Shirley Bassey - Biography

Known as "the Tigress of Tiger Bay" and (to her displeasure) "Bassey the Belter," Shirley Bassey is a Welsh singer known for her big, bold interpretations of classic and contemporary pop. Outside the UK, where she enjoys enormous and enduring popularity, she's primarily known as the singer of the Bond themes for Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever and Moonraker.


Shirley Bassey was born on January 8th, 1937, in the working-class dockside district of Splott in Cardiff. She was the youngest of seven children born to an English woman (Eliza Jane (née Metcalfe)) and an illegal Nigerian immigrant (Henry Bassey), who was most likely deported when she was three. Shirley began singing when young, often with one of her brothers. Although hardly encouraged by her mother, Bassey began singing in the Salvation Army's youth choir. Bassey left Moorland School and home at fifteen and found employment packing at a local factory whilst singing in public houses and men's clubs during her off hours. 


Bassey signed a contract in 1953 and toured as part of the revue, Memories of Jolson. In 1954 she appeared in Hot from Harlem. Still just sixteen, Bassey gave birth to her daughter, Sharon, and returned to Cardiff where she worked as a waitress and sang when she could. An appearance at the Albany Club led to a role in comedian Al Read's Christmas show. After that, she appeared in the comedian's revue, Such Is Life, which ran for over a year at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End. There she was spotted by producer Johnny Franz, who offered her a deal with Philips. Her debut single, "Burn My Candle (At Both Ends)" b/w "Stormy Weather," was released it in February 1956 and promptly banned by the BBC but sold well, nonetheless.


The Gershwin-heavy Born to Sing the Blues (1957 Philips) was Shirley Bassey's first full length. The single, "Banana Boat Song," peaked at number eight. For the follow-up, The Bewitching Miss Bassey (1959 Philips) she employed the services of Geoff Love & His Orchestra, who provided a thick, powerful sound. 1959's "As I Love You" became the first number one single by a Welsh artist. A few months later, Bassey signed to EMI and the second phase in her recording career began with The Fabulous Shirley Bassey (1959 EMI). She continued to be backed by Love's orchestra on Shirley (1961 EMI) and Shirley Bassey (1961 EMI). In 1961 she had another number one with "Reach for the Stars/Climb Every Mountain."


In 1961, Bassey surprised many when she married openly gay writer/director Kenneth Hume. Another fan was John F. Kennedy, who invited Bassey to sing at his Inaugural Ball. The following year, a pairing with Nelson Riddle (then unable to record with Frank Sinatra due to contractual issues) raised her profile in the US, where she headlined in New York and Las Vegas. The resulting album, Shirley Bassey with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra's more subdued Let's Face the Music (1962 EMI) is widely held to be the best of her early work. She followed it with Shirley Bassey Sings the Hit Song from Oliver! (1962 EMI).


In 1963, Bassey gave birth to her second daughter, Samantha. The magazine Pix claimed that the child was illegitimate. Though the claim was true, Bassey sued and won £2,400 in damages. A disgraced Hume filed for divorce and Samantha was sent to live with one of Bassey's sisters. Bassey's performance of the them from 1964's James Bond film, Goldfinger, reached number eight in the US in 1965 and became her signature song there (it strangely missed the Top 20 in the UK). She also sang the theme for the James Bond spoof, The Liquidator. A sell-out run at London's Pigalle led to Shirley Bassey at the Pigalle (1965 EMI) which was followed by Shirley Stops the Shows (1965 EMI). That year, Hume and Bassey's divorce reached the courts, and Hume took a blood test to prove that he wasn’t Samantha's father. Many suspected that the real father was actor Peter Finch.


After Bassey's divorce was finalized, she returned to music with I've Got a Song for You! (1966 EMI), And We Were Lovers (1967 EMI) and Shirley Means Bassey (1967 EMI). In June, Hume overdosed on drugs and died. The following year, Bassey began a nearly two year period abroad, as a tax exile. At the Sanremo Festival in Italy, she performed "La Vita." It became a Top 40 Italian single. The same year she released This is My Life (1968 EMI) and married her manager, Sergio Novak. Her final album of the decade was 1969's Does Anybody Miss Me (1969 EMI).


