Gary James' Interview With
Helen Shapiro

When Helen Shapiro was just a teenager, she was a star! She was voted the Number One Female British Singer in 1961 and 1962. Then in February 1963, Helen met a band that would forever change the direction of Pop music. Helen met The Beatles. And, not only did she meet them, they actually opened her shows. What was that like?

We spoke to Helen about The Beatles, her own career and what she's doing these days.

Q - Would it be fair to say that since you started taking singing lessons at such an early age, that you always wanted to be a singer?

A - Oh, absolutely. Yeah. From the age of about five or six. I didn't actually start taking proper singing lessons until much later. But, I come from a musical family, not professionally musical, but everybody being very musical...aunts, uncles, cousins. We used to have these great evenings, musical evenings and it was just perfectly natural for me to want to be a singer from very early on.

Q - According to Bill Harry, your success lasted only from 1961 to 1963. Is that true?

A - Well, in terms of chart success, he's probably right.

Q - Your success was primarily in Europe?

A - Yeah. Actually the '61 to '63 time frame was right for the UK and Europe, but I did continue having hit records in other parts of the world, Australia, South Africa, Eastern Europe and Canada and the Middle East, even when they were starting to dry up in Europe.

Q - Did your success translate to anything in the States?

A - No, not in any real way. I was pre-Beatles. British artists were not really thought much of in the United States. It was very much an American music scene, as it should be. But it was The Beatles who opened the way in 1963 and 1964, for what you call The British Invasion. My record company in this country, which was E.M.I., their company in the States was Capitol. I don't think they were really great on singles. They were more really into albums. I did have minor success on the Billboard 100 with a thing called "Walking Back To Happiness" and I think the one before that, which was called "You Don't Know", which was my second record. "Walking Back" was my third. But they didn't really get very high. I did appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1962. I did a live one and recorded another one. Later on, when David Frost was doing stuff in the States, I appeared on his show. I did an album in Nashville in 1963, but really that's about the sum of it.

Q - Do you remember who was on The Sullivan Show with you?

A - Yeah. There were two other British acts actually for the start. There was Acker Bilk. He is a Jazz clarinetist and he had this big number one here and in the States with this thing called "Stranger On The Shore" in 1962. The other guy was a guy called Roy Castle, he's not with us any more, but he was well known as an all-around sort of entertainer at the time. I've got a feeling Jackie Mason was on, but I can't really remember. That was in about October 1962.

Q - Did you find that experience to be a little nerve wracking? Were you on edge?

A - Well, yeah a little bit. I had just turned fifteen at that point. I had the confidence of youth, (laughs) which is really based on ignorance. I think I probably was a little bit nervous 'cause I knew that I really wasn't known in the States and of course the whole Ed Sullivan thing was very big. So, I didn't know how I would be received and all of that. Actually, it turned out to be really good. I enjoyed it.

Q - So, when the British Invasion hit, you were pushed aside?

A - Well, I don't know if you know about the fact that The Beatles were my opening act on my tour.

Q - I'm about to get into a whole list of questions about that.

A - Oh, OK.

Q - I wanted to ask you about your career first.

A - OK. Fair enough. (laughs) Actually, all solo singers were effected immediately, whether male or female. It was always harder for a female singer anyway. But once they became this gigantic phenomenon, it did make it a little more difficult. People only wanted groups, as they called then in those days. And you had to be from Liverpool or Manchester or somewhere in the North of England. If you were from London, forget it! Unless you were the Dave Clark Five. The Who were from London. But, really this was a whole new scene coming out and so it did really throw us for quite a while, me included. And the thing with me of course, I started at the age of fourteen. I had these hit records and it was a bit of a novelty. I don't like to think of myself as a novelty, but I have to be honest and I probably was because of my age. By the time The Beatles and all of that started happening, I was growing up, so I guess the novelty was wearing off as far as the public was concerned. So, all these things happened at the same time. It did make a difference in terms of chart success. I continued to release singles and some albums. Then I was doing more and more work abroad, in other countries, consolidating the record success that I already had, but also that I was continuing to have in some other countries. So, it didn't mess my career up, just the chart side of it.

Q - Not everyone was pushed aside by The Beatles. Just take a look at Petula Clark.

