In 1966, I was on the cusp of my teenage years in Belfast. This was The Beatles’ fringe-shaking era and around the time Tom Jones was emerging as a hip-swivelling knicker magnet. It was a year before Shirley Bassey’s sassiest record Big Spender and not long after her dramatic Goldfinger. I was 12-years old and, in my mother’s eyes, vulnerable to the sight of this slinky singer in revealing gowns, pouting and purring and looking seductively out of the television screen into my naïve eyes. My mother did everything she could to shield her young children from this kind of performance. Shirley Bassey was not as “bad” as Eartha Kitt, another feline sex-bomb, but she was in the same category. Of course, there were far, far worse threats out there but, in a Catholic household, safeguarding the purity of a young mind was high on the agenda. In 1966, in our house, Shirley Bassey was dangerous viewing. However, I survived and here we are in 2017 celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever seen.
Shirley Bassey was born in Tiger Bay, Cardiff on 8 January 1937. She was one of six children. Her father Henry was Nigerian and her mother, Eliza Jane, was English. Her parents’ marriage did not survive scandal and complications. Shirley grew up in the neighbouring area, Splott. From as far back as anyone can remember, she loved to sing. Her mother recalled that as a young girl, Shirley would position herself under a table to perform because she was very shy and lacking in confidence. But she did enter a talent competition, came second and was awarded a £5 note. She used some of the money to buy her mother a ring. By accounts in interviews, Shirley recalled that although money was tight, it was a happy home. At school, she was encouraged to sing and perform but was told that her voice was too loud at times, often drowning out others in the class. Later on, her work colleagues too liked the singing but not always the volume.
In her teens, Shirley earned around £3 a week packing pots and pans in Currans Engineering Works in Cardiff, a job she did for eighteen months, supplemented by £2 a night singing in the Splott Working Men’s Club, also known as The Bomb and Dagger. She once said that she had no real ambitions to be a famous singer but did have ideas about becoming an air hostess or a nurse. The latter career notion was a non-starter because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. In 1955 she took part in a touring revue called Memories of Jolson. One of her fellow performers in the revue, Eddie Reindeer, encouraged Burly Chassis, as he nicknamed her, to make a demonstration record in a Shaftsbury Avenue studio. They recorded a duet of By the Light of the Silvery Moon, probably the very first Bassey disc. Reindeer hawked the demo around record companies but no one was interested.
Shirley was invited by an agent called Michael Sullivan to an audition on 14 February, 1955 that lead to appearances at Mayfair’s Astor Club, ending her shows with Stormy Weather. Sullivan recalled, on hearing that song performed: “It sent a shiver down my spine” At the Astor, she was spotted by bandleader Jack Hylton who asked her to sing at the Adelphi Club. After the performance, critics agreed that she was “the great new find” and a newspaper reported: “For the girl, 18-year-old Miss Shirley Bassey from Cardiff, it was the sort of break that every unknown in show business dreams about.” She became a regular star at prestigious clubs in London, including the Café de Paris and The Talk of the Town, building a strong reputation and fan base in the process. After a guest appearance on TV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, barely 20-years old, Shirley Bassey was on her way to stardom. She made more television appearances including The Anthony Newley Show and from recording sessions made between 1956 and 1959, her album The Bewitching Miss Bassey, which included the very popular Kiss Me, Honey, Honey, Kiss Me, was released to great acclaim. It was a showcase album featuring a range of amazing songs written by Cole Porter (Night and Day), Rodgers and Hart (My Funny Valentine) and Burton and Freed (How About You?) as well as the traditional Banana Boat Song, which turned out to be her first top ten chart hit. The LP also featured the number one single As I Love You.
She was impressing fellow performers along the way. Liberace said: “Shirley is the stuff that superstars are made of. When she sings it’s from within. She’s an intense singer, an exciting singer, an electric performer and I’ve seen her hold audiences in the palm of her hand. Only a great artist with great talent can do that.” Danny La Rue said: “This woman is magic. She’s like a work of art. She’s like a painting and if you look at it long enough and often enough, it becomes more beautiful, more talented. It is a joy to know her. She is one of our greatest stars.” Elizabeth Taylor called her “the epitome of professionalism and showmanship, and undeniably one of the greatest singers of our time.” Des O’Connor told her: “The British public love you, not just your talent. They love you.”
If the 1950s was an apprenticeship era with growing success and glowing reviews, the 1960s and 1970s were golden years of hits, Royal Variety Performances, James Bond theme songs and sell-out concerts all over the world. These were the decades of As Long As He Needs Me, Reach For The Stars, What Now My Love?, I (Who Have Nothing), Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and, of course, the showstopper, Big Spender. After an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960, her album collaboration with Nelson Riddle, breathtaking concert performances including New York and Las Vegas, and subsequent exposure via the 007 movies, she conquered America. In 1970, her version of George Harrison’s Something earned her a top five UK hit and two series of The Shirley Bassey Show for the BBC allowed her to mix music and comedy with top international stars.
All through these years of outstanding success, her evolution into a unique performer, her stature as one of the very finest entertainers in history, those young years singing under the table because of shyness were erased once and for all when she made a guest appearance, in 1971, on The Morecambe and Wise Show. The format for the show included sketches in which Eric and Ernie had fun with some of the biggest names in show business. It is easy to remember conductor Andre Previn’s bewilderment at Eric’s silly piano playing or newsreader Angela Rippon’s high-kicking Let’s Face The Music or, indeed, Shirley Bassey losing her shoe and having it replaced by a hobnail boot as she sang Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. It is a classic piece of screen comedy, oft-repeated and always hilarious.
She appeared on This Is Your Life twice. In 1972, she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews dressed as a pilot as she stepped off a BEA flight at Heathrow Airport and in 1993 by Michael Aspel gate-crashing her curtain call after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Both profiles skimmed over her personal life – two failed marriages, a daughter who died at 21 and other aspects of her private off-stage world. In a newspaper interview she opened up a little about some of the regrets in her life including the decision all those years ago to leave Cardiff. “I was happy until success entered my life,” she said, “and then it was all downhill.” She maintained that success had spoiled her. Nowadays, she lives in Monaco and London, out of the limelight as much as possible.
Through the 1980s, she eased up touring and semi-retired, picking and choosing occasional concerts, television appearances and recording sessions, and accepting invitations to sing at charity events like Sir Elton John’s Aids Foundation’s White Tie and Tiara Ball. Whenever she performed at gala events and special ceremonies, standing ovations were still guaranteed. While her personal life was challenging at times, on stage she was in her element as she was, for example, in her sensational appearance at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival wearing a pink dress and fashionable wellies.
Shirley Bassey is as unique a performer as we are ever likely to see. She has a style all her own. Her singing is powerful, intense, full-on, loud when necessary, cheeky occasionally but always mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining. Her career path is festooned with awards and accolades, walks of fame and, of course, she is Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, all deserved.
She was and still is sassy, sexy and sensational whenever she makes an appearance. She is quite simply, the one and only Shirley Bassey. Happy birthday, Dame Shirley, the girl from Cardiff, the girl with the Midas touch.