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Shirley Bassey Biography

Last updated: 08/18/2013 10:02:38 PM

Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey DBE (born Cardiff, Wales, 8 January 1937) is a singer who found fame in the late 1950s and has continued a successful career since then worldwide. She is also well-known for recording the theme songs to the James Bond films Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979). She has sold 135 million records to date. With 35 hits in the UK Singles Chart plus 37 hit LPs in the UK Albums Chart, she maintains her position as Britain's most successful female artist of all time, and the artist with the longest span (50 years) of Top 40 hits.

Birth to 1960

Shirley Bassey was born to Henry Bassey and his wife Eliza Jane (formerly Metcalfe), their seventh and last child, in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales. Of Nigerian (via her father) and English (via her mother who was from Yorkshire) heritage, Bassey has always refered to her nationality as being Welsh. She grew up in the working-class dockside district of Tiger Bay. After leaving Moorland School at the age of fifteen, Bassey first found employment packing at a local factory while singing in local public houses and clubs in the evenings and weekends. In 1953, she signed up for the revue 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. By this time Bassey had become disenchanted with show business, and had become pregnant at 16 with her daughter Sharon, so she went back to waitressing in Cardiff. However, in 1955, a chance recommendation of her to Michael Sullivan, a Streatham-born booking agent, put her firmly on course for her destined career. He saw talent in Bassey, and decided he would make her a star. She toured various theatres until she got an offer of the show that put her firmly on the road to stardom, Al Read's Such Is Life at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End. While she starred in this show, Philips A&R and record producer Johnny Franz spotted her on television, was impressed, and offered her a recording deal. Bassey recorded her first single, entitled "Burn My Candle (at Both Ends)", and Philips released it in February 1956, when Bassey was just nineteen. Owing to the suggestive lyrics, the BBC banned it, but it sold well nonetheless, backed with her powerful rendition of "Stormy Weather". Further singles followed, and in February 1957, Bassey had her first hit with "Banana Boat Song", which reached number eight on the UK Singles Chart. During that year, she also recorded under the direction of American producer Mitch Miller in the US for the Columbia label, producing the single "If I Had a Needle and Thread" b/w "Tonight My Heart She Is Crying". In mid-1958, she recorded two singles that would become classics in the Bassey catalogue: "As I Love You" appeared as a B-side to another ballad, "Hands Across the Sea". It did not sell well at first, but after a chance appearance at the London Palladium things began to pick up. In February 1959, it reached number one and stayed there for four weeks. Bassey also recorded "Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me" at this point, and while "As I Love You" raced up the charts, so too did this record, with both songs being in the top three 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.


Throughout the 1960s, Bassey had numerous hits on the UK charts. Her 1960 recording of "As Long As He Needs Me" from Lionel Bart's Oliver! reached number two, and had a chart run of 30 weeks. In 1962, Bassey's collaboration with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra produced the album Let's Face the Music (#12) and the single "What Now My Love" (#5). Other top ten hits of the period included her second #1, the double A-side "Reach for the Stars" / Climb Ev'ry Mountain" (1961), "I'll Get By" (also 1961), and a cover vision of Ben E. King hit "I (Who Have Nothing)" in 1963. During this period, John F. Kennedy invited Bassey to sing at his Inauguration Ball. In 1965, Bassey enjoyed her first U.S. Top 10 chart hit with the title song of the James Bond film, Goldfinger ? from the number one original soundtrack in the U.S. the previous year. Owing to the success of Goldfinger, she appeared frequently on many American television talk shows such as those hosted by Johnny Carson and by Mike Douglas. Also in 1965, she sang the title track for the spoof James Bond film The Liquidator, and had a Top 20 live album recorded during a sell-out run at London's Pigalle.

From 1964 onwards the Goldfinger single had a lasting impact on her career; writing for the sleeve notes of Bassey's 25th Anniversary Album, Clayton (1978) notes 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 to reach the Top 20 in a US chart (R&B, Live at Carnegie Hall), and she was technically a "one-hit wonder," making only one appearance in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, Goldfinger. In 1967 came the release of one of her best-known singles "Big Spender", although it charted outside the UK Top 20.

Bassey started living as a tax exile in 1968, and was not permitted to work in Britain for two years. Also in 1968, at the Sanremo Festival in Italy, she performed the song "La vita", an Italian song by Bruno Canfora and Antonio Amurri, with some lyrics re-written in English by Norman Newell for her performance. Her version of the song with chorus sung in Italian became a Top 10 hit on the Italian chart, and Bassey recorded several songs in Italian, some appearing on a 1968 Italian album titled La vita. (Later, Newell would write English lyrics for the rest of "La vita", and the result was "This Is My Life".) But her UK sales suffered, in 1968-1969 her singles failed to chart, and only two albums made it to the Top 40.

