The most successful British female singer in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shirley Bassey, DBE, earned enduring fame for her powerful rendition of the theme to the 1965 Jam...
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Born Shirley Veronica Bassey in Cardiff Bay, England on Jan. 8, 1937, she was the youngest of four sisters by her Nigerian father, Henry Bassey, and Eliza Jane Start of England. At the time of her birth, the Bassey household also included two of four children from Start's previous relationships, including a marriage to one Alfred Metcalfe, which allegedly remained legally binding at the time of Start's marriage to Bassey. Whatever the case, Bassey's father was gone from her childhood within a year of her birth, having been imprisoned and then deported for having unlawful relations with a minor. Start then moved her brood to the steel-working town of Splott, where Bassey soon earned a reputation at school for her overpowering singing voice. She left secondary school at the age of 14 to help support her family at a local factory while singing at local clubs in the evening. By 1953, Bassey was singing professionally in a string of touring variety shows, but an unexpected pregnancy at age 16 put her off her career for the better part of a year. She returned to singing the following year, this time with the support of a booking agent, Michael Sullivan, who introduced her to bandleader Jack Hylton.
Through him, Bassey began performing in London's West End, where she was discovered by Johnny Franz, a producer and A&R man for Phillips Records. She cut her first single, "Burn My Candle" in 1956, but the BBC placed a ban on the record for its allegedly suggestive lyrics. Despite this setback, the single sold well, largely due to Bassey's sultry vocals. Several more releases soon followed before she earned her first Top 10 hit on the U.K. singles chart with a cover of "The Banana Boat Song." Its popularity brought Bassey to the attention of American producer and Columbia Records A&R chief Mitch Miller, who oversaw a pair of her singles for his label in 1958. Bassey was soon performing in the United States while her career in England continued to scale the heights; by 1959, she had landed her first No. 1 single, "As I Love You." "Hands Across the Sea" and "Kiss Me, Honey, Honey, Kiss Me" soon followed suit, which led to her signing with Columbia and the beginning of her international stardom.
The early 1960s were marked by a slew of chart-topping and Top 20 hits in the U.K., including "As Long As He Needs Me," from the musical Oliver!, a second No. 1 with "Reach For the Stars/Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "What Now My Love," an elegant 1962 collaboration with famed conductor-arranger Nelson Riddle. But most, if not all of these songs, were overshadowed by "Goldfinger," which provided her with her sole Top 40 entry on the U.S. charts by rising to No. 8 in 1965. Though the song would bring her worldwide fame, the song would also come to encompass the scope of her career, which never achieved the same level of fame in the United States or England following its release. By 1966, she was recording "Goldfinger" soundalikes for Bond knockoffs like "The Liquidator" (1966), while her singles dropped off or failed entirely to reach the U.K. charts. However, Bassey remained an exceptionally popular live performer, selling out concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic. The success of these shows would also translate to her recording career with a Top 20 U.K. album with Shirley Bassey at the Pigalle (1965) and Live at Carnegie Hall (1973), which reached No. 20 on the U.S. R&B charts. Bassey's personal life also entered something of a nadir during this period, with negative press swirling around her 1965 divorce from producer Kenneth Hume, who listed actors Peter Finch and John McAuliffe as co-respondents in the subsequent proceedings. Further scandal erupted over the identity of the father of her second daughter, Samantha, with both Finch and Hume, who was gay, refusing to accept paternity of the child.
After a lengthy professional slump, Bassey returned to the U.K. charts in 1970 with a cover of the Beatles' "Something," which reached the Top 10 on the Adult Contemporary charts in the United States. Eighteen albums for her new label, United Artists, reached the Top 40 on the U.K. albums chart between 1971 and 1978, including two compilation records of her greatest hits, which broke into the Top 5. She also returned twice to the Bond franchise with the themes for "Diamonds are Forever" (1971) and "Moonraker" (1979) while hosting "The Shirley Bassey Show" (BBC, 1976, 1979), which filmed on location around the world. By the early 1980s, she had announced that she was entering a period of "semi-retirement" in Switzerland, but was frequently lured to participate in a variety of projects, including a 1987 collaboration with the European electronic act Yello on "The Rhythm Divine." In 1996, she appeared as herself in the 1996 film "La Passione," scoring a major club hit with a remix of the single "Disco' La Passione."
The following year, another dance music collaboration, this time with the Propellerheads, titled "History Repeating" shot to No. 1 and No. 10 on the U.K. and U.S. dance charts, respectively. A slew of major concerts to celebrate her 60th birthday in 1997 resulted in the Grammy-nominated Birthday Concert (1997) and performances in Egypt before the Great Pyramid. Two years later, she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2003, Bassey celebrated her 50th anniversary in show business with the album Thank You for the Years, which reached the Top 20. Her chart hits continued in 2007 with the single "The Living Tree," which made history books for the longest span between Top 10 singles in U.K. chart history. The album Get the Party Started, released that same year, and featuring remixes of contemporary singles by U.K. dance producers, reached No. 6 on the U.K. albums chart. After a health scare required emergency surgery in 2008, Bassey roared back with The Performance (2009), her first studio album of original compositions in over three decades. Songwriters who penned original songs for the album exclusively for Bassey included the Pet Show Boys, Rufus Wainwright and David Arnold, who had taken over scoring the Bond franchise from John Barry and served as the album's producer. A Top 20 release in the U.K., it was accompanied by a BBC documentary about the record called "The Girl from Tiger Bay" (2009).
By Paul Gaita
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