National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Dame Shirley Bassey (b.1937)

Shirley Bassey, singer, was born in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in South Wales. She was the seventh, and youngest, child of Henry and Eliza Bassey. Her father was a seaman from Nigeria and her mother came from Yorkshire in the north of England. After leaving school, Bassey worked in a factory before launching her singing career at the age of sixteen. Her break came in 1956 when she was featured in London’s West End in the revue Such is Life. In a very short time, Bassey became a household name, synonymous with glitz and glamour, and a reputation as a first-rate cabaret entertainer throughout the world. On stage she enthralled audiences with dynamic singing, extravagant gestures and fabulous gowns. Her success at New York’s Persian Room in 1961 established her as a popular live act in the United States. Her troubled private life added to her larger-than-life, theatrical persona.

From 1957 she enjoyed a succession of hit records that established her as Britain’s most successful female chart artist. For sixteen years, from 1957 to 1973, Bassey had twelve entries in the Top Ten and two of these records went to Number One: ‘As I Love You’ (1959) and ‘Reach for the Stars/Climb Every Mountain’ (1961). Other memorable hits that became associated with her included ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey’ (1958), ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ (1960), ‘Big Spender’ (1967) and ‘Something’ (1970). Movie theme songs also provided her with some chart-toppers, notably a couple of terrific title songs for two James Bond films: ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971). Bassey began talking of semi-retirement as early as the 1970s, but she has never stopped singing. For BBC television she had her own series in 1976 and, in addition to many concert tours, she has remained in the public eye with a number of appearances in Royal Variety Performances. The first came in 1961, and the most recent was in 2005. It is hardly surprising that Queen Elizabeth II honoured her with a CBE (1994) and in 2000 created her a Dame of the British Empire. A succession of television specials, including The Sound of Shirley (1966), I Am What I Am (1994), An Audience With Shirley Bassey (1995), Happy Birthday Shirley (1997), and This is My Life! (1998), have dazzled viewers for decades.

In 1993, when she returned to Cardiff for a 40th anniversary concert, a reviewer in The Stage wrote: ‘Dynamic Bassey is undoubtedly a fantastic performer. Her distinctive singing style and unique uninhibited hand and facial gestures have brought her worldwide recognition for over 40 years. Wherever she appears capacity audiences never seem to be able to get enough of that Bassey magic. She came on stage to a standing ovation, and left after three more at the end of one of the most memorable showbiz nights seen in Cardiff for quite some time.’

Further information:
www.dameshirleybassey.com
www.songsofshirleybassey.co.uk

Photography
The photograph is by Bob Collins and is taken from a series of negatives where Shirley Bassey revisits the town in which she grew up in. She is with her three-year-old daughter Sharon, while she meets and greets residents in her old haunts. Printed for the first time, the negative is over 50 years old and was printed using Ilford warm tone bromide paper with a selenium toner.

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