1 My 50th birthday with my son Matt 25/11/99 2 home 3.Taken early 1999
When I was 11 years old, as an only child in a broken home, I discovered, as little miss lonely, that radio could be the best companion a kid could have. At that time I was living in central Queensland (Australia’s ‘tropical’ state), in a town called Rockhampton. In those days, it was only the capital cities that were ‘up to speed’ with what was new in the Music Scene. SO, at night, I would sneak to the rather expensive radiogram that my gadget-minded father had left with us. At night, I could ‘pick up’ the signals of radio stations in the southern Australian capital cities, especially Sydney(New South Wales) - where everything seemed to be happening!
It was about mid-1961 that I stumbled across a song that was already playing. I had no idea what it was called, BUT the voice absolutely ‘electrified ‘me -instantaneously! I was a ‘goner’ already. Eventually when the record had finished, I discovered that the song was called “Don’t treat me like a Child” (on Radio 2UE in Sydney). I remember thinking to myself that whomever this singer is, there’s no way that anybody could/would treat her like a child with a voice like THAT! I couldn’t contain myself when the radio announcer (Disc Jockey - remember them!) said something like “to hell with the play list - I’m playing that one again!”…….And then he said the name that became my inspiration from that time on - HELEN SHAPIRO.
No blasphemy intended - but, for me, it was like discovering religion when I heard that voice - that rich, aged-in-fine-brandy, mature voice - and from a girl not much older than I, and I simply knew that I HAD to find out as much as I could about her. Tell me what she said!!! I know that I’m preaching to the converted here. Only a genuine Shapiro fan knows exactly what I’m talking about. Once she gets into your soul, you’re a “goner” - and that voice reaches deep into the soul - especially these days. Sensational!!!
Therein became the pattern for the girl from the ‘bush’ (as we say in Oz) - of going to the ONLY record shop in the town and asking for the record: having to order it: and then the long wait as each one took the slow road up from Sydney.(Look on a map of Oz - see for yourself!). Woe is me!!!! Eventually (ie. by mid-1962), of course, Rockhampton caught up with the rest of Oz and the world, so that by the time that “Walking back….” was released, it was automatically ordered and everyone I knew was buying it, and telling me “How right you were about that girl!” How could anyone not become an instantaneous fan? Think of the female singers around that time……..Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, and any number of the Motown Girl Groups. No depth…..Boring to listen to…..Mind-numbing.
Quite a few of my friends became interested in Helen as time progressed, and we were all slavishly collecting magazine articles and photos of her. However, I began to collect photos of the boy singers of the day as well ------ (eg. Cliff Richard, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee etc)…..and bided my time. It paid off! The boys became more interesting to some of the fickle-hearted, and I ‘cleaned up’ on swaps, playing it very cool (as was Helen!) - and it resulted in my Helen ‘press memorabilia’ growing at a rate of knots - adding many more interesting articles, and most importantly - photos. Relatives all over the country were sending me these as well, and at one stage I had over 2,000 photos of her.( Would you believe that one aunt actually sent a thick envelope which had the words “Look who it is” on the front? “Yeah!” I thought - “It’s you and you’re in my arms.”)
One book that I remember being thankful for discovering, was a small lift-out from a magazine, containing the entire ‘make yourself up like Helen Shapiro’. I took the hairstyle page to my hairdresser, who agreed that it was the perfect ‘do’ for me. So in 1963, I went from the Barbra Streisand ‘bangs’ to the short “Helen” cut - and have worn it for most of my life, give or take a foray into the world of long hair (which as I age, looks woeful on me!). My hair does itself naturally in the Shapiro (circa 1962) way, no matter how I want it. Who am I to argue?
I have never forgotten the release of the movies, “It’s Trad, Dad” and “Play it Cool”. They took forever to reach where I was living. Not like today, when movies are released all over the world at virtually the same time. I was SO impatient - writing to the managers of film companies, and harrassing the owners of the TWO cinemas in town.
Eventually, the day dawned that “It’s Trad, Dad” hit town. It was there for exactly one week - and I went every night. I know you will all understand what I mean. It was just so thrilling to see Helen move and talk and sing - in 3D if you will. All I had were photographs. Of course, YOU lot over there had the opportunity to actually go and SEE her perform, as well as seeing her on the TV. Aren’t you the lucky one? Then - “Play it Cool” - in which I was quite amused to note that Helen never uttered a word. She sang - but she didn’t speak. I often wondered how her contract was worded at that time. I had read that Helen was the subject of a “Look at Life” (Panorama?) documentary, and no matter how often I went to the movies, I never saw it - Still haven’t - and yet I saw dozens of them. You don’t know how hard to bear that is.
