Dame Shirley Bassey

Article by Amy Titley

Artwork by Amy Titley

The life of Shirley Bassey is a genuine rags to riches story, one filled with amazing success and more than a few tragedies.

She remains the iconic Welsh female singer of her generation, famous for her rendition of three James Bond themes, and the possessor of a rich, harmonic voice that is immediately recognizable. If you hear that voice on the radio or television, you know immediately that it is Shirley Bassey.

Born on 8 January 1937 in what used to be called Tiger Bay in Cardiff, she grew up in a family that included three sisters, two half-sisters and a brother. There was not a lot of money around but Shirley, an engaging and talented child, thrived in a supportive, warm and welcoming environment.

As a child at Moorland Primary School her voice was noticed – it could hardly fail to be – but she was not unduly encouraged with her singing. It did not put her off and she happily sang to herself in the corridors and playground.

Bassey went on to Splott Secondary Modern School, leaving at the age of 14 to start work in a packing factory. In the evenings and at weekends she began to pick up work singing in clubs and pubs.

She was given her first professional contract in 1953, performing in a touring variety show about the life of legendary American singer Al Jolson, but soon became disillusioned with show business and retired from the profession.

Bassey was also pregnant with her first daughter Sharon and the need to earn a steady wage was paramount. She began waiting on tables in her native Cardiff but still found time to sing occasionally in the evenings.

In 1955 she was noticed by agent Michael Sullivan and began singing again, full time. When Jack Hylton put her into Al Read’s Such is Life show in London it was her first big break.

She began recording and although her first single, Burn My Candle, was banned by the BBC because of its suggestive lyrics, it was still a popular recording and led to more chances to make records. Soon afterwards The Banana Boat Song became her first big hit.

In the late 1950s Shirley Bassey began touring America, becoming very popular in Las Vegas. Amazingly, her recording career there did not take off – Goldfinger being her only hit record in the States – but it mattered little, the show going punters of Vegas and New York loved her.

There have been many notable moments in the career of Shirley Bassey. Her recording of As Long As He Needs Me from the musical Oliver! spent 30 weeks in the charts, although it failed to make number one and peaked at second spot. Her James Bond themes – Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker – along with her recording of the anthem World in Union (with Bryn Terfel) have ensured her a place in musical history.

She has appeared in many high profile events, notably the opening of the Rugby World Cup at the Millennium Stadium when she sang in a gown fashioned out of the Welsh flag.

Bassey had her own television series but is perhaps best remembered on TV for her appearance on the 1971 Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show, when she gamely continued to sing despite the boot that Eric Morecombe slipped onto her foot.

There have been several highs and lows in Shirley’s career. After becoming a tax exile in 1968 she was unable to appear in the UK for two years and her record sales slumped. By the 1970s, however, she was back, and by the end of the decade she had recorded and sold no fewer than 18 hit albums in the UK.

Married twice, Shirley’s first marriage to Kenneth Hume ended in an acrimonious divorce after her affair with the actor Peter Finch. A second marriage, to Sergio Novak, also ended in divorce. For a long while she and her son were on bad terms and did not speak.

Tragically, in 1985 her daughter Samantha Novak was found dead in the Avon at Bristol. Shirley has always insisted that her daughter’s death was not an accident or suicide but police investigations have revealed nothing.

Through all the trials and tribulations, Shirley Bassey has continued to sing and perform. In 1999 she was made a dame, for her services to entertainment, and now lives in Monaco.

She remains one of those characters everyone knows and admires – a true Welsh icon.

The above information is published online by the BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/entries/72e3a207-59f0-3a83-9327-01de603d7e01