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Walking Back

May 15, 2013

Shapiro1Ray Woolf Helen ShapiroRay Woolf and Helen Shapiro were already acquainted when he supported the English popette on her New Zealand tour in 1962, although both were still teenagers.

Before Woolf immigrated with his family to New Zealand, he briefly attended a London singing school, where Shapiro was also a pupil. During this tour of New Zealand, Shapiro would turn 16, but her career had already peaked: a year earlier, ‘Walking Back to Happiness’ was selling 40,000 copies daily in Britain.

Woolf also started early – he began singing seriously aged 13 – and, thanks to his diversity, his career continues to the present day. Shortly after arriving from Britain, Woolf began appearing in coffee bars and dance halls to get known; soon he had a recording deal with Zodiac Records, and a debut single: ‘Things’, backed with ‘Fortune Teller’.

Shapiro Ray WoolfWoolf’s willingness to try anything in entertainment has ensured his longevity: musical theatre, pop bands, big bands … He was even – briefly – in the cutting-edge Auckland 1960s psychedelic band the Brew, led by US jazz-rock émigré Bob Gillette. For once, Woolf was a singer out of place: “I soon realised that they were a bit too avant-garde for me. I was on planet Earth and they were on another planet way over there somewhere.” After this experiment, Woolf’s profile rose even more with residencies singing cover versions of hit tunes on the influential TV pop shows C’mon and Happen Inn, a stint hosting the children’s show Play School, and roles in feature films.

Helen Shapiro’s backing band in her 1962 tour was top shelf: it featured several of New Zealand’s first stars of the rock’n’roll era. With US pianist Tony Lavelli serving as “musical director”, the band included Peter Posa and Bob Paris on guitars, Gene Blazer on bass, and Bruce King on drums.  On saxophones was a quartet of Auckland’s top jazz players: Bernie Allen, Colin Martin, Brian Smith and Derek Neville. Fifty years later, several of these musicians are still playing regularly.

Bernie Allen told me that he didn’t remember the tour as walking back to happiness: Shapiro was a one-hit teenager, who arrived with her parents, poorly written charts and disinterested management. “The musos took her under their arms,” said Allen, “I felt so sorry for her.” There are photos of her blowing out candles at the birthday party the musicians put on for her. 

Shapiro3

The complete programme for the 1962 New Zealand tour can be read on-line thanks to a remarkable Shapiro collector in Britain. If Helen is your gal, this will surely make you walk back with happiness.

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