By the time I was 17, I had every one of Helen’s singles, EPs, and LPs that ever came into Australia. I had all the sheet music, including the song books. Then at the beginning of 1967, I was living in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland. (I had to move there to study as to be a teacher.) This took me nearer to the ‘hub’ of the 60’s scene, such as it was in Australia. - Queensland anyhow. I was studying to become a Fine Arts and Design teacher, which I am - though in semi-retirement now.
I married far too young (3 weeks after my 20th birthday), and moved to the city I now live in - Adelaide, South Australia. I’d like to say that I’m not responsible for the marriage break-up, but, of course I am - well, at least 50%. My mother (who, at that stage was still living in Brisbane) often used to say - “You won’t come home”, but I was on the journey to self-knowledge - which is what I should have done in the first instance.
I feel that I grew up with Helen - but I sensed that she was not “allowed” to grow up with the rest of us, somehow. But I do know that when this teenager sang the blues, she was there for me. It was in June 1970 when my Dad (a REAL Shapiro fan) phoned me to say that Helen was appearing at the Homestead Hotel in Brisbane, and that he had bought tickets to take me to se her. (I have sent a photocopy of the ad for that.) I don’t know how I got through that day. (And, once again, I know you all know what I mean.) There was some dreadful support act. I walked out on that. It was insulting. And then the announcement……. ”Ladies and Gentlemen - Please welcome our special guest…..Helen Shapiro!!!” My eyes darted all over the stage. Out she came - wearing a jumpsuit (I’d never seen one - so elegant.) To tell you the truth - I don’t know what she opened with - or closed with - and I assume she sang her hits in between. But I know it was the most marvellous show I had ever seen. (AAH! I do remember one song. My Dad had tears in his eyes when she sang “Little Miss Lonely”.) There she was. I was in the front row. My eyes never left her. THAT VOICE!!! My God - it was more powerful in person. But she was so tiny. (I was 5’11” tall.) It was her - it really was. She was SUCH a professional. (I was 20 - she must have been 23?)
Then - the piece de resistance! My Dad had arranged for me to be able to go backstage to meet her. (Gulp - what do you say to a living legend?) I had “THE” scrapbook with me. I remember a man opening the door to a very ‘ordinary’ room back there, and I distinctly remember thinking that this was NOT a suitable place for Helen Shapiro. I thought - “Do they know just WHO this lady is?” There should be a “special” room for her - not THIS one. She was lighting a cigarette. She put the lighter in her handbag. I marvelled that SHE used handbags, too. Wow! We had something in common! She walked towards us, hand outstretched and smiling. Someone said my name - and someone said, “Helen - I’d like you to meet a very big fan of yours. Alison - this is Helen.” (NO KIDDING BUSTER!) I felt every muscle in my neck tighten - so that when I tried to speak, nothing but a high-pitched squeak emanated from my mouth - and I thought I had stood on some sort of small animal. But, no - ‘twas me, trying to be so cool and sophisticated in the presence of my idol. Actually, all I was trying to do was speak! That poor girl. (Helen - NOT me!) Eventually, I thrust my scrapbook (cover as you see it now - minus the autograph) at her. She very graciously flipped through it and said something like, “Oh my God! Where on earth did you find all of these?” I replied with a casual and “witty” remark - like - “Oh! Nowhere special.” (At which point I could have cut my tongue OUT. First it fails me - and then “NOWHERE SPECIAL!!” YOU IDIOT! (Please, floor - open and swallow me up now, before I insult her again. I apologise!) THEN! A breakthrough! I heard a voice that sounded like mine. And do you know what it said??? (Now keep remembering here - I’ve been introduced to my idol, about whom there is nothing I do not know.) It said -(Wait for it!)- “Helen - what is a hero sandwich? You said it in “Keep away from other Girls”. And she told me, as she autographed the front of the book. (“One “L” or two in Alison?”) How do I know? Ask me something easy. Then they wheeled me away!
Life, and my search for its’ purpose for ME, along with one serious illness after another, interrupted my life with Helen. I could no longer find her records so readily on the shelves. My energies were diverted in other areas, I’m almost ashamed to say. I remarried in 1979 to Mark, a fellow Art/Design teacher - and the most wonderful man in the world. I was 33 when I gave birth to Matthew (ooops! Matt), having had a stillbirth nearly 2 years earlier. He is, tomorrow, to sit the first of his Matriculation Examinations in Year 12 at high school. (Do you call them “O” or “A” levels?) These exams will give him entry into University, where he hopes to combine a Bachelor of International Studies with Law. He is quite a gifted guitarist (modern) also, being awarded with the medal for excellence in Music Studies at his high school graduation.
