Shirley Bassey - Biography
Who is Shirley Bassey?
Shirley Veronica Bassey was born and raised in Tiger Bay, a dockside region of Cardiff, Wales, on January 8, 1937. The mixed race artist was "painfully shy" as a youngster, the last of seven children born to a white mother and a Nigerian father Henry, whom Shirley never knew.
Shirley Bassey’s Early Career
Two years after dropping out of school aged 14, the aspiring performer launched her career in Memories Of Al Jolson - a musical celebration of the artist. "I knew I was a singer the first time I heard applause," she would say later.
But her love for music 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 nowadays owns homes 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."
Shirley Bassey’s Rise to Fame
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 at 19 years old.
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 but her global popularity skyrocketed when she was the voice of the 007 theme song, Goldfinger, in 1964. She would later sing Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker, making her a household name.
Shirley Bassey’s Career
Following her Bond-girl golden days, 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 loves the voices of Whitney Houston and George Michael but the living legend has sharp words for some of today's musical divas. "It's all videos, and they're getting bigger and bigger. The budgets are astronomical. I mean, Madonna does she need all that?"
In true confident Bond-girl style, she isn’t afraid to inform 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, career success 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."
Shirley Bassey's Personal Life
But as Shirley herself has said, "You can't have success without pain and sacrifice" - the star has had her share of tragedy as well. Her career hit rocky shores 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, which Shirley to this day criticises and challenges.
"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.
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-stopper continues on. Upon hitting her 74 year old milestone and celebrating over 50 years in music, Dame Shirley announced that she was releasing a new album - her first new work in over a decade - an album titled I Owe It All To You.