A WORLD-FAMOUS singer with a big voice and a glamorous reputation, Dame Shirley Bassey’s career began in the 1950s before the dawn of rock and roll, and she has recorded numerous hits, including three James Bond theme songs.
Her voice propelled her from Cardiff’s Tiger Bay docklands to true worldwide superstardom – Bassey was one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain during the second half of the 20th Century, often referred to in Wales as simply ‘our Shirl’.
Bassey was born in Bute Street in Tiger Bay, Butetown, January 8, 1937, and grew up in the working-class Splott area of Cardiff.
She would go on to release 70 albums and sell nearly 140 million records over seven decades, becoming the first Welsh singer to score a number one single with As I Love You in 1959.
She was the winner of the first Brit Award for best British female solo artist in 1977, and was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to the performing arts in 2000.
With a twinkle in her eye, she recalled: “I had to keep quiet for seven weeks. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I was afraid to go out in case I told someone – my social life was nil!”
She has worked with the giants of the music business – from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, but is perhaps best known for her stunning James Bond theme tunes – Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979).
Her surprise performance of Goldfinger at the 85th Annual Academy Awards, commemorating 50 years of 007 films, brought the house down. Bassey received a two-minute standing ovation following her performance.
Unfortunately, Bassey’s family life wasn’t as successful as her career.
Bassey married twice, to Kenneth Hume and Sergio Novak, but both marriages ended in divorce. She was also estranged from her adopted son, Mark, for several years.
The most difficult blow for Bassey was the death of her daughter, Samantha, in 1985. The death was considered an accidental drowning, but, in a 2009 interview, Bassey admitted she had doubts about that conclusion.
Bassey has four grandsons through her surviving daughter, Sharon Novak. Bassey resides in Monaco. In 2018, Bassey reported that she had a great-granddaughter.
In 2019, aged 82, she was awarded the freedom of her home city of Cardiff.
After the ceremony, she said: “It was so emotional. I said I wasn’t going to cry and I did. When they were reading [my achievements] all out that was it. I was like ‘did I do all that?'”
The singer became “the first musician and the first person of the arts” to receive the honour, Cardiff council leader Huw Thomas said at the Cardiff City Hall ceremony.
“Her voice has provided the soundtrack to key moments in the life of our city and of our nation,” he added.
It is the highest honour the city can bestow on an individual and was first awarded in 1886. Other recipients of the award include Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana.
The freedom honour also marked Dame Shirley’s patronage to local children’s charity Noah’s Ark.
A singer since childhood, Bassey’s bold voice, along with her perseverance, helped her move beyond her impoverished upbringing. Of mixed-race heritage (with an English mother and a Nigerian father), Bassey reached a level of international acclaim that few other Black British performers had seen before her.
From the outset, teachers and students alike at Moorland Road School noticed Bassey’s strong voice, but gave the pre-teen little encouragement: “…everyone told me to shut up. Even in the school choir the teacher kept telling me to back off till I was singing in the corridor!”
After leaving Splott Secondary Modern School at the age of 14, Bassey found employment at the Curran Steels factory while singing in public houses and clubs in the evenings and at weekends.
In 1953, teenager Bassey signed a contract to sing in the touring variety show Memories of Jolson, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson.
In a 1999 interview with Nigel Havers in her Monte Carlo apartment, Bassey pointed to a piece of paper framed on the wall and referred to it as her first contract. this document, dated December 17, 1953 (three weeks before her 17th birthday), appears to promise £10 for two performances (a sizeable sum for a 16 year-old in 1953).
Her performing stopped when she became pregnant. But, after giving birth and leaving her daughter Sharon in the care of a sister, Bassey soon started to perform again.
When agent Mike Sullivan heard Bassey singing, he was impressed enough with her powerfully expressive voice to begin managing her career. It was at this time that Bassey started to adopt the cleavage-baring tops and gowns that would become her signature look.
In 1955, Bassey toured various theatres until she was noticed by the impresario Jack Hylton. He invited her to feature in Al Read’s Such Is Life at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End.
During the show’s run, Philips record producer Johnny Franz spotted her on television, was impressed, and offered her a recording deal. Bassey recorded her first single, Burn My Candle, released in February 1956, when she was 19. Owing to the suggestive lyrics, the BBC banned it, but more singles followed, and in February 1957, Bassey had her first hit with The Banana Boat Song, which reached No 8 in the UK Singles Chart.
Her worldwide popularity took off when she sang Goldfinger for the 1964 James Bond movie of the same name. Her trio of Bond songs, along with her interpretations of numbers like Big Spender and I Am What I Am, would make Bassey’s career an unmitigated success.
In 1957 she recorded under the direction of American producer Mitch Miller in New York City and made her American stage début in Las Vegas at El Rancho Vegas.
In mid-1958, she recorded two singles that would become classics in the Bassey catalogue. As I Love You was released as the B-side of another ballad, Hands Across the Sea; it did not sell well at first, but after an appearance at the London Palladium sales began to pick up. In January 1959, As I Love You reached No 1 and stayed there for four weeks.
