Behind the #1s – Norrie Paramor

We’ve covered 210 chart-toppers so far in this countdown, going from the very first chart through to Nancy Sinatra and her boots in early 1966. And it’s only fair that we turn our attention to the man that, up to now, has been involved in more of these #1 singles than anybody else, more than Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Bacharach and David…! Norrie Paramor.

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Born in 1913, Paramor had worked as a pianist and arranger through the thirties and forties, before being appointed recording director at EMI in 1952 – the very year that the singles chart he was to help shape began. Having developed his sound during the light-programme, easy listening days, Paramor was perfectly positioned to help the pre-rock stars sway (albeit gently). He was responsible for trumpeter Eddie Calvert’s hits, and the Northern-Irish warbler Ruby Murray’s ‘Softly, Softly’. Then there was Michael Holliday. Already a pretty impressive body of chart-topping work… And it was about to become all the more impressive, because along came Cliff.

Cliff Richard has had eight number ones so far in our countdown, all of which have been produced by Norrie Paramor. And each time I’ve complained that ‘rock ‘n’ roll Cliff’ was nowhere to be seen… Britain’s answer to Elvis etc. etc. Yeah right. He had a handful of truly rocking singles in ’58, but by the time he’d gotten down to the business of topping the charts the rock had become more of a gentle toe-tap. And a lot of that was probably down to Paramor. He wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll producer; he was a light-entertainment, easy listening kind of guy. I get the feeling he wasn’t convinced by rock and roll, probably saw it as a fad, and was willing to allow it as long as it was successful. Still, he moulded Cliff’s sound. One wonders how Cliff would have turned out had he had someone else’s hands on the tiller…

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(An early pic of Paramor, Cliff and The Shadows)

Of course, wherever Cliff went The Shadows weren’t far off. Paramor produced all of their chart-toppers too. Which makes for a more interesting comparison of styles, as discs like ‘Kon-Tiki’ and ‘Dance On!’ were actually pretty rocking little numbers. Perhaps it’s unfair, then, to write Paramor off as a dinosaur. Add to this the fact that he also oversaw Helen Shapiro’s wonderful 1961 chart-topping double – the bubbly ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’ and the melodramatic ‘You Don’t Know’ – and it’s clear that he wasn’t all bad…

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(Paramor with Cliff, again, and Helen Shapiro in the early sixties)

Wait, though… On the flip side of this particular coin lies one Frank Ifield. Yep, Norrie Paramor produced all four #1s from ‘The Year of Ifield’, pre-rock’s final hurrah before The Beatles and The Pacemakers saved us all… The yodelling horror that is ‘Lovesick Blues’ remains, for me, far worse than anything that Cliff has inflicted.

A mixed bag, then, from Norrie Paramor, prolific producer of the chart’s early years. In total (I think, it’s hard to keep track) he put his name to around twenty five chart-topping singles before the seventies arrived. He also acted as musical director for the Eurovision Song Contest, and wrote multiple film scores, before passing away in 1979. And, in a sentimental twist, the artist that was sitting at #1 in the UK as Paramor drew his final breath, with his first chart-topper in over a decade, was… Cliff!

128. ‘Walkin’ Back to Happiness’, by Helen Shapiro

She’s back. Barely two months after a gorgeous slice of teenage angst, ‘You Don’t Know’, made her the youngest ever solo chart topper, our Helen returns to the top of the charts. And this time she’s feeling much perkier.

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Walkin’ Back to Happiness, by Helen Shapiro (her 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 19th October – 9th November 1961

Funny but it’s true, What loneliness can do… OK, it’s not immediately very perky, but bear with it… Since I’ve been away… Wait for it… I have loved you more each day!

And we’re off. This is a pop record that whips along at breakneck speed – the drums, the guitar, the violins, even the backing singers – none of them linger too long over a single note. Carried along, you really can imagine Miss Shapiro skipping gayly through a field of daffodils. Or something. And the hook; what a hook. Walkin’ back to happiness, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah…! Add it to the wop-bop-ba-loomas and the rama-lama-ding-dongs of pop music lore. To most people in 2019, Helen Shapiro’s entire career has probably been reduced to this very line. It certainly had been for me before starting this blog.

Contrast if you can the in-your-face optimism of this tune with the moodiness of her first chart-topper. On ‘You Don’t Know’, Helen was languishing in the exquisite pain of loving a boy who never noticed her. She could never tell him. She was condemned to suffer in silence. Here, though… Spread the news I’m on the way, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah, All my blues have blown away, Whoopa-oh-yeah-yeah… Technically this song is about someone returning to their lover (I never knew I’d miss you, Now I know what I must do…), but it’s tempting to view it as a riposte to ‘You Don’t Know’ – now she’s head over heels in love. Maybe it’s with the guy who, just two months before, was passing her by in the corridor?