Bassey's UK comeback came in 1970, leading to one of the most successful periods of her career. In this year, she returned to the UK with a record breaking run of performances at the Talk of the Town nightclub. She had signed with the United Artists label in the late 1960s and in 1970 released the album Something, which showcased a new Bassey style (the single of the same name was more successful in the UK charts than the original Beatles recording). "Something" was also a Top 10 U.S. hit on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other singles of this period included top ten hits "For All We Know" (1971) and "Never Never Never" (1973) ? the latter also reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart. The success of "Something" (single #4, album #5) spawned a series of successful albums on the UA label, including Something Else (1971), And I Love You So (1972), I Capricorn (1972), Never Never Never (1973), Good, Bad but Beautiful (1975), Life, Love and Feelings (1976), You Take My Heart Away (1977) and Yesterdays (1978). Bernard Ighner wrote and duetted with Bassey for the track "Davy" on the Nobody Does It Like Me album (1974). Additionally, two of Bassey's earlier LPs entered the charts, 1967's And We Were Lovers (re-issued as Big Spender), and 1962's Let's Face the Music (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 three: The Shirley Bassey Singles Album her highest charting album at No. 2 and earning a gold disc, and 25th Anniversary Album going platinum.

Between 1970 and 1979, Bassey had 18 hit albums in the UK Albums Chart. Her 1978 album The Magic Is You 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 re-mastered and released on CD by EMI and BGO Records. In 1971, she recorded the theme song for Diamonds Are Forever. The recording featured as part of Sydney, Australia's 2007 New Year's celebration. In 1976 Bassey starred in the first of her television programs for the BBC, followed by a second series 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, and Dusty Springfield; filmed in various locations throughout the world as well as in the studio. Bassey would close out the decade with her third title theme for the Bond films, Moonraker in 1979.


Throughout most of the 1980s, Bassey focused on charitable work and performing occasional concert tours throughout Europe and the United States, having ended her contract with EMI-United Artists and taking what she referred to as 'semi-retirement'. However, her singles sales were such that she remained the UK's biggest-selling artist throughout this period, until finally overtaken by Madonna at the close of the decade. In 1982 Bassey recorded an album entitled All By Myself and made a TV special for Thames Television called A Special Lady with guest Robert Goulet. Bassey was now recording far less often but released an album in 1984 of her most famous songs, I Am What I Am, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. She also recorded a duet with Alain Delon, which became a hit single in Europe. In 1986, she released a single and video to support the London Tourist Board There's No Place Like London. In 1987 she recorded an album of James Bond themes The Bond Collection, but was apparently unhappy with the results, as she declined to release it. (Five years later it was released anyway, Bassey sued in court, all unsold copies were removed from sale, and the CD is now scarce.) Also in 1987, Bassey provided vocals for Swiss artists Yello on "The Rhythm Divine", a song co-written by Scottish singer Billy Mackenzie. The same year she released an album La Mujer sung entirely in Spanish.

In 1994 EMI released the five-CD box set, Bassey: The EMI/UA Years (1959-1979), which was shortly followed by Bassey's Lloyd Webber Collection on the EMI Premier label. In 1995, Bassey became only the second artist {after Frank Sinatra} to give a concert at the Pyramids in Egypt, at the invitation of the Egyptian premier. The following year, she collaborated with Chris Rea in the film La Passione, appearing in the film as herself and releasing the single "Disco La Passione". The remix of this single proved a major club hit throughout Europe. Bassey released a new recording the following year, "History Repeating" written for her by the Propellerheads and scoring a number one on the British dance music chart, and reaching the Top 10 of the U.S. Dance Chart. The single reached the top five in Spain, Italy and Germany. 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 the same year 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'. During her UK Tour in 1998, 120,000 people saw Bassey live and she smashed her own record in London for the longest run by a solo artist at the Royal Festival Hall with ten sold-out shows. In 1999, she recorded the official song for the Rugby World Cup, World in Union, with Bryn Terfel and performed at the opening ceremony at The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Bassey contributed three songs to the official album Land of My Fathers. The album reached #1 on the UK compilation chart.

In 2001, Bassey was principal artiste at the Duke of Edinburgh's 80th Birthday celebration. Then, in 2003, Bassey celebrated 50 years in show business releasing 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".