Shirley Bassey biography

Shirley Bassey

Last updated: 23 October 2009

Best known for her unequalled three James Bond themes - Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and the rather forgettable Moonraker - Shirley Veronica Bassey has a longevity and status in popular Welsh music unsurpassed by any other major performer. In her astonishing five decades in the music industry, she's been thrilling fans old and young with her distinctive, diva-esque delivery.

She was born on 8 January 1937 in Cardiff's Tiger Bay, the seventh child of Henry and Eliza Bassey. Her father was a seaman from Nigeria, and her mother was from the North of England.

Nobody's doing what I do. And the voice, sometimes it even takes me by surprise. I think, "God, where does it come from?"

Shirley Bassey

Shirley left school in 1952 at the age of 15 to work in a local factory, but began her singing career the following year. In 1955 she left Cardiff for London, after being discovered by bandleader Jack Hylton.

In early 1957 her debut single The Banana Boat Song reached the top 10. It was followed by Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and the number one As I Love You.

In 1959 she released As Long As He Needs Me, the show-stopper from the Lionel Bart musical Oliver!, another smash which established Shirley as a household name. In America, she was building a name for herself live as a top draw cabaret star, but chart success was harder to find.

All that changed in October 1964, when she stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The song was Goldfinger, and it was the theme to the third James Bond film. Her much mimicked, never bettered vocal was the perfect complement to John Barry's majestic score. Further hits in the 1960s included I (Who Have Nothing), Big Spender and No Regrets.

With consistent popularity right through the 1960s and 70s, Shirley combined her trademark vocal delivery with elements of jazz, funk and soul. She performed material penned by some of the industry's biggest names, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Janis Ian and Stephen Sondheim, and enjoyed further hits including a cover version of The Beatles' Something and a frankly awful reading of The Fool On The Hill.

Goldfinger's successful partnership with John Barry led to two further Bond theme collaborations, 1972's Diamonds Are Forever and 1979's Moonraker. Then she fell out of the public eye, keeping quiet for most of the 1980s.

However, the woman they call Burly Chassis came back in customarily spectacular style in 1997 with History Repeating, a collaboration with Bath's Propellerheads. It introduced her to a new generation of dance fans, just as she was celebrating her 60th birthday.

History Repeating's success was consolidated in 2000 when EMI released Diamonds Are Forever - The Remix Album, which saw some of her biggest hits reworked by artists including Groove Armada, Nightmares On Wax and Mantronix. Apparently, the Queen was a big fan of the album - so much so that the very same year she decided to make Shirley a Dame.

A mother and grandmother with a self-confessed love of glamour, Dame Shirley still returns to Wales for occasional performances - she topped the bill at the opening of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, and performed the anthem World In Union with Bryn Terfel for the Rugby World Cup in 2000.

In 2007, her single The Living Tree gave Dame Shirley the longest chart career in history when it entered the singles chart at 37. The 70 year old singer had her first single in the chart 50 years, two months and 18 days before.

In 2008 she appeared at the Glastonbury festival in Somerset, and in 2009 it was announced that she would take part in the BBC Electric Proms event.


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