Shirley Bassey

Legendary singer Shirley Bassey laughs as she remembers a backstage argument with her first husband during the Sixties. It seems her then-hubby/manager, Kenneth Hume, wanted the performer to include a certain song in the line-up.

"He was ranting at me and I was stamping my foot saying, 'I won't do it'," she explains. "I said to him, 'How dare you talk to me like this? I am a star.' He stared at me and said: 'Twinkle ****ing twinkle' and walked out. I was on the floor, tears streaming down my face because I was laughing so much. And I was still laughing when I walked out on stage."

The songstress performed the disputed Noel Coward tune and, of course, the audience went wild. But one can be sure that the memorable moment was one of very few in which the infamously brassy diva was cut down to size.

Shirley Veronica Bassey was born and raised in Tiger Bay, a dockside region of Cardiff, Wales, on January 8, 1937. She was "painfully shy" as a youngster, the last of seven children born to a white mother and a West Indian seaman father Shirley never knew.

Two years after dropping out of school aged 14, the aspiring performer launched her career in Memories Of Al Jolson a touring review "I knew I was a singer the first time I heard applause," she would say later. But her love for song wasn't what drove her to hit the road. "I think what really motivated me to leave Cardiff was that I wanted to travel," says the singer, who these days owns homes in everywhere from Marbella to Monte Carlo. "I didn't know as a 16-year-old that singing would be a springboard for my wanderlust. I wanted to be a model, I wanted to be a nurse, I wanted to be an air hostess. I thought all those things would get me travelling."

And travel, she did. She appeared in a handful of other shows that toured around England and, after returning home in 1955, recorded her first single, Burn My Candle. Compared with Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Judy Garland (who she said she tried to "emulate") Shirley scored the first of a string of hits with the The Banana Boat Song and found further success with New York and Las Vegas cabaret acts. Her 007 theme song, Goldfinger, in 1964 cemented her international star status.

In her more recent career, in 1999 she reentered the UK Top 40 with History Repeating, a collaboration with Propellerheads, after being absent from the charts for nearly 25 years. She enjoys the recordings of many of today's artists Whitney Houston and George Michael among them but the living legend has sharp words for some of today's pop divas. "All the catering that's done to them, and they don't do their apprenticeship any more," she says. "It's all videos, and they're getting bigger and bigger. The budgets are astronomical. I mean, Madonna does she need all that?"

She's not shy to point out her influence on the "newcomers" either. "I was the original Spice Girl," says Shirley, famed for her glamorous gear. "I didn't wear boots, but I wore see-through things. There's nothing they wear that I didn't wear."

Her influence, longevity, and iconic stature led her to be named Dame of the British Empire by the Queen in 1999. "It's the greatest honour," she says. "For a little girl from Cardiff's Tiger Bay, I've come a long way."

But as Shirley herself has said, "You can't have success without pain and sacrifice", and the star has had her share of tragedy as well. Her career was marred by scandal in the Sixties when it was discovered that her elder daughter Sharon, born when Shirley was a teenager, was raised by Shirley's sister for the first nine years of her life. Also during that time, first husband Kenneth, whom she married in 1961 and divorced four years later, committed suicide. (Her second marriage, to Italian producer Sergio Novak, also ended in divorce.) And in 1985, soon after Shirley went into semi-retirement in Switzerland, one of her three children, daughter Samantha, was found dead aged 22 in a river near a Bristol bridge. The cause of her death remains a mystery.

"If there's anything I wish I could have changed in my life," she says, "it would be that I'd been around more when my children were younger and perhaps also with my husband. But my singing was like this burning thing inside me and I had to go on with it." But now, with her surviving children grown up and with kids of their own, Shirley says she is content living her life alone. "I'm not lonely," she says. "I don't miss cuddles... I sometimes miss the romantic bit of a relationship, but... husbands, deep involvement, forget it I go to the gym!"

As she grows older, she says, "I'm constantly at odds with myself, thinking I should be poised and glamorous and self-assured because of who I am. But then I think I should be relaxing and so to hell with everybody. I'm confused. I still haven't figured out exactly how I should be playing Shirley Bassey."

And yet the show must go on. Upon turning 70, and with a career spanning more than 50 years, Dame Shirley announced that she was releasing a new album - her first new work in over a decade - and bringing her music to a whole new generation by playing at Glastonbury 2007.
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