Dame Shirley Bassey
Shirley Bassey (1971).jpg
Shirley Bassey (1971)
Birth name Shirley Veronica Bassey
Born 8 January 1937 (age 80)
Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales
Traditional pop adult contemporary pop
Years active 1953–present
Philips Columbia Decca United Artists Geffen
Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey, DBE (born 8 January 1937) is a Welsh singer whose career began in the mid-1950s, best known for recording the theme songs to the James Bond films Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979).
In 2000, Bassey was made a Dame for services to the performing arts. In 1977 she received the Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist in the previous 25 years. Bassey has been called "one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain during the last half of the 20th century."
1 Early life
2.1 1953–59: Career beginnings
2.2 1960–79: Success and breakthrough
2.3 1980–99: Continued success
3 Personal life
3.2 Children and grandchildren
4 Awards and achievements
Shirley Veronica Bassey was the sixth and youngest child of Henry Bassey and Eliza Jane Start, and was born on Bute Street in Tiger Bay (Butetown), Cardiff, Wales. She grew up in the adjacent community of Splott. At the time, Tiger Bay was one of the largest ports in the world and was very multi-ethnic. Her father was Nigerian, and her mother was English, from Teesside. Two of her mother's four children from previous relationships lived in the Bassey household. Bassey's mother listed her first husband, Alfred Metcalfe, as her own father in the registry of her marriage to Henry Bassey, giving rise to speculation that this marriage was bigamous in the absence of a prior divorce. Eliza and Henry's second child died in infancy, so Shirley was born into a household of three sisters, two half-sisters, and one brother.
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!" A classmate recalled her singing the refrain 'Can't help lovin' that man of mine' from Show Boat with such feeling that she made their teacher uncomfortable. After leaving Splott Secondary Modern School at age 14, Bassey found employment at a factory while singing in public houses and clubs in the evenings and on weekends.
1953–59: Career beginnings
In 1953, Bassey signed her first professional contract, to sing in the touring variety show Memories of Jolson, a musical based on the life of Al Jolson. She next took up a professional engagement in Hot from Harlem, which ran until 1954. Pregnant at 16 with her first child and unwilling to reveal the name of the child's father, she returned to waiting tables in Cardiff.
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 it sold well enough nonetheless, backed with her powerful rendition of "Stormy Weather". 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.
In 1957 she also recorded under the direction of American producer Mitch Miller in New York for the Columbia label, producing the single "If I Had a Needle and Thread" b/w "Tonight My Heart She Is Crying". She then 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; it was the first No. 1 single by a Welsh artist.
While "As I Love You" climbed the charts, so too 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. A few months later, Bassey signed to EMI's Columbia label, and the second phase in her recording career had begun.
1960–79: Success and breakthrough
Shirley Bassey in Italy, 1970
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. Her collaboration with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, the album Let's Face the Music (1962), reached No. 12 in the UK album chart; and the single, "What Now My Love" made it to No. 5. Other 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), "I'll Get By" (also 1961), and a cover version of the Ben E. King hit "I (Who Have Nothing)" in 1963. 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 enjoyed her only US Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1965 with the title song of the James Bond film, Goldfinger. The single, released in the United States during January 1965, peaked at No. 8, while the original soundtrack of Goldfinger hit No. 1 in the US that year. Also in 1965, she sang the title song for the James Bond spoof The Liquidator, and had a Top 20 live album, recorded during a sold-out run at the Pigalle in London.
Bassey recorded a song for the next Bond film, Thunderball (1965). "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 Tom Jones after the film's producers decided the song over the opening credits must feature the film's title.