Back in 1985 (or was it 1986?), one Saturday, in the afternoon, I decided to read our daily newspaper - which I rarely did then - (the unseen hand at work!). I jumped out of my chair so quickly and began speaking to Mark in absolute gibberish - hands gesticulating wildly - and grabbed our phone SO violently, that I think Mark thought “She’s finally fallen out of her tree!” All I could do was point at the entertainment section. HELEN SHAPIRO WAS MAKING ONE PERFORMANCE ONLY - THAT EVENING - IN ADEALAIDE! Yes - we were able to get tickets. Yes - we were there well before time. I (subtly) stampeded to the front row table at the side of the stage. Though it was a supper show - I couldn’t eat. That same old feeling from 1970 was there again. The palpitations. A woman came over to me and said “You ARE a real Helen fan, aren’t you?” “Isn’t that WHY we’re HERE?” I replied, incredulously. “But - why do you ask?” “Well - it’s your hair. It’s the same as hers’” WOW!
As with the 1970 show - it began and ended mostly in a blur. Helen introduced the band - and chuckled that some of them weren’t even born when she had her first hit. What REALLY made me sit up and take notice was “Straighten up and Fly Right” - which she entered into after telling us that THIS music had always been her first love (I knew that, though!). She was so fortunate to be able to pursue it now - “Now that the pressure’s off,” I think she said - and I knew immediately that my gut instinct about her NOT being allowed to ‘grow up’ had been correct.
After the show, we faithful gathered at the stage door. To our absolute delight and my complete amazement, Helen emerged, having changed into ‘civvies’, and began to mingle. Remembering the first fiasco when I had been introduced to her ALL those years ago - I prepared a little better. Though it was still so awe-inspiring, even for a 35/6 year-old woman. I hung back. They trickled away. I was sitting at the bar (Of this revolting venue - which, when I analysed it - didn’t really matter. She was there - and doing what she loved - and so were we!) You could have knocked me down with a feather. Helen ordered a drink, which I hope I paid for! And offered me one of her cigarettes. And we chatted. Just the two of us. “Where have you been? I’ve missed you,” quoth I. “Doing Panto - a bit of this and a bit of that,” she answered. The talk flowed easily (thank goodness!). When I asked where the gold charm bracelet that was given to her with her gold records as the charms was - she told me it had been stolen in a robbery on her home (?) SHAME _ SHAME _ SHAME! Our talk is something that will always stay with me. She has no idea who I am - nor does she know what she and her music have meant to me for all these years. Actually - it’s her VOICE and her interpretation of the music. Then, just like Cinderella - not long after midnight, she was gone, and I was back to being a pumpkin again. My husband said it was the most thrilling night for him, because he said he saw the teenager in me - which he had missed, our having been born in different parts of Australia.. He absolutely loved it - Helen - and me. Next day, I was admitted into hospital for yet another sort-of-dangerous operation (elective surgery - I knew it was coming). But I knew the unseen hand had engineered the evening before to let me know that “all is well.” And it was!
My journey through the ups and downs of life continues. I have made my own motto in this life - and it is that - No matter WHO you are, you cannot haveit all! And as I look around me, I think I am correct. I have asked the Lord for His help - and he has given me Mark and Matt. The illnesses don’t worry me so much if I know I have “my boys” - and music to lose myself in. I do hospice volunteer work, and I have taught here and there from time to time. Once a Helen Shapiro fan - always one - though I confess to having lapsed during MY bad times. But she’s still there - Thank you, God.
I would be with you all in February if I won the Lottery (Pools?). I’d be the one with BELLS on! It would have to be the BIG win though, because I would have to travel 1st class (for the room it would afford me to move about and sit more comfortably) - the legacy of two spinal fusions. And I pray that it won’t be long before the cancer I have been told I do have (but cannot be found as yet), WILL be found and dealt with!
The unseen hand has lead me back to Helen……….Walking back. (Actually, I always liked “Kiss and Run”. ) I have ordered a rare first edition copy of Helen’s autobiography from the US - after months of enquiries. It IS on its’ way, but as always, impatience is not one of my virtues. I have ordered 4 of her latter CD’s, in an effort to catch up.
All I can say is..Thank you, Helen. You’ve always been there for me. There is no talent to match yours - and probably will not ever be. There are the vocal gymnasts around - they come and go (Along with their egos and demands), while you keep working - and don’t you work? I think thanks also go to John, also. He’s obviously made you very happy. There are times I feel that we have been living parallel existences in our personal lives. My mother lives with us now. Recently, she broke her hip and I look after her (along with my 89 year old neighbour). I lost my 47 year old cousin (who was more like a brother to me) to Leukaemia, two years ago. And, my other best friend in the world (besides Mark and Matt) - my Dad - died 9 years ago.
Let’s always ALL keep - walking back to happiness!!!!
LOVE ALWAYS, ALISON HALLS.
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