A - Yeah, but I don't think it was until 1965 that she had "Downtown".

Q - I think it was '64 actually.

A - '64 was it? Right. Well, then good for her. She'd been around for a long, long time. She was a child star in the movies in the 1940s. And then obviously she had hit records in this country (England) before The Beatles, indeed. So yeah, she was one exception. (laughs)

Q - Helen Shapiro should've been back over here on The Ed Sullivan Show.

A - Well the point is, at the time, by the time they (The Beatles) came along, my records weren't getting so high in the charts. I was having some minor success as far as records were concerned, but my management weren't too good at it, getting me over there and getting the whole thing going. But it doesn't matter. It's all a long time ago.

Q - Here's what should've happened. Brian Epstein should've signed you.

A - (laughs) That's very nice, but I'm OK about it.

Q - Bob Spitz wrote a book on The Beatles a few years back...

A - Yeah, who didn't?

Q - His book is pretty good. He said that you were a star, but John Lennon referred to what you sang as "mush". What is mush?

A - I'm not aware of that quote. Mush probably is sweet, syrupy stuff. And yet, I don't remember that ever being the case. John Lennon was the guy I was closest to out of all of 'em and we got on great. Why do you want to know this stuff anyway?

Q - It just struck me as a rather unusual way to describe song material.

A - It's a word that gets used here.

Q - So, The Beatles were opening for you while you were on tour?

A - It was one of these Pop package tours. A lot of different acts would get on a bus and go around the country and do these concerts. There was a sister act on first and then there was The Beatles. So, they were like one of the opening acts. I closed the second half. I closed the whole show. It was a show of two halves.

Q - How is it The Beatles went on tour with you? Did Brian Epstein contact you? Did you contact him?

A - No. I had been doing some regular tours through a promoter who was a guy called Arthur Howes, who was a big promoter in those days of all the big names around the country. He brought all the big names from the States over. So, I had been doing tours for him already during 1962. Then, when it came to getting organized for the next tour in early '63, he said to me, "For the next tour we have this one, this one, this one and we have this new group called The Beatles. Have you heard of them?" And I had. They had had this record "Love Me Do", which had sort of been a minor hit in October '62, which I had loved. I really enjoyed that record. So it was basically they were kind of creeping into the business at that time. Obviously Arthur knew all about them and he was a great sort of visionary in the Pop business. He knew what was going to be big. He obviously invited Brian Epstein and them to join the tour. I think that's how that happened.

Q - What did you think of The Beatles when you first saw them? Did you think "this is the future of Rock 'n' Roll"?

A - Well, they were fairly un-disciplined in the very early days, which was nice. I enjoyed them. I'm a big fan. I would stand at the side of the stage and watch every performance. I really loved them. It was interesting to see them kind of polish up their act during the run of the tour. They learned to be a bit more professional in terms of presentation without losing that raw stuff that they had, which was great and which everybody enjoyed. I was a big fan. We had a lot of fun together on the road. We would sing on the bus, everybody on the tour. We would all sing like Beach Boys songs and a lot of the early Tamla / Motown stuff, which they knew before any of us did because Brian Epstein used to import stuff from the States to his record shop in Liverpool. So, we used to do all that. We just got on really well.

Q - According to Cynthia Lennon, in her book John, you were in awe of John Lennon and he would tease you all the time. What was he teasing you about?

A - Well, you know, I was only sixteen on this tour and they were all like twenty-one and at that age it's a big difference in ages. They'd call me Helly. And I used to smoke cigarettes at that time, secretly. So, they used to make fun of me when I would dive into the ladies restroom somewhere for a cigarette. I couldn't be seen having one in public. So, they used to make fun of me for that. It was just gentle, good-natured fun, really. That's all.

Q - Why did you say The Beatles were un-disciplined?

A - I think maybe that was probably a bit harsh to say that. They were disciplined, but they had a rawness about them, which I can't really explain. You'd have to have been there. They just knew how to tame it a little bit and they polished up their act as they went along. This was their first major concert tour anywhere. They had done singing in dance halls, ballrooms, obviously The Cavern and all the Hamburg stuff. And they had done occasional one-off concerts in concert halls and movie theatres. We were mostly playing movie theatres, but we called them cinemas. But this was their first actual tour of concert hall venues, city halls, town halls, cinemas. I think it just gave them a different way. I can't explain it better than that. Frankly, if I'd known I was going to be talking about all of this forty years later, I would've taken more notice.

