Shirley Bassey's incredible life from teen single mum to singing superstar
The Goldfinger crooner had her first UK No1 As I Love You – the first ever by a Welsh artist – way back in January 1959.
Since then, the singing superstar has had Grammy and BRIT Award success, belted out three James Bond theme tunes and sold an estimated 135 million records.
But the Big Spender singer has endured her share of heartache too, putting her career on hold as a teen mum and being divorced twice.
Marking the Dame’s big birthday, here’s an extract from amazing biography Shirley Bassey: Diamond Diva by Peter Hogan.
At the 2007 Glastonbury Festival, just five months after celebrating her seventieth birthday, Dame Shirley Bassey strode on to the open-air Pyramid stage at 5.20 on the Sunday afternoon, wearing a pink Julien Macdonald dress slit to the thigh.
Accompanied by a full orchestra, she then performed a 45-minute selection of her greatest hits to an ecstatic, enraptured audience – most of whom were probably not even born when Dame Shirley began her musical career.
For many of them the inclusion of Light My Fire in her set alongside Goldfinger and Big Spender probably came as a bit of a shock.
But the truth was that she’d recorded her own version of the Doors song nearly 40 years earlier (and the line “no time to wallow in the mire” certainly seemed appropriate for a crowd struggling in the Glastonbury mud, several feet deep in places that year).
Two nights earlier at the Festival, Arctic Monkeys had included a version of Diamonds Are Forever in their set. After performing the song herself, Dame Shirley quipped: “Arctic Monkeys, that’s how it’s done.”
“It turned into a great big singalong,” promoter Harvey Goldsmith later commented of her performance.
“She went out and slayed ’em.”
Her sister Gracie once confirmed that Shirley “sang as soon as she could talk”.
Shirley has admitted that she has no explanation for the origins of her voice.
She said: “Nobody in my family sings, nobody from my mother’s side. We don’t know about my father’s side.
“There was probably some ancestor out there chanting for rain with this powerful voice centuries ago.”
Shirley was just 16 when she gave birth to her first child, daughter Sharon, forcing the fledgling star to quit touring and return to Wales, where she worked as a waitress.
It’s hard to convey now just how scandalous this was at the time.
Single mothers were then almost completely ostracised socially.
They were regarded as “fallen women” and usually forced to give up their children for adoption. Even if this course were taken, a girl’s “reputation” could still be ruined and she was often forced to move away and begin a new life elsewhere.
Shirley, however, dealt with the issue head-on, although she attempted to keep her baby’s existence from most of her professional contacts. She later admitted: “The baby was a secret. Not many people knew about it because I can be very private, just as I can be very public.
“But I could look after myself.”
Not only was Shirley not married to her baby’s father, she has resolutely refused to name him, saying: “I don’t talk about it for this reason: Sharon gets touchy if I mention it and I understand that.”
It wasn’t until 1998 – after a court case in which she had denied charges that she was antisemitic – that Shirley revealed that Sharon’s father was Jewish, that he had been married with two children at the time of their affair, and that she had never told him of Sharon’s existence.
She said: “It would hurt too many people.”
Shirley’s older sister raised Sharon until she was nine, allowing her sibling to throw herself into her quest for stardom, including a pivotal performance in Scotland.
Either on her first national tour or shortly afterwards, Shirley was told by a promoter that he’d like to see whether she could handle playing at the Glasgow Empire.
The theatre was notorious as one of the toughest in the country. Its heckling audiences were legendary. “I asked him why I had to go all the way to Glasgow to prove myself,” Shirley recalled decades later.
“He explained that, if I could win over that audience, he’d get me a contract... in all the Moss Empires around the UK.”
She later said of the merciless Empire audience: “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.”
When Shirley’s turn came to go on stage she was understandably nervous, but got through her first song without any incidents. The trouble started as she began singing her second number, a slow and sexy rendition of Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Shirley said: “The audience began hooting and hollering, and telling me to get my clothes off.”
Instead of attempting to battle on regardless and ignore this onslaught, Shirley simply stopped singing.
Half a bar later, the theatre’s orchestra also raggedly ground to a halt. The heckling slowly subsided, and the whole theatre was plunged into a nervous silence.
