October 1961 drew to a close with stormy weather. The first edition of satirical magazine Private Eye went on sale on the 25th in London, planting the seed of the forthcoming satire boom. In the same week, young husky-voiced starlet Helen Shapiro achieved her second chart-topper of the year. She had only been 14 when You Don’t Know became her first. As impressive and mature as her voice sounded, I bemoaned the lack of youthful energy on display in that track. Her songwriters, John Schroeder and Mike Hawking rectified this on Walkin’ Back to Happiness, one of the better-known songs of the early 1960s.
With a personality to match her voice, the precocious Shapiro didn’t want to record this new single as she found it too corny. Those backing vocals certainly are an acquired taste, and she fell into the ‘good God they’re a bit much’ category. Shapiro was a blues and jazz fan, and preferred the B-side Kiss and Run. Still only 14 when recorded, by the time Walkin’ Back to Happiness was released in September, she had reached the grand old age of 15.
Those backing vocals, arranged by Norrie Paramor, are definitely irritating, and I totally get Shapiro’s point. They’re a step too far in the opposite direction and suggest she is a childish, helium-pitched girly singer, which is far from the truth. Having said that, Walkin’ Back to Happiness is much better than You Don’t Know. It bounces along with an effervescence often sorely lacking in the singles of 1961, and is the kind of pop song the likes of Sandie Shaw would make popular a few years later – I was surprised to see this had been released in 1961. And as annoying as the backing vocals are, they are a memorable hook, and they’re stuck in my head, so they were key to the track’s mass appeal. Getting back together with your love must have been quite an unusual subject matter in 1961, too, and it does a good job of getting that euphoria across. I’d imagine. Nobody I was dumped by ever gave me a second chance. Anyway!
Shapiro’s next two singles, Tell Me What He Said and Little Miss Lonely, made the top ten in 1962. In the same year she also branched out into films, starring as herself alongside Billy Fury in Play it Cool and the female lead in Richard Lester’s It’s Trad, Dad!, which also starred Craig Douglas. In February 1963 she embarked on a UK tour, and among the support acts were the Beatles. This was the first time they had taken part in a nationwide tour. In between the tour, they broke away to record their debut album, Please Please Me. Among the songs was Misery, which Lennon and McCartney had written with Shapiro in mind. She later claimed her label turned the song down on her behalf, and she would have loved to record it. John, George and Ringo even appeared alongside her on Ready, Steady, Go when she lip-synched to Look Who it Is.
Despite the connection with the Fab Four though, she was beginning to look old before her time, and was eclipsed by other female singers including Shaw, Cilla Black and Lulu. Had EMI allowed her to record Misery, perhaps things would have turned out different. She was reduced to appearances on the cabaret circuit, before announcing her retirement from touring. However, she returned to entertainment eventually, with a role in Oliver! and was one of the main characters in the ill-fated ITV soap Albion Market in the 80s. She returned to music as a jazz singer, performing with Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, until she retired once more in 2002. She has, however, been known to appear on radio from time to time.
Walkin’ Back to Happiness was the last number 1 by a female singer for a long time. Apart from Wendy Richards’ role in the awful Come Outside in 1962, there wouldn’t be another woman at number 1 until Cilla Black in February 1964. Black, of course, made full use of her connection with the Beatles.
Written by: John Schroeder & Mike Hawker
Producer: Norrie Paramor
Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 October-8 November)
Footballer Ian Rush – 20 October
Radio DJ Pat Sharp – 25 October