Q - What kind of reaction would The Beatles get from the audience? Were the girls screaming?

A - Well, that's something that grew during the tour as well. Yeah, from the beginning they were a bit, but by the end of it, it was really very noisy. They released "Please Please Me" during that tour. They were promoted from being one of the opening acts to closing the first half of the show. The whole thing increased in the tour. It was only three or four weeks. I can't remember. Obviously they were gaining their popularity. They were growing in popularity. We could all see that they were gonna be big, but nobody...nobody could have foreseen just how big. When they did break enormously, it was unheard of, even more somehow than Elvis Presley at that time. But it was interesting just watching this build-up. In fact, they got so big, I think they left the tour a week before we finished because it just got silly. They had to go off and do their own shows by then and so they were replaced by another act.

Q - How difficult was it for you to close a show that The Beatles had opened?

A - It wasn't difficult at all. I had my own fans.

Q - How big were the audiences you were performing in front of?

A - I don't know actually. Mostly these were cinemas, so probably the maxim would've been; we did some concert halls, big ones, the maxim one would've been about 1,500, although the Liverpool Empire is a 3,000 seater. But I don't remember if we played there for that tour. I did a lot of tours.

Q - When you were on the bus with The Beatles, you had a banjo with you?

A - No. I never used that. They used their guitars. I don't remember playing that on the bus. That's something I used to do for a little while as a novelty thing in my my set.

Q - But, definitely not on the bus with The Beatles?

A - Definitely not on the bus. I can't believe the way people re-write history.

Q - Did The Beatles play you "From Me To You" and ask what you thought of it? I'm not talking about playing the record, but actually singing and playing that song for you on the bus?

A - Yeah. They had written "From Me To You" and... I can never remember the B-side. They had written these two songs. They kind of were sure which side they wanted to be the A-side, but they didn't tell me. They just wanted to know what I thought. When we toured up at the next venue, we got 'round a piano on the stage and Paul played. There was just Paul and John. John just stood next to me and they sang these two songs, "From Me To You" and the other one, which I can't remember. (laughs) I honestly did actually prefer "From Me To You". It was a really strong song. They just said "Oh, that's great. That's really good. It's like a confirmation of the way we think we're gonna do it." That of course was the single that followed up "Please Please Me". They also wrote one or two things that came out on the first album. I know they wrote "There's A Place" on that one. When I first met them, at the beginning of the tour, when I was introduced to them and Paul was the spokesman, that was when Paul told me they had written this song "Misery" and they had submitted it for me for my Nashville album, which I was gonna be doing in a couple months time. But, that apparently got turned down by my record producer before I even knew about it, let alone heard it.

Q - Would it have been turned down because it wouldn't have bee appropriated to hear a teenage girl sing about how miserable she is?

A - (laughs) Well, I don't know. By that time I had sung songs about all kinds of things. I was considered quite grown up then...16. (laughs)

Q - You were also in a movie called It's Trad Dad, directed by Richard Lester.

A - Yeah. He was known as Dick Lester in those days. "Trad", meaning traditional. Just a name we had for Dixieland Jazz. At that particular time there had been this kind of boom of Trad music coming into the charts over hear. It was Dick Lester's full-length feature film. He had done other things before...shorts. That was really a vehicle for lots of artists just to sing stuff. I had sort of an acting, I use that word advisedly, role all the way through. It was a fun film. He used a lot of camera tricks that of course we saw later on in The Beatles' films.

Q - What role did you play in this film?

A - I was called Helen. (laughs) I was this young kid with her boyfriend, living in this town where the mayor wanted to ban Trad Jazz because he didn't like it. It was a very silly story really. We got hold of these DJs from London who came and helped us out. It was a lot of comedy actors. It was a very thin plot. It was a lot of fun.

Q - Was that your only film appearance?

A - I did a guest thing in a film that featured a guy called Billy Fury, who was a big Rock star here. There was myself and Bobby Vee. It was just singing a couple of songs, not playing any roles. That was in the beginning of '62.

Q - I would've thought that Richard Lester would've found a part for you in A Hard Day's Night.

