Dame Shirley Bassey lives a solitary, almost mysterious life of luxurious semi-exile, earned over six decades of stardom, and sweetened by a rare ability to speak out when it matters. Last week, Shirley’s attention was caught by the phenomenon of female singers wearing revealing outfits at galas and premieres. The Dame did not approve.
“It is like they are all in competition with each other,” she said. “Who can wear the skimpiest outfit? I mean come on. These young girls are talented singers, they don’t need that, but they feel they have to be in competition to have the least covering. That’s the saddest thing.”
It was duly pointed out that Shirley, 78, had spent most of her career in a fleshy haze of sequins and boas. Yet the difference wasn’t hard to spot. Her targets – identified as the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna – strip off to attract attention, and because their agents tell them to. Shirley’s stage outfits speak precisely to the mood, tone and mischief of her songs.
“So let me get right to the point. I don’t pop my cork for every man I see.”
You can’t sing that in a nun’s habit. Dame Shirley, of course, comes from a time when glamour had a different meaning. “I think you have to leave a lot to the imagination,” she said. “Yes, my act was sexy and my dress had slits down to here, but I left a lot to the imagination. I didn’t show everything.”
Bemoaning the decline of class is a diva’s privilege, but Shirley, has more reason to miss it than most. Her deadly aura of man-eating magnetism was learned the hard way, and honed to the point that a girl from the slums of pre-war Cardiff could swoosh through the gilded salons of high society as though she had been born in one. The sight of a new generation cavorting in scatterings of spangles at this month’s Met Ball in New York surely made her wonder if the effort had been worthwhile.
Once held in tribute to fashion dreadnoughts in the mould of Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy, this year’s bash featured serially under-dressed reality TV star Kim Kardashian and an assortment of semi-naked pop singers. “I say go into the studio and sing your heart out and get yourself a vocal coach and strengthen your vocal chords,” was Shirley’s considered advice.
It was surely well-meant, for she knows how tough the business can be, and how little stands between fame and obscurity. Regrets? She has had more than a few, and while she is notoriously reluctant to talk about them, they give her the means to advise others.
Shirley was born in Tiger Bay, the rough, docklands area of Cardiff to Eliza Metcalfe, a Yorkshire woman who was on the run from an unhappy marriage, and Henry Bassey, a Nigerian seaman. She was barely two when Bassey was arrested for having sex with an underage girl. He served five years in jail and was then deported back to Nigeria. Shirley never saw him again.
At 15 she left school to work in a factory, packing pottery into delivery boxes, before switching to a better-paid job making sausages. Money was tight at home – where Eliza would eventually raise ten children by various fathers – and to help the finances, Shirley would sing in local pubs. Tiger Bay wasn’t exactly Salzburg, but even the hard-drinking sailors, dockers, pimps and vagabonds who made up the core clientel realised there was something special about the girl with the deep, honeyed voice.
A music agent, Michael Sullivan, signed her up at 17, by which time Shirley had a daughter – Sharon – who she put in the hands of a sister. Within a year she had a record contract and was appearing at the Talk of the Town in London. Not that Shirley, from the vantage point of later years, thinks any of this was a good thing.
“Leaving Tiger Bay was the worst thing I ever did,” she has said. “I’ve found happiness in my work, but not in my private life. I had to take from my private life to make my public life successful. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I was happy in Cardiff. I had a great time. Every Thursday there was a factory club; darts, dancing. I was happy until success entered my life, and then it was all downhill. Success spoilt me. It took away my happiness. My success became a barrier with my family. They couldn’t relate to me, and I couldn’t relate to them.”
The act she fashioned was perfect for a fast-changing Britain. It was sexy without being salacious, materialistic without being vulgar, and with songs like Hey, Big Spender and Diamonds Are Forever (one of her three James Bond themes), tapped into the new taste for wealth and style. Nor was Shirley averse to displays of leg, lip-pout and cleavage.
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SOURCE: The Telegraph – William Langley