showed up for one week in Billboard at #100.) Capitol’s US branch dropped her from the roster, though the Canadian office continued to release Shapiro’s material. (I note purely in passing that Capitol passed on the Beatles’ first singles.)
That Number Two track was “Tell Me What He Said,” a Jeff Barry tune that started life as a Ginny Arnell B-side in 1960; the Playmates (“Beep Beep”) covered it in 1961, with the obligatory gender-flip. Both versions were arranged in typical US Top 40 styles, in the hopes of getting them on the radio; both acts were at different stages of their careers, the Playmates having had four Top 40 hits up to that point, but Arnell, going solo after a couple of flop singles with Gene Pitney (as “Jamie and Jane”), was still a couple of years away from finally cracking the chart with a song you dare not play on the radio anymore.
Meanwhile, Norrie Paramor, Shapiro’s producer, gave her a not-even-slightly-teenage sound:
Paramor was contemplating a Shapiro album from Nashville, of all places, and began hitting up EMI composers for material — including, yes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who turned out a number called “Misery.” Paramor turned it down, though Kenny Lynch, who’d been on that tour with Helen and the Beatles, decided to cut it himself.
Teen sensations, alas, seldom remain so. Helen Shapiro disappeared from the charts, resurfacing now and then with a song from a stage musical or a jazz number. Her last new track, from 1984, was an Allen Toussaint song:
It was 2002 when she finally retired from show biz; she was still only 56.