A - Well, that's very kind of you. By the time they did A Hard Day's Night, it was, '64?

Q - It was.

A - By that time everything had changed. I don't think I would have fitted in very well in that particular one.

Q - At one point you were managed by Tony Barrow, who was The Beatles' publicist.

A - Yeah. He was very in there with The Beatles. But, I didn't know him in those days. He took over my management in the '70s...he looked after my career.

Q - What kind of job did he do for you?

A - He did an excellent job. I had come through the whole 60s thing. I had branched out into all the various areas that I wanted to branch out into. Well, I had began to, with some theatre work which I enjoyed and more Jazz stuff and cabaret and all that, and he looked after that. I did a stint at Ronnie Scott's club, which is a famous Jazz club. So yeah, it was a good era.

Q - Which brings us up to date...

A -It actually doesn't bring us up to date. There's a whole load of stuff between then and now. I did a lot of theatre work. I did a year in the West End of London playing Nancy in Oliver. I did various other theatres doing musicals and plays. I developed more my Jazz side of things with my gigs and Pop stuff, concerts all around the country and all over Europe. Right up until I came out of the business at the end of 2002, and my last year in the music business was probably one of my busiest years with concerts and everything else. I came out because I figured I had done everything I wanted to do. I just wanted to concentrate on other things in my life. So now, we're up to date.

Q - So, you don't sing any more?

A - I do sing, but not in concerts, not in show business, but as part of my Gospel outreach evenings. I talk more than I sing, but I do indeed sing. I don't think there will ever be a time I don't actually sing. I hope not. I became a believer in Jesus in 1987. One of the things that came out of that a couple of years later was I started to do Gospel concerts with a band and the whole thing...big things. But they just got bigger and bigger and I used to have to interweave them with my Pop concerts and Jazz concerts. Gradually I toned down the Gospel concerts into just Gospel evenings...much more low key. They were getting too big, too much for me. I was doing those right through my secular work up until the end of 2002. Since then, I've been concentrating purely on those evenings, which are evenings where I talk about my faith. I do sing one of my hit songs, "Walking Back To Happiness" 'cause it's very relevant in my work, in my life, in retrospect. I challenge my audience about things of God. That's what I do. I sing spiritual songs. A lot of them are Hebraic 'cause I'm Jewish. There we are.

Q - What happened to you in 1987 that you would've changed the direction of your career? Did something happen to you personally?

A - Absolutely. It didn't change the direction of my career, it changed the direction of my life. I don't see my Gospel work as being my career thing by any means. I don't want this to sound weird, but it's like a calling for me. I used the word Gospel in its true form, which is Good News. It's not Gospel music. It's Gospel. But, yes indeed, how do I keep this short? I had always believed in God, from way back in various fashions and forms, some of them a bit weird. Somebody gave me a book to read, my musical director actually, who is a Christian. He gave me a book to read about a Jewish guy who became a believer in Jesus and how that happened. He was trying to prove his daughter wrong because she became a believer. He ended up becoming a believer himself. I read this book and this guy quoted from The Bible, Messianic Prophesies, which I found in the Old Testament. I'd never read these things before. They seemed to point to Jesus. I went and bought a Bible just to see if it was true. There were these Messianic Prophecies in the Old Testament and they all seemed to point to Jesus, which I was absolutely amazed about, because growing up Jewish, I was taught this was nothing to do with us. So, I read all this in the Bible and these Prophecies were actually very specific about the Messiah and then I read the New Testament for the first time in my life, like the forbidden book. And there he was. Once I finished reading these Gospel accounts about Jesus, I just knew that he was The One they say he is. It wasn't an alien thing for me as a Jewish person to believe in him. So, I made a commitment in my life in August '87 and I've never looked back. It has changed my life. It's turned my life upside down, right side up and that's like the most important thing in my life right now.

Q - Prior to 1987, were you a religious person?

A - No, I wasn't. I was anything but. Like I said, I was kind of searching. I was searching down some pretty weird paths. I wasn't actually aware I was searching, but I believed in all kinds of stuff that was out there.

Q - Like what?