“At first I just stared at the audience,” Shirley recalled. “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 silence continued. “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.” News of the way that Shirley had handled the Glaswegian audience filtered back to Moss Empires, who kept their word and gave her a contract. “I was a heroine,” she later said of the event.
But while her career flourished, Shirley was notoriously unlucky in love.
She was once held at gunpoint by an obsessive ex-boyfriend. She went on to get married twice, first to Kenneth Hume.
They married shortly after 9.30 on the morning of June 8, 1961, at Paddington registrar’s office. The bride arrived in Hume’s coffee-coloured Bentley, and wore a pink costume with matching toque hat and veil. The groom arrived on foot two minutes after Shirley had entered the building, wearing a dark blue suit with a rose in his lapel.
Approximately 14 minutes later, the couple emerged from the building arm in arm.
A group of housewives with prams, shopping in the busy street wished her, “Good luck, Shirley”.
When asked why she had chosen Hume, Shirley would later explain: “He made me laugh, he was incredibly romantic and he asked me six times. I was crazy about the man.”
But Hume filed for divorce in February 1964 and Shirley, who kept him on as her manager, went on to remarry.
On August 13, 1968, Shirley married her second husband Sergio Novak, in a brief ceremony that took place at 2.30am.
The venue was the Little Church of the West in Las Vegas (where Shirley was appearing in cabaret at the Sahara Hotel).
Her two daughters were bridesmaids.
The bride wore blue, and in the wedding photographs she looks extremely happy, and very much in love. Sergio, on the other hand, looks rather wooden.
“My daughters adore Sergio,” Shirley said. “He will be a wonderful father.”
As time went by, this proved to be the case, and Shirley’s daughters Sharon and Samantha both took Novak’s name.
Shirley would later blame the collapse of her marriage on the fact that she had allowed Sergio to become her manager.
She said: “My first husband was in the business, so it was more like a partnership. I didn’t learn from my mistake, I did it again and, second time, it was even worse. We were talking about contracts in bed.”
She also ruefully observed: “Money-wise, I’ve looked after all the men in my life.”
Sergio Novak, on the other hand, would later claim that the marriage finally ended because Shirley was having an affair with her Australian road manager Kenny Carter.
He later claimed: “Her stardom transferred to her private life. And Shirley has a bad temper.” Decades later, Shirley would dismissively refer to her second husband on stage as simply “the Italian”.
The first Bond film, Dr No, had had no theme song at all. Matt Monro’s rendition of Lionel Bart’s theme for From Russia With Love, the next movie in the series, had been only a minor hit in Britain.
Goldfinger was the film that would change all that, establishing Bond as a massive commercial property.
The 1964 film captured the public imagination, thanks to its gadget-laden Aston Martin, its laser-wielding villain and the unforgettable image of Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint.
It also probably helped that its theme song was a massive international hit – one of the finest moments of Shirley’s career.
The fact that Shirley was a key part of the film’s success may well have been a factor in her being asked to record two more Bond themes during the 1970s – and she remains the only artist ever to record more than one.
“Choosing the singer was like casting a movie,” the song’s composer John Barry later said, adding: “Shirley was great casting for Goldfinger. Nobody could have sung it like her. She had that great dramatic sense.
“When it came to the studio, she didn’t know what the hell the song was about, but she sang it with such total conviction that she convinced the rest of the world.”
The session’s engineer Eric Tomlinson recalls Shirley being less than happy when perfectionist Barry insisted on her recording take after take.
“She was certainly quite an outspoken lady,” Tomlinson observed. Shirley herself would later complain about the length Barry made her sustain one note, saying: “I had to hold the note until I was blue in the face.”
She has also commented that – strangely – she has never had any further trouble sustaining that note ever since that day.
Shirley Bassey had to keep the news of her damehood a secret for seven weeks, from early November 1999 until the New Year’s Honours List was announced at the end of the year.
She later confessed: “I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I was afraid to go out in case I told someone.”
The investiture ceremony making Shirley a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was at Buckingham Palace in July.
It was an emotional moment for the performing veteran – she later said she had been moved almost to tears when the Queen congratulated her on her career.
This is an amended extract from Shirley Bassey: Diamond Diva by Peter Hogan, published by Andre Deutsch, extracted by Vikki White.