Shirley Bassey

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Shirley Bassey Pencil Portrait
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The girl from Tiger Bay or should I say the Tigress from Tiger Bay, for Miss Bassey is without doubt one of the few acts to emerge from worn torn Britain who is truly international. This woman oozed class and Las Vegas glitz from every pore of her body even when first treading the boards as a club act. She is a consummate professional, electric performer and astonishingly in 2009 probably rounded off her recorded oeuvre with the best album of her career. Drawing her presented something of a challenge because creating realistic looking hair in a pencil portrait is one thing but deliberately avoiding the usual techniques to give the impression of a wig is another. In any event, with or without the hairpieces she is without doubt the ultimate Bond girl.

Privately, there has been sadness and heartbreak in her life; two failed marriages and other non enduring relationships in addition to the tragic death of her daughter at the age of twenty one. In addition she was estranged from her son for a number of years although they are now reconciled.

It’s been a tempestuous life, the details of which are readily available from internet resources, and one that mirrors (in all probability) much of her personality. If she is a Diva, then she has earned that title. I would imagine watching her “losing it” is one of the most frightening yet comical moments any person can experience. She has an ability to lampoon herself which I find an extremely seductive characteristic in one so talented; simply revisit her performance on the 1971 ‘Morecambe & Wise Xmas show’ or her piano recitals with Les Dawson to be reminded of this side to her personality. I watched the outtakes of her 1998 video shoot with Propellerheads for the “History repeating” single. There were technical delays throughout the day long shoot and tempers were becoming frayed. One really couldn’t be sure whether Miss Bassey was going to make love to the director or simply consume and then spit him out!

I suspect deep down that she is not a particular happy woman; rather unfulfilled in love and now in her seventies consumed with that all important question surrounding the longevity of her vocal cords, and yet somehow in her own way she holds the key to understanding her own personal angst.

In her book “Shirley Bassey – My life on record and in concert,” she offers up an unusual insight into the life of a professional singer and performer.

“I just want to carry on singing and finding unusual songs, songs that challenge. Wearing those glamorous gowns, making people happy, seeing people stand up – which is the greatest thing in the world. It’s better than sex, because it lasts so long after I’ve come off stage, and it can even last until the next day. It gets me on such a high. It’s what every singer, every entertainer, dreams about. A standing ovation. It’s a tremendous feeling, because it means you’ve pulled it off, you’ve done the job so well that these people are standing and telling you so”.

Therein lies the answer – better than sex. Not for once has Shirley Bassey been overheard to say of male relationships “Why can’t they stay like the first six months?” In fact those early months are the most dangerous of all, being little more than a heady cocktail of euphoria, untrammelled thoughts, anticipation and precious little reality unless of course one is fortunate enough to meet a like minded soul whose honesty, frankness and love can lay the foundation for a rewarding and committed relationship. I don’t know what it is to be famous, and yet in some small way I do have some personal insight to offer here.

Like all musicians I have experienced the repeated treadmill of club performances, playing for audiences that only progressively engage with the performer as the night wears on and in direct proportion to the level of alcoholic consumption. Yet on three occasions in my life I performed at clubs with stage curtains and proper lighting, and for people who clearly loved live music. Experiencing an emcee’s official announcement, stage curtains being drawn back and the crackle of electricity that comes with being unable even to see the front row of your audience, afforded me just the merest of insight into that seductive drug known as fame. Instead of sidestepping drunks, I was several feet above my audience and reaction to whatever I was doing could only be measured by that heart stopping moment when the last chord would gently fade away to be replaced (hopefully) by applause. I’m not an exceptional musician (although I have my moments!) but those three evenings in my life changed my perception on sex with a woman, because here indeed was an experience that exceeded all expectations; the ultimate forty eight hour orgasm. It’s given me some form of “spatial detachment” from sex, and is perhaps the great unspoken experience that dogs every performer’s footsteps. If I’m fortunate in attracting sufficient female visitors to my site, then I can only ask them to leave their vanity elsewhere, since there are no exceptions to this alternative experience. Naturally, nobody is compelled to take my word as gospel. However, one has only to reflect on the seemingly endless pursuit of the ultimate partner amongst individuals in the entertainment industry as representative of some form of “guilt trip;” a belief therefore that a physical union with a person must surely exceed their performing experiences. It would certainly explain the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in the bedroom. The truth is that nothing can compare. It explains why so many entertainers maintain a punishing touring schedule even into their dotage. They know that if they forsake life’s greatest aphrodisiac,then they will die.

