When Shirley Bassey was 18, a promoter said he’d like to see whether she could handle the Glasgow Empire. She remembers it as if it were yesterday. “I asked him why I had to go all the way to Glasgow to prove myself,” she says, in that curious accent that suggests Cardiff has somehow detached itself from the rest of Wales and taken root in the middle of the Atlantic. “He explained that, if I could win over that audience, he’d get me a contract to appear in all the Moss Empires around the UK.”
The teenager from Tiger Bay duly travelled north. “And it was like a bear pit. I stood in the wings and heard them boo the acrobats when they nearly lost their balance and boo the comedians when their jokes weren’t funny enough. Oh, they were dreadful. I was petrified. But I told myself that that wasn’t going to happen to me.”
Her first song, an up-tempo number, was sufficiently fast and noisy to mask any heckling. But the second, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, was slow and sinuous, delivered in what was to become Bassey’s signature seductive style. And that’s when the trouble started. “The audience began hooting and hollering and telling me to get my clothes off.” So, mid-song, she stopped. Just like that. A couple of beats later, the bewildered orchestra followed suit. Slowly, the barracking also died away until not a sound could be heard in the cavernous auditorium.
“At first,” she says, clearly still savouring the memory, “I just stared at the audience. Then I spoke into the microphone. ‘Now, look here,’ I said, in a broad Welsh accent. ‘I’ve come here tonight to entertain you lot and, if you don’t want to listen, then I’ll bloody well go home. But you can at least give me a chance.’” The hush was deathly. “Then I looked at the musical director, started tapping my foot and said, ‘Now!’ Well, by the time I finished my final number, the applause was deafening.”
Moss Empires got to hear of the young girl who had faced down a Glaswegian audience and duly rewarded her with a contract. “I was a heroine,” says Bassey, without a trace of arrogance. “It was a career milestone.”
It’s a salutary tale that illustrates what might best be called Early Shirley. But it’s by no means untypical. This year, Dame Shirley, as she became in 2000, will celebrate 50 years in showbiz (“Ludicrous! Ridiculous! Impossible!” she insists), a star who does not know the meaning of making a comeback for the very good reason that she’s never been away. Hers is an incredible story, the sort that would be returned to any scriptwriter foolish enough to submit so fantastic a fable to a Hollywood film studio.
There’s certainly no mistaking that, at 66, Bassey remains every inch an enduring star. We have met at a photographic studio in south-west London where a succession of impossibly glamorous shots are being taken of her for the sleeve of Thank You for the Years, the newly released album that celebrates her half-century at the top. Trim and toned, she has the body language of a woman years younger, the perfectly manicured burgundy fingernails of someone for whom pampering is not so much a luxury, more a way of life, and the infectious good humour of a doughty survivor who is unafraid to lay bare her vulnerabilities.
But then the minute she’d walked in the joint, you could see she was a woman of distinction, good-looking and so, well, rich, the full-length faux fur all but brushing the floor. Tales of her volatility are legendary (and, she says, wildly exaggerated). But, speak as you find. Maybe it was the thought of returning the next day to her luxury apartment overlooking the harbour at Monte Carlo. Maybe it was the warm glow of being awarded France’s highest honour, the Légion d’honneur, at a private ceremony at the French Embassy the previous evening. (“Now I’m a Dame and a Knight.”) Or maybe, as we shall see, it was for strictly personal reasons. Whatever. La Bassey was in unquenchably buoyant mood.
The youngest of seven children – there were six girls, just one boy – Shirley Veronica Bassey was born on January 8, 1937, and raised in Splott, a rundown dockland district of the Welsh capital. Her Nigerian father, Henry, a merchant seaman, walked out when Shirley was two. She never saw him again, nor does she have any personal recollection of him, she says; just one photograph and the stories that her sister, Marina, the next child up, used to tell her.
Thank You For The Years by Shirley Bassey is available on Amazon
Her adored mother, Eliza Jane, was originally from Yorkshire and didn’t die until Shirley was in her forties, “and so she saw many years of my success. She was so proud”. When her youngest child first travelled to London in 1953, aged just 16, to audition for a touring variety show called Hot from Harlem, Eliza Jane may have been anxious but she was also full of hope. “I think she was happy [when I got the job] because something good was happening to one of her kids. She couldn’t give us much, except love, of course, and that’s the greatest gift of all.”