The "Goldfinger" theme song, however, 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...'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.'..." This was reflected in the fact that Bassey had only one solo LP reach the Top 20 in a US chart (R&B, Live at Carnegie Hall), and she was technically a one-hit wonder. In the aftermath of "Goldfinger" her UK sales started to falter as well: only two of her singles would enter the UK Top 40 from 1966 to 1970. She had signed to United Artists, and her first album on that label, I've Got a Song for You (1966), spent one week on the chart; from 1966 to 1970, only two albums would chart, one of those a compilation. One of her best-known singles, "Big Spender" was released in 1967, 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. Also in 1968, at the Sanremo Festival in Italy, she performed "La vita", an Italian song by Bruno Canfora and Antonio Amurri, with some lyrics re-written in English by Norman Newell for her. Bassey's version of the song, with its chorus sung in Italian, became a Top 40 hit in Italy. Bassey recorded several songs in Italian, some appearing on the album La vita (1968). (Later, Newell would write English lyrics for the rest of "La vita", and the result was "This Is My Life".) But her UK sales continued to suffer.
Bassey performing in West Germany in 1973
Bassey's UK comeback came in 1970, leading to one of the most successful periods of her career. Starting the year with a BBC Television 'Special' The Young Generation Meet Shirley Bassey, recorded in Sweden and shown on BBC1 on 18 March. She returned to the UK with a record-breaking run of performances at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Also that year, her album Something was released, and showcased a new Bassey style, a shift from traditional pop to more contemporary songs and arrangements (the eponymous single was more successful in the UK charts than the original recording by The Beatles) – although Bassey would never completely abandon what that had been her forte: standards, show tunes, and torch songs.
"Something" was also a Top 10 US hit on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other singles of this period included the hit "Never Never Never", an English version of the Italian "Grande grande grande", reaching the Top 10 in the US Adult Contemporary Chart, the UK Top 10 and No. 1 in Australia and South Africa. The success of "Something" (single No. 4, album No. 5 in the UK) spawned a series of successful albums on the United Artists label, including Something Else (1971), And I Love You So (1972), I Capricorn (1972), Never Never Never (1973), Good, Bad but Beautiful (1975), Love, Life and Feelings (1976), You Take My Heart Away (1977) and Yesterdays (1978). Additionally, two of Bassey's earlier LPs also entered the charts in the '70s: And We Were Lovers (1967, re-issued as Big Spender), and Let's Face the Music (1962, re-issued as What Now My Love). 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. Her album The Magic Is You (1978) featured a portrait by the photographer Francesco Scavullo. In 1973, her sold-out concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall were recorded and released as a two-LP set, Shirley Bassey: Live at Carnegie Hall. This album and the majority of her recordings from this period have been released on CD by EMI and BGO Records. Returning to the James Bond franchise, she recorded the theme song for Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Bassey 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 surprised her at the curtain call of a sell-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Bassey appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, broadcast on Christmas Day in 1971. Bassey starred in the six-episode The Shirley Bassey Show (1976), the first of her television programmes for the BBC, 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. The series featured guests including Neil Diamond, Michel Legrand, The Three Degrees and Dusty Springfield and featured Bassey in various international locations as well as in the television studio. In 1978, Bassey pleaded guilty to being drunk and disorderly "after shouting abuse in the street and pushing a policeman". Bassey closed out the decade with her third title theme for a Bond film, Moonraker (1979).
1980–99: Continued success
Throughout most of the 1980s, Bassey focused on charitable work and performing occasional concert tours throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States. She had ended her contract with United Artists, whose former record division was now part of EMI, and began what she referred to as "semi-retirement". Bassey recorded an album entitled All by Myself (1982) and made a TV special for Thames Television called A Special Lady with guest Robert Goulet. Around this time she recorded a duet with the French film actor Alain Delon, "Thought I'd Ring You" (1983), which became a hit single in Europe. Bassey was now recording far less often but an album of her most famous songs, I Am What I Am (1984), was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) conducted by Carl Davis. This was followed by a single and video to support the London Tourist Board, "There's No Place Like London" (1986), which was co-written by Lynsey de Paul and Gerard Kenny. She recorded an album of James Bond themes, The Bond Collection in 1987, but was apparently unhappy with the results so she declined to release it. (Five years later it was released anyway, Bassey sued in court, and all unsold copies were withdrawn.) Bassey provided vocals for Swiss artists Yello on "The Rhythm Divine" (1987), a song co-written by Scottish singer Billy Mackenzie. An album sung entirely in Spanish, La Mujer was released in 1989. In the latter mid-1980s Bassey had started working with a vocal coach, a former opera singer, and her album Keep the Music Playing (1991) displayed a grand, operatic pop style on several songs (perhaps also influenced by her album with the LSO seven years earlier).