While As I Love You climbed the charts, so did Bassey’s recording of Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me and both records would end up occupying the Top 3 at the same time.
In the early and mid-1960s, Bassey had numerous hits in the UK, and five albums in the Top 15. Her 1960 recording of As Long As He Needs Me from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! reached No 2, and had a chart run of 30 weeks.
Bassey made her American television début on 13 November 1960, when she performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Further UK top 10 singles of the period included her second No 1, the double A-side Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (1961). Bassey appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine in 1963, and sang at a Washington gala celebrating President Kennedy’s second year in office.
Bassey made her Carnegie Hall debut on February 15, 1964.
She enjoyed her only US Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1965 with Goldfinger. The single, released in the United States during January 1965, peaked at No 8.
The Goldfinger theme song had a lasting impact on her career. In the sleeve notes for Bassey’s 25th Anniversary Album (1978), Peter Clayton noted that: “Acceptance in America was considerably helped by the enormous popularity of Goldfinger… But she had actually established herself there as early as 1961, in cabaret in New York. She was also a success in Las Vegas.”
Bassey herself could only agree:”I suppose I should feel hurt that I’ve never been really big in America on record since Goldfinger… But, concertwise, I always sell out.”
Bassey recorded a song for the 1965 Bond film, Thunderball. Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was not used in the movie, although the film’s score follows its melodic theme. Written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, after Bassey’s version it was re-recorded by Dionne Warwick, and then rejected in favour of a new song, Thunderball, hastily written by Barry and given to Bassey’s compatriot Tom Jones after the film’s producers decided the song over the opening credits must feature the film’s title.
One of her best-known singles, Big Spender was released in 1967, surprisingly charting just short of the UK Top 20.
Bassey began to live as a tax exile in 1968, and was unable to work in Britain for almost two years.
Bassey’s UK comeback came in 1970, leading to one of the most successful periods of her career. The year began with a BBC Television ‘Special’, The Young Generation Meet Shirley Bassey, recorded in Sweden and shown on BBC1 on March 18. She returned to the UK with a record-breaking run of performances at the Talk of the Town nightclub.
Two compilations, The Shirley Bassey Singles Album (1975) and 25th Anniversary Album (1978), both made the UK Top 3; The Shirley Bassey Singles Album her highest-charting album, reached No 2 and earned a gold disc, and the 25th Anniversary Album eventually went platinum.
Between 1970 and 1979, Bassey had 18 hit albums in the UK Albums Chart.
She was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions; in November 1972 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Heathrow Airport, and in January 1993, when Michael Aspel greeted her with the famous red book at the curtain call of a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Bassey unforgettably appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, broadcast on Christmas Day in 1971. She went on to star in a six-episode The Shirley Bassey Show (1976), followed by a second series of six episodes in 1979. The final show of the first series was nominated for the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1977.
Throughout most of the 1980s, Bassey focused on charitable work and performing occasional concert tours throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States.
She returned to the UK top 40 with Propellerheads on the hit single History Repeating in 1997 after an absence from the UK singles chart for 24 years.
She recorded the single There’s No Place Like London, written by Lynsey de Paul and Gerard Kenny.
Bassey celebrated her 60th birthday in 1997 with two open-air concerts, at Castle Howard and Althorp Park, and another TV special. The resulting live album The Birthday Concert received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance. On October 7, 1998, in Egypt, Bassey performed for a benefit at an open-air concert close to the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid.
In 1999, she performed the official song for the rugby World Cup, World in Union, with Bryn Terfel at the opening ceremony at The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, wearing a gown designed on the Welsh flag. Their single made the Top 40, and Bassey contributed two more songs to the official album Land of My Fathers, which reached No 1 on the UK compilations chart, and went silver.
In 2001, Bassey was principal artiste at the Duke of Edinburgh’s 80th birthday celebration. On June 3, 2002, she was one of a prestigious line-up of artists including Elton John, Paul McCartney and Tom Jones who performed at the Queen’s 50th Jubilee Party at Buckingham Palace.
Bassey celebrated 50 years in show business in 2003 with the release of the CD Thank You for the Years, which was another Top 20 album. A gala charity auction of her stage costumes at Christie’s, ‘Dame Shirley Bassey: 50 Years of Glittering Gowns’, raised £250,000 (US$500,000) for the Dame Shirley Bassey Scholarship at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital Appeal.
In November 2016 the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama announced the naming of the Shirley Bassey Studio in celebration of Bassey’s long-standing support for young Welsh singers studying at the College.
Two popular Audiences with Shirley Bassey have aired on British television, one in 1995 that attracted more than 10 million viewers in the UK, with the second being broadcast in 2006. Bassey returned to perform in five arenas around the UK in June the same year, culminating at Wembley. She also performed a concert in front of 10,000 people at the Bryn Terfel Faenol Festival in north Wales.