By the 1970s, Bassey's popularity had been waning for some time, although she remained reasonably popular in the UK, France and the Netherlands. 1970's Live at Talk of the Town (1970 EMI) marked the beginning of her comeback. For Something (1970 EMI), she used a more contemporary sound, and her version of the title track outperformed The Beatles' original. Something Else (1971 EMI) was followed by her second Bond theme, "Diamonds are Forever." And I Love You So (1972 EMI), I Capricorn (1972 EMI) and Broadway Bassey's Way (1973 EMI) followed. With Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd, Bassey recorded Live at Carnegie Hall (1973 EMI). Never, Never, Never (1973 EMI), Live in Japan (1974EMI), Nobody Does It Like Me (1974 EMI), Good Bad But Beautiful (1975 EMI), Love, Life and Feelings (1976 EMI) and Thoughts of Love (1976 EMI) all followed.


In 1976, the BBC gave Bassey her first television series, The Shirley Bassey Show. In 1977, the year she released You Take My Heart Away (1977 EMI) she moved Ken Carter into her home in Switzerland and Novak responded with a divorce. In 1978 she pled guilty to being drunk (on pink champagne) and disorderly after "shouting abuse in the street and pushing a policeman." The following year brought another Bond theme, "Moonraker," a second BBC series of The Shirley Bassey Show, and the release of The Magic Is You (1979 EMI).


After reaching the end of her contract with EMI-United Artists, Bassey retired to Switzerland in 1981. She released another album, All By Myself (1982), through Applause Records and filmed a TV special, "A Special Lady" with guest Robert Goulet. A 1983 duet with Alain Delon, "Thought I'd Ring You," was a hit on the continent. With the London Symphony Orchestra, she recorded I Am What I Am (1984 Ariola). In 1985, Bassey's 21-year-old daughter was found floating dead in the river Avon. Although it was ruled accidental at the time, in March 2010, Avon and Somerset Police confirmed they were undertaking fresh inquiries into the death of Novak -- specifically claims that the convicted killer Michael Moffat was involved.


After the tragic loss, Bassey released a single and video to support the London Tourist Board, "There's No Place Like London" in 1986. The following year she performed with Swiss synthpop band, Yello. That year she recorded an album of Bond Themes, The Bond Collection (1992 Icon Music Group). Unhappy with the results, it was shelved. When it was released five years later, Bassey sued and all remaining copies were withdrawn. Bassey returned with a proper release in 1989, La Mujer - Shirley Bassey Canta En Español (1989 Mercury). In 1996, Bassey collaborated with Chris Rea in the film La Passione, appearing as herself and releasing the single "'Disco' La Passione." The following year she had a hit with "History Repeating," written for her by the Propellerheads.


Another minor scandal arose in 1998, after her former personal assistant, Hilary Levy, sued her for breach of contract after her dismissal, additionally alleging that Bassey had called her a "Jewish bitch" and had hit her. Bassey denied the charges and won the case, after which it became the subject of a play, Alexander Baron's The Trial of Shirley Bassey. The following year she performed the official song for the Rugby World Cup, "World in Union," with Bryn Terfel at the opening ceremony at The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The single made the Top 40. On December 31st, 1999, she was formally named Dame Shirley Bassey DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.


In 2001, the UK's Channel 4 aired a documentary about the singer, The Real Shirley Bassey. After a 2007 performance at Glastonbury, she re-worked some of her material with remixers Bugz in the Attic and Mungolian Jet Set, resulting in Get the Party Started (2007 Decca). After complaining of abdominal pain, she was forced to drop out of the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute concert and undergo an emergency operation in Monte Carlo, where she currently lives. That same year, Peter Hogan's biography, Diamond Diva, was published. Her most recent album, The Performance (2009 Geffen), features songs written for the Dame by Manic Street Preachers, Gary Barlow, KT Tunstall, Pet Shop Boys, Nick Hodgson of the Kaiser Chiefs, John Barry and Don Black.


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