EMI released the five-CD box set Bassey – The EMI/UA Years 1959–1979 in 1994. The accompanying booklet opened with a poem by Marc Almond. Bassey collaborated with Chris Rea in the film La Passione (1996), appearing in the film as herself and releasing the single "'Disco' La Passione". The remix of this single charted just outside the UK top 40. Bassey's "History Repeating" (1997), written for her by the Propellerheads, reached No. 1 on the UK Dance Chart, and No. 10 on the US Dance Chart. It was also a Top 10 hit in Italy. The liner notes of the Propellerheads' album Decksandrumsandrockandroll included the lines: "We would like to extend our maximum respect to Shirley Bassey for honouring us with her performance. We are still in shock...." 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 7 October 1998 in Egypt, Bassey performed for a benefit at an open-air concert close to the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. Bassey played the Friday night at Henley festival in 1984.
Bassey was sued in a breach of contract case in 1998 by her former personal assistant, who also accused Bassey of hitting her and making an ethnic slur. Bassey won the case. The episode was lampooned by Alexander Baron in his one-act play 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, 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.
Bassey at Wembley Arena, 2006
In 2001, Bassey was principal artiste at the Duke of Edinburgh's 80th birthday celebration. On 3 June 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. Bassey topped the bill at the 2005 Royal Variety Performance, introducing her new song "The Living Tree".
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 broadcast by BBC 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.
"The Living Tree", written, produced and originally recorded by the group Never the Bride, was released as a single on 23 April 2007, marking Bassey's 50th anniversary in the UK Singles Chart – and the record for the longest span of Top 40 hits in UK chart history. Bassey performed a 45-minute set at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival wearing a pink Julien Macdonald dress, and customised Wellington boots. A new album, Get the Party Started, was subsequently released on 25 June 2007 and entered the UK Albums Chart at No. 6. The single of the title song reached No. 3 on the US Dance Chart. 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.
From left to right: Sting, Debbie Harry, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Dame Shirley Bassey and Bruce Springsteen at Carnegie Hall 2010
She was rushed to hospital in Monaco on 23 May 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 (with Mike Dixon). 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 headlined at the BBC Electric Proms on 23 October 2009, in her only full live set of 2009. She performed several of the new songs from The Performance in November 2009 on various TV shows: The Graham Norton Show, The Paul O'Grady Show and as the guest singer on Strictly Come Dancing.
Bassey performed at a gala celebrating the 80th birthday of Mikhail Gorbachev on 30 March 2011. She also performed at the Classical Brit Awards in 2011, singing "Goldfinger" in tribute to John Barry.
The BBC broadcast a 70-minute drama entitled Shirley on 29 September 2011, depicting Bassey's early life and career. Ruth Negga played the title role. Bassey was one of the line-up of artists on 4 June 2012 who performed at the Queen's 60th Jubilee Party at Buckingham Palace, singing "Diamonds Are Forever". She performed at the 2013 Academy Awards on 24 February 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise. It was her first appearance at an Oscars ceremony as a performer. She sang "Goldfinger" to a standing ovation.
Bassey performed "I'm Still Here" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" on 13 November 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 17 November 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, produced and conducted by Stuart Barr.
In December 2016, Bassey starred in a 60-minute BBC broadcast hosted by David Walliams.
