Bassey, Shirley 1937–
Shirley Bassey 1937–
British singer Shirley Bassey won an entirely new generation of fans when she guested on a 1997 song from British techno act, the Propellerheads. “History Repeating” charted in both Europe and North America, and appeared on the soundtrack to the popular 1998 film There’s Something About Mary. Yet Bassey had enjoyed a long, four-decade career as a performer before this point, recording a string of hit singles in the 1960s and garnering a devoted cult following for her torchy, often slightly risque songs, glamorous looks, and compelling stage presence. Sometimes called “Bassey the Belter” for her strong alto voice, Bassey had previously enjoyed a huge international hit when she performed the title song to the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. She remains one of the one of the top-performing female singers in the history of the British charts. Don Heckman, writing for the Los Angeles Times, called Bassey “an extraordinarily powerful live entertainer with one of the most instantly recognizable voices in popular music.”
Born Shirley Veronica Bassey in Tiger Bay, a dockside neighborhood of Cardiff, Wales, on January 8, 1937, the future songstress was the last of seven children born to Henry and Eliza Bassey, an interracial couple. Her father was a seaman from Nigeria who left the family when his youngest child was just two, and was never heard from again. Interviewed by Deborah Ross of the British London newspaper The Independent in 1997, Bassey said that “I never even asked my mother about him. I didn’t want to carry that baggage through my life. I just let it go.”
When her mother remarried, the children moved to an all-white neighborhood in Cardiff, where Bassey began singing, though she was, by nature, a shy child. After dropping out of school at the age of 14, Bassey found work as a packer in a Cardiff enamelware factory for wages of nine dollars a week. On the weekends, she sang for extra income in local clubs. Her first real performance came in 1953 at the Grand Theatre in Luton, Bedfordshire, England, and from there she went on to appear in a number of black-themed musicals and revues, including a production called Memories of Jolson and Hot From Harlem, which toured the United Kingdom. Homesick, she returned to Cardiff and found a job waiting tables, but the stage soon lured her back.
In 1955, a popular British comedian invited Bassey to appear in his Christmas show, Such Is Life, in one of London’s West End theaters. She recorded her first single, “Burn My Candle,” around this time, and her voice soon attracted major industry interest; critics and fans were also enchanted, and Bassey was quickly likened to Eartha Kitt, Lena Home, and even Judy Garland. Her first chart success, the “Banana Boat Song,” debuted in early 1957 and quickly reached No.8 on the British charts. Bassey went on to record a string of hit singles over the next few years. She also packed concert halls, earned and spent lavish amounts on show-stopping stage gowns that highlighted her svelte, but well-endowed figure, and became a household name in Britain. Yet Bassey was also forced to endure her share of attention from the tabloid press,
At a Glance…
Born January tt, 1937, in Cardiff. Wales, United Kingdom; daughter of Henry (a seaman) and Eliza Bassey; married Kenneth Hume (a television producer), 1961 (marriage ended); married Sergio No-vak; children: Sharon, Samantha (deceased, 1985) Mark.
Career: Worked in an enamelware factory as a packer, Cardiff, Wales, early 1950s;began singing career at clubs in Cardiff; appeared on the London stage in musical revues thatincluded Hot From Harlem, mid-1950s; recorded first single, “Burn MyCandle,” 1955: recorded first LP, The Bewitching Miss Bassey, 1959.
especially after a dejected former boyfriend held her at gunpoint in a hotel in London.
Bassey’s debut album, The Bewitching Miss Bassey, was released on EMI\ Columbia. She moved to New York and enjoyed great success with her cabaret act, and then expanded her audience with shows in Las Vegas. Her name was even romantically linked with that of Frank Sinatra, one of the biggest stars of the era. Bassey once again suffered some salacious publicity during this era as well, when the British press revealed that she had become a mother at the age of 18. One of Bassey’s sisters had been raising the daughter, named Sharon, but the singer then took custody of her.
Bassey’s personal life would be marked by a series of tragedies. In 1961, she wed television producer Kenneth Hume, but he committed suicide after their divorce. A second husband, Sergio Novak, an Italian producer, served a stint as her manager, as Hume had done as well. Bassey told Ross in the Independent interview that both decisions revealed poor judgment on her part. “I’ve always been the breadwinner and men don’t like that. They turn on you,” Bassey declared. “They bite the hand that feeds them. Eventually, too, they become very jealous of the love one has with an audience.”
