Shirley Bassey, the big-voiced singer from Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, seems like a classic diva, with a stormy personal life to match her 50-odd-year professional career. But the truth about her is more complicated and involves the thorny issues of race and sexuality.
I Who Have Nothing
Shirley Veronica Bassey was born on 8 January 1937, the youngest of seven children. Her English working-class mother Eliza and father Henry, a Nigerian sailor, lived in the ethnically mixed dock area of Tiger Bay in Cardiff. As a port which was a meeting place for cultures from all over the world, Cardiff was a stimulating environment for music. Black American seamen, for example, brought the sounds of jive, calypso and the blues.
But the area’s ethnic mix also created tensions – people were judged by the exact tone of their skin colour and by how ‘negroid’ their features were. As a mixed-race child, Shirley Bassey would have been exposed to the casual racial prejudice of the time. Perhaps surprisingly, she never identified herself as black – and was never an icon of black pride.
Although Shirley sang from an early age, at first she was shy about her talent – when asked to sing, she would crawl under the table, cover herself with the tablecloth and then begin.
Kiss Me, Honey, Honey (Kiss Me)
By the age of 15, Bassey was already performing in the clubs and pubs of Tiger Bay. Her voice may have been untrained, but it was distinctive: one BBC executive called it a ‘cry from the heart’. Although her audition for the corporation was unsuccessful, her flamboyance and talent were soon noticed.
Bassey’s break came in 1953 when London talent scouts came to Cardiff looking for British chorus line singers and dancers for imported black American shows (which were not allowed to use American actors because of union regulations). She toured with a show called Hot from Harlem, then had to come home because she was pregnant. In September 1954, she gave birth to her daughter Sharon.
Despite this, she was persuaded by Michael Sullivan, a struggling London agent, to perform again and, with his encouragement, her career developed. In 1955, she recorded Burn My Candle, and in 1957 the Banana Boat Song. Recognising her potential, Sullivan made her train her voice, dressed her in lavish gowns and secured engagements in London’s West End and Las Vegas. He also claims to have had a short ‘passionate fling’ with her.
What Now My Love
In Las Vegas, Bassey was sharply confronted by racist attitudes, which at first she was too naive to understand. The singer Sammy Davis Jnr, who liked her, advised her about the restrictions on her movements in the town, which at the time was racially segregated.
With a performing style that mixed teen innocence and earthy sexuality, Bassey had her first number one hit single, As I Love You, in 1958. Offstage, her relationship to boyfriend Pepe Davis was tempestuous: once, police were called to her hotel room when, in a fit of jealousy, he tried to stab her.
Gaining confidence from her stage and record successes, Bassey dropped manager Sullivan, and, in 1961, married Kenneth Hulme, a camp film director who was openly gay. In 1963, her second daughter, Samantha, was born – although Hulme denied being the father.
After a stormy time, during which she divorced Hulme, had an affair with actor Peter Finch, then remarried Hulme, Bassey’s career took off internationally as she recorded the theme song for the James Bond film, Goldfinger. It reached number one in the United States in 1964. In the late 1960s, the Big Spender and This Is My Life singles became her personal anthems.
This Is My Life
After Hulme’s unexpected death, which many suspected was suicide, Bassey teamed up with and married Sergio Novak, who proved to be her most successful manager. With hits such as Diamonds Are Forever, the Something album, and her appearance on the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, she became both a national icon and a jet-setting diva.
Even when sales of her singles fell, after about 1973, audiences remained loyal. But the issues of race and sexuality wouldn’t go away. In the 1980s, her decision to perform in South Africa’s Sun City, while the country was dominated by the white supremacy of apartheid, showed that she still refused to see herself as a political representative of the black community. Her visit led to widespread criticism.
At the same time, her glamorous sexuality and operatic stage persona made her an icon for the growing gay community, and her I Am What I Am became a gay torch song. Her live shows, which mixed tongue-in-cheek campness and dramatic intensity, guaranteed her survival as an entertainer. At the age of 64, she was made a Dame – and remains the Queen Mum of British showbiz.