But times were tough. “She had seven mouths to feed. I think she felt she’d made a mess of her own life, so she was especially thrilled that one of her children was making something of hers. In the end, I was able to spoil her. I bought her a house and clothes and her own fur coat, which she cherished.”
But while Shirley’s professional trajectory rarely faltered, there were personal setbacks aplenty. By the time she returned home from the Hot from Harlem tour, she was visibly pregnant with her first daughter, Sharon. She has always resolutely refused to name the father, a position she maintains to this day. “I don’t talk about it for this reason: Sharon gets touchy if I mention it and I understand that. She’s a woman in her forties with four sons of her own.” The two women are closer now than ever. “She’s my best friend,” says Bassey, simply. “We talk for hours. But only if it’s my phone bill,” she adds, with a customary whoop of laughter.
Her second daughter, Samantha, born out of wedlock during Shirley’s first, short-lived marriage to her manager, Kenneth Hume, a declared homosexual, tragically died aged 21 in 1985. The circumstances of her death are as stark as they are sketchy. Her body was discovered in the water at the base of the Clifton Suspension Bridge following an evening visit to a pub in Bristol.
Her mother has always resisted the idea that Samantha took her own life. “Every time someone writes that, it’s like a stab of pain in my heart. They make out that she committed suicide. But Samantha would never have done that. She enjoyed having a go at me too much.” Bassey allows herself a mirthless laugh. “She had my resolve. She was strong like me. We clashed, yes. But then, we were so similar.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the lowest point of Shirley Bassey’s life – a life that includes Hume’s suicide at 40, divorce from her second husband/manager, Sergio Novak, after 10 years together and the loss of Eliza Jane – and the tragedy she will never forget. “I tortured myself. Samantha’s death had been my fault. If I’d been a better mother… So many thoughts run through your head. Your children are supposed to bury you, not the other way around.”
Tips for dealing with grief
Samantha’s death caused Bassey temporarily to lose her voice. “It was the combination of the guilt and the grief and the nervous strain. I was grieving through my vocal cords.” Looking back, though, she doesn’t think it was a nervous breakdown. “It didn’t send me round the bend. It could have done but it didn’t. That battling instinct came out again and told me to get up and get out on stage. I couldn’t sit around for ever feeling sorry for myself. Samantha wouldn’t have wanted that. But you never really get over it. I’ll take it with me to my grave.”
When, two weeks later, Bassey walked on to the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall, dressed in a simple black gown, the audience greeted her with a five-minute standing ovation. “Their response was incredible, so uplifting.” But little more, perhaps, than she expected. Here is a performer whose personal tragedies have always informed her public persona. “I’ve always been rather dramatic,” she says, a touch superfluously. “I noticed that audiences responded to that. It makes them feel I’m telling them a bit about my life.”
It also explains, she thinks, her devoted gay following. “My gay fans have always liked the roller coaster of my life. You know: she’s gone through all this and she’s still up there.” Mind you, they like the frocks, too. Michael Sullivan, the man who discovered her singing in a theatre in Jersey, was married to a woman who made Shirley her first stage outfit. “It was black and it had mink round the bust. As soon as I put it on, I burst into tears. I was too young to wear black. So she made me one in white.” From that moment, Bassey has always had the final say over her glamorous gowns.
It’s precisely because of this larger-than-life wardrobe, she says, that she works so hard at maintaining her figure. “I’m careful about what I eat and I’m a gym fanatic. I use small weights on my upper arms. I have sessions with a personal trainer twice a week. If I’m not going out, I’ll go to the gym seven nights a week when I’m in Monte Carlo. And I always maintain that I do it all for my work.” A sly smile. “But you know the truth? A little bit of it’s for me.”
“I’ve just recorded a fabulous album. I’m celebrating 50 years at the top. I can’t remember a moment,” she concludes, with a characteristic flourish of an elegant hand, “when I’ve looked forward with more hope.”
And, after so many personal setbacks, who but a curmudgeon would wish to deny Shirley Bassey a last-gasp chance of both having her cake and being able to eat it?