In terms of managing the career of a teen star, her ‘team’ did very well here (she was managed by Norrie Paramour, fifties/early sixties producer du jour – we’ve already heard his work with stars like Cliff and The Shadows, Ruby Murray and Michael Holliday). Shapiro’s two chart-toppers are simultaneously different and yet complimentary. While so many stars have recently followed up big hits with very-similar-sounding hits (Adam Faith, the Everlys, Cliff) it’s refreshing to hear the youngest star of the time return with something completely different. It reminds me of Connie Francis’s double-whammy of ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Stupid Cupid’ from a few years back.

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The best bit of this whole affair is the bridge, when Miss Shapiro lets rip with a Walkin’ back to happiness with yo-ou, mm-hmm-hmm… It’s still hard to imagine that someone with a voice this rich and honeyed was just fifteen when she recorded this. Though I do feel that, as good as this record is, her voice has a natural air of melancholy which suited her previous #1 better. That’s me nit-picking, though. This is a pure pop classic – a disc that can’t help but make you smile.

Helen Shapiro’s star burned brightly but briefly. Her two chart-toppers aside, she only had three other Top 10s, and by the mid-sixties she was struggling to make the Top 40 at all. Going by her Greatest Hits, she had a go at all the pop classics of the day: ‘It’s My Party’, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘Please Mister Postman’ and the ultimate teeny-bopper anthem ‘Lipstick on your Collar’ (that Mary-Jane, eh). She then moved into acting – both on TV and in the West End – and officially ‘retired’ from showbiz in 2002.

While we’ve had girls with perky pop songs hitting the top of the charts before now – Rosemary Clooney and Connie Francis say ‘Hi!’ – they were both American. Helen Shapiro is British, and can thus be seen as the start of a chain linking us right through the 1960s, taking us past Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and more. Female chart-toppers are few and far between in this decade, and the ones that do pop up tend to do so with some pretty special songs…

123. ‘You Don’t Know’, by Helen Shapiro

Rock ‘n’ roll is young people’s music. For the kids. At least it used to be, until all the rock ‘n’ rollers refused to die, kept touring well into their seventies, and the kids all started listening to rap. But indulge me… Rock ‘n’ roll is music for young people; and is at its best when being sung by young people. Like in this next chart-topper.

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You Don’t Know, by Helen Shapiro (her 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 10th – 31st August 1961

This is a song about heartache and longing. About dreaming of, pining for, obsessing over someone in the way that only a teenager can. Some lovely girl-band Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaahs lead us into a tale of a girl who has a big old crush… Although I love you so, Oh you don’t know, You don’t know, Just how I feel, For my love I daren’t reveal, I’m so, I’m so afraid, You might not care… The object of her desire passes by in the corridor, yet he has no idea of what the sight of him with another girl does to poor Helen. Oh honey, we’ve all been there…

I don’t know about you but I’m listening to this record, picturing Miss Shapiro lying on her bed, hair done up in a bee-hive, diary open as she pairs her first name with the surname of her crush over and over again, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek…

We don’t quite reach peak teen-angst, though, until the bridge: I would tell you, If I believed that you might care someday, But until then, I’ll never give this away… Isn’t that just perfect? Of course she’ll never actually tell him; because nothing in this world beats the exquisite pain of unrequited love.

This record could be awful. It could sound ridiculous to anyone over the age of seventeen. But it doesn’t; it stays on the right side of all the melodrama and turns out glorious. Calling it rock ‘n’ roll in the intro was slightly misleading – this is a classy jazz-pop-ballad, all bass and strings. And the fact that Helen Shapiro was really just fourteen when this disc hit #1 gives the whole affair true authenticity. Yes, really. Her voice might sound deep and honeyed, and like she’s had her heart broken a million times; but she was just a child when this sent her to the top of the charts. (Her only previous hit – from earlier in 1961 – had actually been titled ‘Don’t Treat Me Like a Child’).

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This means that Miss Shapiro becomes, in a stroke, the youngest woman, and just the second-youngest artist of either gender, to top the charts. Only a thirteen year old Frankie Lymon back in 1956 can beat her – and that was with ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’, another song about teenage heartache that benefitted from being sung by actual teenagers (very literally, what with Lymon’s backing group being ‘The Teenagers’.)

It’s been a while, actually, since we had a rock ‘n’ roll disc being sung by anyone over thirty. Cliff, The Everlys, Del Shannon, Johnny Tillotson, even Elvis, were all still well within their twenties while performing on recent chart-toppers. Gone are the days of Bill Haley, Guy Mitchell, Kay Starr and the like pretending to be kids to get hits. Helen S. takes it to another level here, though – and remains, to this very day, the youngest female solo artist ever to reach #1 in the UK.

To be honest, it’s just nice to hear a girl’s voice again on this countdown. As great and groovy as recent songs have been, it’s all been a bit of a sausage-fest! Miss Shapiro will grab another #1 very soon and so we shall hold back from any bio until then. For now, simply close your eyes and think back to when you were fourteen, scribbling the name of your crush on the back-page of your notebook, a dreamy look in your eyes and a bucket load of hormones churning around your brain… Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaah… Those were the days…