[Programme for Bassey’s May ’65 UK tour with Cyril Stapleton & his show band.]

Recommended listening

The Living Tree (2007) single

Get the party started (2007)

Another classic Bond song that never was – this one from her much vaunted 2007 remix album “Get the party started” which took Miss Bassey back into the album top ten for the first time in years. The collection featured newly remixed tracks by contemporary producers. The remixes feature recorded vocal tracks previously issued in the 1980s and ’90s. “I Will Survive” was recorded in 1996 for the album The Show Must Go On but was not issued at that time. In addition, the album featured new recordings including a cover version of Pink’s “Get the Party Started”, which fronted the 2006 Marks & Spencer Christmas advertising campaign. (This track was used again in 2010 for the opening credits of the spy-spoof movie “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”). The album project was spearheaded by Bassey and saw her working with songwriting partners Catherine Feeney and Nikki Lamborn, who co-wrote the song, “The Living Tree”.

The Performance (2009)

Bond musical director David Arnold produced and coaxed the performances of a lifetime out of Shirley. When we are conditioned to comfortable musical retreads from established artists, Bassey surprises us by cuting slack to tackle unfamiliar new material from a disparate range of modern songwriters. The Oscar winning film composer John Barry weighed in with “Our time is now”, his final musical gift to Shirley but it’s Gary Barlow who takes the plaudits with his composition “This Time”. All in all, it’s a return to what Bassey does best: sweeping, orchestral overstatement. I can detect one solitary production flaw on the number “No good about Goodbye” written by Arnold himself and another potentially unused Bond theme. Shirley’s off pitch at 0.33 seconds on the word “arms” but I’m nitpicking because I found the album such a revelation. Another highlight is Rufus Wainwright’s flamenco-esque ‘Apartment’, where Bassey finds the skip of a woman half her age.

Shirley Bassey – The Greatest Hits [Extra tracks]

Another repackage but notable for a series of year 2000 remasters and therefore ideal for all ipod enthusiasts. Featuring a remix of ‘(Theme from) Love Story’ there’s more presence to the vocals and superior “mastering levels” on the orchestral tracks. ‘Goldfinger’ still works like a blow torch through butter.

Recommended viewing

Shirley (BBC Tv drama 2011)

Watchable only for the central performance from actress Ruth Negga who spectacularly captures Bassey’s unique posturing. Aside from that it’s little more than a visual companion to John L. Williams’s book with equally just as little to commend it. I recorded and subsequently wiped the programme.

Dame Shirley Bassey – The girl from Tiger Bay (Alan Yentob) 2009

Fresh from her triumphant 2007 Glastonbury concert and a major illness, Dame Shirley returned from semi retirement to work with an array of songwriters from KT Tunstall to Gary Barlow. Yentob charts the trials and tribulations of the recording process in a warts and all documentary as far removed from the saccharine coated lavishness of a television spectacular as one could imagine.

Recommended reading

Very little in fact if you’re looking for objectivity. The other problem is the paucity of material on the Welsh Diva. If you’re lucky enough to find it in a charity shop then part with the odd bob or two and purchase the following biography but as with so many similar volumes on stars it doesn’t focus nearly enough on what made her famous in the first place.

Miss Shirley Bassey (John L. Williams)

Her childhood among the knocking shops of Tiger Bay in Cardiff; her father’s imprisonment for raping a minor and his deportation to Nigeria; her teenage pregnancy, and the brisk decision to hand the child over to one of her sisters; her marriage to a frisky homosexual who declared himself “a little baffled” when she announced that she was pregnant again. It’s all here but Williams runs out of steam at the end of the sixties suggesting perhaps that there’s nothing else worth reporting. Shame on him…

Shirley Bassey – My life on record and in concert

This coffee table book does offer insights into her approach to vocalising and has a lustre of its own with its impressive pictorial array of album sleeves, concert programmes and posters.


Miss Bassey

Photo galleries, concert reviews, album sleeve scans with discography and press cuttings including:

Sex, men and me – By Shirl at 60 (The People 26/10/97)

Hardly revalatory but a damning indictment on the men who persist in forming liasons with her.


Lots of rare audio and video clips. Attractively presented with career category classifications

Youtube – The 2009 Electric Proms concert, some gems from the 60’s (I always loved her theme to the 1966 espionage movie “The Liquidator”) and her two appearances on “This is your life”. Dame Shirley is not well represented on the DVD market and only occasional repeat screenings of episodes from her series with the BBC fill the void. Thanks are due to BBC4 for the odd morsel.