The Beatles dominated the pop scene in the 1960s with 17 chart toppers giving them a combined total of 69 weeks at No.1, but before the days of Beatlemania, two other British acts were riding high in the hit parade – which one was your pick of the pops?
Also known as “The Man with the Golden Voice”, “The Cockney Sinatra”, and “The Singing Bus Driver“, Matt Monro was a big star in the ’60s, yet he never achieved a UK No.1 hit. His first single, “Portrait of My Love”, peaked at No.3 in 1960, and he then had more Top 10 hits with “My Kind of Girl” in 1961, “Softly as I Leave You” in 1962, “Walk Away” in 1964, and “Yesterday” in 1965, the first cover of the Beatles’ hit. Matt also sang “From Russia with Love” for the 1963 James Bond film of the same name, “Born Free”, the Oscar-winning theme for the 1966 film, and “On Days Like These” for the soundtrack of The Italian Job in 1969.
In 1961, Matt was voted ‘Top International Act’ by Billboard magazine in America, and in 1966, after the death of Nat King Cole, he was signed by Capitol Records as Nat’s replacement, such was the quality and popularity of his voice on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Singer’s Singer
Throughout his career, Matt Monro’s singing talent earned him a long list of showbiz admirers, including Paul McCartney, Shirley Bassey, Val Doonican, Sammy Davis Jr, Bing Crosby, and the man he was so often compared to, Frank Sinatra. After Matt’s untimely death from liver cancer in 1985 at the age of just 54, Frank Sinatra said of him:
“If I had to choose three of the finest male vocalists in the singing business, Matt would be one of them. His pitch was right on the nose; his word enunciations letter-perfect; his understanding of a song thorough.”
High praise indeed, so why did Matt never achieve a No.1 hit? Well, the answer may well be timing. His chart hits in the early ’60s were easy-listening ballads, but the arrival of the Beatles was about to change everything. Matt’s singing style rapidly became old-fashioned and out of touch with what would become known as the sound of the ’60s. But, for those who continued to buy his records, it was all about his “golden voice”. One Matt Monro fan in the Spring Chicken Community sums up the feelings of many, saying:
“Oh, Matt Monro, what a velvety, soothing voice he had. No screaming, no shouting, no straining, just gentle comforting tones that relaxed your whole being. I adored listening to him.”
Of course, the fact that Matt was already 30 years old at the time of his first hit single in 1960 may also have limited his appeal among the fashion-conscious record-buying youth of the “Swinging ’60s”, a sentiment shared by many Facebook followers:
“Matt Monro, the most underrated singer of the times, simply because he didn’t fit the picture of a young pop star.”
Helen Shapiro was a ’60s singing sensation with youth on her side. She achieved her first UK No.1 hit in 1961 at the age of just 14, and by 1962, she had sold well over two million records and won the New Musical Express ‘Top UK Female Singer’ Poll Award twice – and all before she turned 16.
“Don’t Treat Me Like a Child” launched Helen’s career in 1961, peaking at No.3, and her next two singles became chart toppers, with “You Don’t Know” staying at No.1 for 3 weeks in August and “Walkin’ Back to Happiness” giving her another 3 weeks on the top spot in October. In 1962, “Tell Me What He Said” peaked at No.2 and “Little Miss Lonely” at No.8, but, according to Spring Chicken Facebook followers, Helen’s style was as influential as her music back in the day:
“At school, we all did our hair like Helen in the beehive style with cheap hair lacquer.”
“I was a trainee hairdresser in the ’60s, and I did lots of her hairstyle!”
The desire to be like Helen led to the launch of a book in 1962, Helen Shapiro’s Own Book for Girls, and it became the prized possession of many young girls:
“I remember one Christmas I got the Helen Shapiro annual. I was fair chuffed!”
In 1963, Helen was the headline act in a nationwide tour of Britain. Ironically, the Beatles were the main supporting act, and they’d soon leave her in their wake as they led the Beat Boom that changed the face of British pop music.
For some, Helen’s youthful sound had made Matt Monro seem dated, but Beatlemania and the arrival of mini-skirted Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, and Lulu, made even the 16-year-old Helen appear old-fashioned.
Perhaps it’s impossible to pick a favourite between the two, but something many in the Spring Chicken Community agree on is that Helen and Matt could teach today’s so-called singers a thing or two:
“Brilliant pair. Helen’s songs were hyper trendy in the day and her husky, powerful voice was fantastic. Matt’s songs were much gentler and more thoughtful. His voice was as smooth as melted chocolate – all very different to today’s singers who all sound the same!”