Marks & Spencer signed her for their Christmas 2006 James Bond-style television advertising campaign. Bassey is seen in a glamorous Ice Palace singing a cover version of Pink’s song Get the Party Started, wearing an M&S gown.
Bassey performed a 45-minute set at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival wearing a pink Julien Macdonald dress, and customised Wellington boots. The same year, Bassey performed Big Spender with Elton John at his annual White Tie and Tiara Ball to raise money for The Elton John AIDS Foundation. In 2007, Bassey performed in Fashion Rocks in aid of The Prince’s Trust at the Royal Albert Hall.
She was rushed to hospital in Monaco on May 23, 2008 to have an emergency operation on her stomach after complaining of abdominal pains. She was forced to pull out of the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute concert because of her illness. A biography, Diamond Diva, was published in 2008.
Bassey recorded the album The Performance (2009), with James Bond composer David Arnold as co-producer. A number of artists wrote songs expressly for Bassey, including Manic Street Preachers, Gary Barlow, Tom Baxter, KT Tunstall, Pet Shop Boys, Nick Hodgson of the Kaiser Chiefs, John Barry and Don Black.
Bassey performed at a gala celebrating the 80th birthday of Mikhail Gorbachev on March 30, 2011. She also performed at the Classical Brit Awards in 2011, singing Goldfinger in tribute to John Barry.
Bassey was one of the line-up of artists on June 4, 2012, who performed at the Queen’s 60th Jubilee Party at Buckingham Palace, singing Diamonds Are Forever, before her triumphant appearance at the 2013 Oscars with another Bond classic, Goldfinger.
Bassey performed I’m Still Here and The Lady Is A Tramp on November 13, 2014, at the 2014 Royal Variety Performance in the presence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Her album, Hello Like Before was released on November 17, 2014. It includes a 50th-anniversary re-recording of Goldfinger (recreating the original orchestration) and a duet of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend with Paloma Faith.
On 9 August 2019, Dame Shirley performed at UNICEF’s Summer Gala in Porto Cervo, Sardinia.
In August 2020, Bassey announced that she was going to release her first new album in five years to celebrate her 70-year career and described as a “grand finale” dedicated to her fans.
Bassey said: “The songs I have chosen all feel very personal and connected to my life. I hope they will do the same for my fans.”
In a BBC Wales radio interview, biographer John Williams commented: “As a teenaged, mixed-race single mother from the Cardiff docks, she managed to make herself a star [in a largely] all-white Britain of the 1950s, through pure force of personality and talent.
“She came out of a world of musical halls and variety shows. She related to the great stars: people like Judy Garland would have been an inspiration, and she’s kept that idea of glamour, and singers that are full of emotion and drama.”
Co-managing director of Decca Records, Tom Lewis described Dame Shirley as “a living legend” who had enriched the lives of so many with her unique talent.
Shirley Bassey, awards and achievements
1959: Favourite British Female Singer – NME Award
1960: Favourite British Female Singer – NME Award
1972: Best Female Singer – TV Times
1973: Best Female Singer – TV Times
1974: Best Female Entertainer – American Guild of Variety Artists
1976: Best Female Singer – Music Week
1976: 22-day British tour to mark twenty years as a recording artist
1976: EMI Award for 20 years as a recording artist – UK
1977: Best British Female Solo Artist in the previous 25 years – BRIT Award
1977: Golden Rose of Montreux nomination for The Shirley Bassey Show
1991: Walk of Fame, Star Boulevard – plaque unveiled in Rotterdam
1993: Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
1994: CBE – Commander of the Order of the British Empire
1995: Showbusiness Personality of the Year – Variety Club of Great Britain
1997: Grammy nomination – The Birthday Concert (recorded live at Althorp Park)
1998: Longest run by a solo artist (10 shows) – Royal Festival Hall, London
1999: Légion d’Honneur – France
1999: Madam Tussaud’s waxwork unveiled in London (second model in Las Vegas)
2000: DBE – Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2000: Most Successful British Female Singer – Guinness Book of Records
2003: Outstanding Contribution to Music – National Music Awards, UK
2003: Lifetime Achievement Award (inaugural award) – Western Mail Welsh Woman of the Year Awards
2004: ‘100 Great Black Britons’, Bassey voted into the top 10
2004: Artist for Peace Award – UNESCO
2004: Welsh Legend Award, presented at the opening of the Cardiff Millennium Centre
2005: Avenue of Stars – plaque unveiled in London
2008: Goldfinger – United Artists single (1964) inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
2013: Dorian Award, TV Musical Performance of the Year – Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association
2014: Lifetime Achievement Award – World Music Awards
2017: Hall of Fame Award, Jersey Style Awards
2017: Nordoff Robbins O2 Silver Clef Award
2018: Unveiled a carriage on the Snowdon Mountain Railway, named in her honour
2019: Freedom of the City of Cardiff
2019: Square of Fame – plaque of Bassey’s handprints unveiled at the SSE Arena, Wembley Park, London
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