Bassey's first marriage was to Kenneth Hume in 1961. The couple separated in 1964 and divorced in 1965 in the wake of the singer's affair with actor Peter Finch. Bassey then announced to the press that she and Finch would not be marrying, telling the press, "It simply wouldn't work out. Just now I am not ready for marriage to anyone. I feel I have to be free." A year later, Hume sued the actor and another man, John McAuliffe, for being "indiscreet" with the singer. Both Finch and McAuliffe were cited as co-respondents in the Hume–Bassey divorce. For her part, Bassey was named as co-respondent in 1965 when Finch's wife, South African actress Yolande Turner, divorced the actor.
Sergio Novak, the assistant manager of the Excelsior Hotel in Venice, Lido, Italy, and Bassey were married from 1968 until they divorced in 1979. Novak served as Bassey's manager throughout this time. With Novak she adopted her grand-nephew, Mark.
Children and grandchildren
The fathers of Bassey's two daughters, Sharon Bassey (a.k.a. Sharon Novak, 1954) and Samantha Bassey (a.k.a. Samantha Novak, born 1963), are unknown. However, Bassey's first husband suggested that Samantha, born during the couple's marriage, was the result of an affair between Bassey and Peter Finch. In 1965, according to an article in Jet, "There is a big dispute in London over who is the father of tempestuous singer Shirley Bassey's baby. Although one-time boy friend Australian actor Peter Finch agreed that the child may not belong to Shirley's divorced husband, Kenneth Hume, Finch insists she does not belong to him ... "
In 1985, Samantha, age 21, was found dead in the River Avon in Bristol, England. Bassey has always maintained that the death of her daughter was not a suicide. On 24 March 2010, Avon and Somerset Police confirmed they were undertaking fresh inquiries into the death, and specifically claims that the convicted killer Michael Moffat was involved in her death. However, in October 2010 it was reported that the investigation came to an end and concluded that there "is no evidence of any criminal act involved" in Novak's death."
In a 2009 interview, Bassey stated that she and her son, Mark, had reconciled. Bassey has four grandsons through her daughter, Sharon Novak. Bassey resides in Monaco.
Awards and achievements
"For services to entertainment", Bassey was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) on 31 December 1999 by Queen Elizabeth II. She was invited to perform in 2002 at the Party at the Palace, a public celebration of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. She was awarded France's top honour, the Legion d'Honneur, to signify her popularity and importance in the culture of France. In 2012, Bassey was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires. In 2016, she was named as one of "the 50 greatest Welsh men and women of all time".
1959: 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 twenty 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
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 (ten 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 ten
2004: Artist for Peace Award – UNESCO
2005: Avenue of Stars – plaque unveiled in London
2008: "Goldfinger" – United Artists single (1964) inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
Main article: Shirley Bassey discography
Miss Shirley Bassey – John L. Williams (2010)
Shirley Bassey: Diamond Diva – Peter Hogan (2008)
Cardiff: Rebirth of a Capital (Foreword by Shirley Bassey) – Ungersma, Hurn (2005)
Shirley Bassey: Welsh History Stories – Evans, Stokes, ap Emlyn, ap Emlyn (2003)
Shirley Bassey: An appreciation – Muriel Burgess (1998, reprinted 1999)
My Life on Record and in Concert – Shirley Bassey (Bloomsbury, 1998)
The Trial of Shirley Bassey – A Play in One Act – Alexander Baron (1998)
Shirley Bassey: This Is My Life (Piano/vocal/guitar) – Sheet music book
Shirley Bassey: You're the Voice (Piano/vocal/guitar) – Sheet music book
Guinness Book of British Hit Singles – 14th Edition – ISBN 0-85156-156-X
Guinness Book of British Hit Singles – 16th Edition – ISBN 0-85112-190-X
Guinness Book of British Hit Albums – 7th Edition – ISBN 0-85112-619-7
The Book of Golden Discs – 2nd Edition – ISBN 0-214-20512-6
The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits – ISBN 0-85112-250-7