That audience even included President John F. Kennedy at a White House performance, but it was Bassey’s surprising rendition of the theme song to the popular James Bond film, “Goldfinger,” that made her a huge international star in 1964. She would go on to record two other theme songs for Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 and Moonraker, released eight years later. She continued to enjoy several other hit songs, even during the rock era when such torchy pop songs seemed rather out of step with the times. Both “Big Spender” from 1967 and a 1969 tune, “This Is My Life,” were impressive hits for the singer.
In 1969, Bassey and her family—which would include two other children, Samantha and Mark—moved to Switzerland. Still in great demand as a performer, Bassey continued to perform around the globe, and was a frequent presence on British television for many years. She later admitted on more than one occasion that her performing career did not make her the best mother, and that her children would often begin crying when they saw suitcases appear in the hallway as she prepared to tour again.
After a 1978 album, The Magic Is You, Bassey retreated to Switzerland and semiretirement. Again, family tragedy struck when her daughter Samantha was found dead, a probable suicide, at the foot of a bridge in Bristol, England, in 1985. Despite her semiretired status, Bassey found it difficult to resist the lure of offers to record and perform, and enjoyed surprising success when she appeared on a 1987 track from the Swiss electronic band, Yello. But it was the efforts a decade later of another alternative act, two British sound engineers who recorded under the name Propeller-heads, that revived Bassey’s unique appeal. “The two Propellerhead boys sent the song to me, and though I loved the music I thought it was more something for Tina Turner than for me,” she told San Francisco Chronicle writer Neva Chonin. They persevered, however, and convinced Bassey to record with them. “History Repeating” became the standout track on the album, and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. New Musical Express’s Sylvia Patterson reviewed Decksanddrumsandrockandroll and called the single with Bassey “unsurpassingly mighty.”
The singer, who has received two honorifics from the Queen Elizabeth and is formally known as Dame Shirley Bassey, eventually relocated to the French Riviera enclave of Monte Carlo. Well into her sixties, she continued to perform, and her shows are packed with devoted fans. Her voice remained the same strong, enigmatic alto, which she has credited to her serious commitment to vocal exercise. As to her physical stamina, she confessed to Heckman in the Los Angeles Times article, “my two secrets are drinking lots of water and working out every day before the show. I go to the gym, I do the treadmill and I lift tiny weights. I exercise my voice, and I watch what I eat. And it’s not a chore for me because I like the results.”
Bassey, who turned 63 in 2000, seemed uninterested in permanent retirement. “Maybe when I’m 70 I’ll think, I’ve done it all. Now what?,” she told Chonin in the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s when I’ll go explore the pyramids and all the places I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t had the time to. I’m a gypsy, you see. I love a good adventure,”
The Bewitching Miss Bassey, EMI\Columbia, 1959.
Fabulous Shirley Bassey, EMI\Columbia, 1960.
Shirley, EMI\Columbia, 1961.
Let’s Face the Music, EMI\ Columbia, 1962.
Shirley Bassey at the Pigalle, EMI\Columbia, 1965.
Shirley Bassey Belts the Best!, EMI\Columbia, 1965.
I’ve Got a Song for You, EMI\Columbia, 1966.
Live at the Talk of the Town, EMI\Columbia, 1970.
Something, United Artists, 1970.
Something Else, United Artists, 1971.
Big Spender, United Artists, 1971.
I Capricorn, United Artists, 1972.
Never, Never, Never, United Artists, 1973.
Live at Carnegie Hall, United Artists, 1973.
Nobody Does It Like Me, United Artists, 1974.
Love, Life and Feelings, United Artists, 1976.
You Take My Heart Away, United Artists, 1977.
The Magic Is You, United Artists, 1978.
This Is My Life, United Artists, 1979.
Love Songs, 1982.
All By Myself, 1984.
I Am What I Am, 1984.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin, 1985.
Born to Sing the Blues, 1987.
Let Me Sing and I’m Happy, 1988.
La Mujer, 1989.
Keep The Music Playing, 1991.
Shirley Bassey Sings The Songs Of Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1993.
The Show Must Go On, Polygram, 1996.
(With Yello) The Rhythm Divine, Mercury, 1987.
(With Propellerheads), Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, Wall of Sound, 1997.
Gammond, Peter, Oxford Companion to Popular Music, Oxford University Press. 1991.
Ebony, March 1963.
Independent (London), September 15, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1998.
New Musical Express, January 24, 1998.
Observer, September 11, 1994.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 1998.
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