A - Spiritualism, some of the New Age things. But, it was all of a bit of a mish-mash of stuff. But, I was never religious as in formal religion. Of course, I always respected my traditions, my Jewish traditions and so forth. But I wasn't religious. I don't see myself as religious right now, although I probably come across that way. It's more of a relationship with Jesus than religion as such. To me, the word religion speaks about man-made religious rites and rituals and buildings, which I'm not into.

Q - As you look around the world of Pop music today, what do you think of the singers Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse?

A - That's a difficult one there. There doesn't seem to be much creativity around, unless I'm listening in the wrong areas. I'm not up-to-date with who's doing what. I think one of the saddest cases is Amy Winehouse, who I believe is talented as a singer and a writer, but she's just destroying herself. I actually pray for her. But, the scene is so weird today. Personally, I'm glad I'm not starting out today as a new singer, because it's a very different world. I mean, yes there were shocks and it was a hard business in the early 60s, but not like now. Now, the world has changed. It's a hard world. Then the business was run by musicians and publishers. Now it's run by lawyers and financial people, corporations. The pressure on people now is horrendous. I think there's talent out there, but why do they keep reviving all the old stuff?

Q - Because you can't beat the originals.

A - Well, there you are.

Q - Elton John has said the public will always be interested in Frank Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles.

A - (laughs)

Q - Which is not necessarily good news for Helen Shapiro.

A - Oh, I don't care about that. Let me tell you about Helen Shapiro. I was never a show biz person. My life was always outside. I'm not a Pop person. I'm a Jazz person, musically. It was always my first love and always will be. It doesn't bother me what the world thinks of me or anything like that. I enjoy music. I love music. I'm glad I'm out of the business. It chews you up and spits you out. Having said that, I'm not bitter about anything. I have no regrets. I had a good run. You know, I was 42 years in the business and I did everything. In other words, I was given the opportunity to do anything. I achieved a lot or ambitions. It isn't the be all, end all of business, the music business. I can continue to enjoy music now and I do and not have to feel the pressure that one gets put under when one is actually in the business. I'm not despising anything of what happened to me. I'm very thankful for the opportunities that I had, the support I had from people and some of the people who were around me through the years, some of the managers, not all of 'em, and the record companies. But, thank-you very much, I'm out of it and I'm so glad.

Q - I almost forgot to ask you...did you ever meet Frank Sinatra or Elvis?

A - No, I never did. I'm kind of glad in a way. The only time I would've liked to have met Elvis is when I was about ten years old, in the '50s, when he was doing all his early stuff. After that, I wasn't that bothered. Frank Sinatra, I would have been scared to meet, just because he had this aura about him. I am a big fan of his. Always was. His 50s stuff and early 60s...not his "Strangers In The Night" or any of that stuff. But his Billy May, Nelson Riddle stuff. I would have liked to have seen him 'live'. I never got to do that. But, I don't regret not meeting him because I wouldn't have known what to say to a guy like that.

Q - I don't suppose you ever met Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison, did you?

A - No. I was never interested in all that stuff. I was never a Rock person. Ever. Marc Bolan (T-Rex) was a school friend. We went to school together. We had a little band together when we were kids.

Q - That's interesting.

A - You didn't know that?

Q - I never read that before.

A - (laughs) When he was famous, he used to talk about our little group. It wasn't just me and him. It was a few of us. He said we called ourselves Suzy And The Hula-Hoops. But, I don't remember giving ourselves a name. He might've been right. He was nine and the rest of us were ten. We went to the same school. We had this little group. None of us could really play the instruments. I played on a little plastic toy guitar, tuned to a ukulele. Marc had a sort of beaten up guitar and this other guy had a smashing, lovely guitar. In those days, to have a guitar, I'm talking 1956 or there abouts, was like a big deal. Not like now. We used to sing Elvis songs and a little bit of Buddy Holly. Yeah, we just kind of sang songs together.

Q - Did you ever perform anywhere?

A - A couple of times we went to a couple of local cafes and we said "Hey Mister, can we sing in your cafe?" And we did. Then they gave us a cup of tea each and kicked us out. We did play in the school once, during the summer break when some of the kids would still go to the school for meals, because their parents were working. It was a poor area. And we would go and play and sing for them.

Q - I like Marc Bolan. He left us too early.

A - Twenty-nine, I think he was. It was very sad. I knew him as a little, chubby kid called Marc Feld, and he was the last one to join our little group.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.