Shirley Bassey

Though the sun is already low in the sky, the day is young for Dame Shirley Bassey. She rarely manages to get to sleep before 4am, her body clock having been irreparably skewed by all those years of playing late-night cabaret, and she rarely rises before noon: she says that as she lives alone, and doesn’t have the concentration necessary to read books, she tends to fill the small hours watching films on satellite television.
Today she is recording a song at Sir George Martin’s Air Studios, a converted Victorian church in Hampstead, north London. It is for a new album which, with a tour in June, will mark her 50 years in show business. The horn section is ‘hamming it up’, as the producer has asked them to, and in the mixing room, stretched out on a swivel chair, Dame Shirley is nodding her head and shimmying her shoulders in rhythm, while holding up a lyric sheet and singing along under her breath.
Pulled down almost over her eyes is a fur hat – very Shirley Bassey – and, as she hums, she seems oblivious to the rest of the world. She appears to be in high spirits, which is a relief because she is prone to mood swings and, though she can mock herself (consider her memorably po-faced appearance on Morecambe & Wise), she has a reputation for being aloof – alone in her bubble of self-regard. That said, I’ve been told she is feeling apprehensive about this interview, as she hasn’t spoken to the press for a few years. And this may be why I have been given some pointers: do address her as Dame Shirley, but don’t raise the painful subject of her second daughter’s death, which may or may not have been suicide, in 1985. This isn’t so much a condition as a request, but I can’t see how, given that she has agreed to talk about her life, she can avoid the subject. It is like an elephant in the room.
As well as the nodding and the shimmying, the singer is also tapping her denim stilettos against the sound console and clapping a hand against her denim jeans. Jeans, Dame Shirley, jeans! ‘I know, I know,’ she says with a warm, smoky laugh. ‘People think I wear gowns all the time but of course I wear jeans for travelling and in the studio. People still recognise me in them, though, especially when I open my mouth to talk. I remember saying to my assistant when we were in a store in America, “Whatever you do, don’t call me ‘Shirley’,” but I forgot about my voice and when I asked to look at a dress this lovely queen came from the other side of the store and said, “I thought it was you!”‘
It is a distinctive voice, deep and breathy but also nervy and slightly slurring – the sort of voice that would attract a ‘lovely queen’. To what does she attribute her gay following? ‘Oh, you know, the gowns, the glamour, the voice.’ And don’t gay men adore strong, dominant, powerful women? ‘Talented women,’ she corrects with a slow blink. ‘I suppose their mums are very powerful figures in their lives. I don’t know, I’ve never done research into it.’
Certainly her theatricality on stage, the long, expressive fingers, the closed eyes, the way she makes a big entrance and attacks those standards – ‘Big Spender’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and so on – has made her, for drag queens everywhere, the diva to impersonate. How could they resist all those sequins, feather boas, and wild gesticulations; the split skirts, the big hair, that twisted mouth? But her appeal was always more than camp. She has released more than 60 albums and spent longer in the charts than any other British female performer. And she certainly has staying power. I ask her what that 16-year-old who began singing professionally in 1953 was like. ‘She was very stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to reason. And she was very shy. Still is, in a way. I do a lot of things to cover up shyness. I talk loudly.’
Does the 66-year-old Dame Shirley feel shy about being interviewed? ‘No, because we are in a recording studio. This is in context. I’m working today. If you came to meet me at my place, l would feel shy.’ Shyness is not an obvious condition to associate with Dame Shirley. Rampant egomania, perhaps. Extroversion, maybe. After all, she has said that she enjoys standing ovations more than sex. ‘On stage I have a healthy ego, and I sometimes wish I was like that person off-stage. I’m not. I’m very insecure. I counter my shyness by confronting it, by standing in front an audience.’
As the youngest of seven – six girls, one boy – she must constantly have been competing for attention. ‘I would follow my sisters around. They would say, “Oh please, Mum, tell Shirley to get out of the way.” I suppose singing was a way of getting noticed. No one else in my family sang. In the middle of the night, if I was unhappy, I wouldn’t cry, I would sing, and my sisters would shout down to my mother, “Please make her stop.” I was in my own world when I was singing. This skinny kid with the huge voice.’
Her mother was from Yorkshire, her father a merchant seaman from Nigeria who abandoned the family when Shirley was two. They lived in a then rough part of Cardiff, Tiger Bay, and were so poor they had to sleep three in a bed. ‘I was left to run wild. Terrible tom-boy. Always climbing trees. Maybe I didn’t feel feminine enough to be with the girls. And then, in my late teens, I learnt to become more feminine as a way of controlling men. Girls can’t help but flirt. When you wear your first bra you look down and say, “Oh, look at these.” Actually, I wasn’t very well-developed at first – slim little thing, no boobs.’ She tilts her head back; stares at the ceiling. ‘I was a loner. I didn’t really need friends. I could be among people and still be alone in my own little world. I was a peculiar child. I am a peculiar grown-up.”
As soon as she left school, at 15, Shirley Bassey went to work in the packing department of a sausage factory, supplementing her weekly wage by singing in working men’s clubs. ‘I was happy there. I had a great time. Every Thursday there was the factory club: archery, darts, dancing. I was happy until success entered my life, then it was downhill. Success spoilt me. It took away my happiness. There were so many demands put upon me. I will be happy again when I retire.’
The success almost never came because at 17, having toured with a review, Memories of Jolson, she became pregnant. She had the baby, Sharon, but instead of giving up her career she continued to sing, and released her first single, ‘Burn My Candle’, two years later. Sharon was raised by Shirley’s sister Iris for eight years before going back to her real mother, whom she’d known until then only as ‘Auntie Shirley’. ‘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. I’m a rat. You must never corner a rat because she will go for your throat. I would punch someone out if they had a go at me. I had a reputation in the nightclubs. People learnt not to cross me.’
And yet, for all the feistiness, she did allow people to get close to her. She looked for a father figure in men, having not known her own father, and it is telling that both her husbands became her managers. Her first, Kenneth Hume, was 11 years older than her. They married in 1961 and divorced in 1965. Two years later Hume, who was suffering from heart disease, died of what the coroner, who reached a verdict of accidental death, described as an ‘incautious overdose’. Bassey had a second daughter, Samantha, during that marriage, but tests showed that Hume was not the father. In 1968, when her career was at its height and she became a tax exile, she married an Italian, Sergio Novak. That marriage lasted 13 years (they had no children, but in 1971 he and Bassey adopted her niece’s son, Mark). ‘The trouble was,’ she explains, ‘the husbands would want the social life then, after a while, I would feel suffocated. I couldn’t switch off. It was a 24-hour thing.’
Is the fact that she is still performing, still making herself unhappy after 50 years, tantamount to failure? Long pause. ‘I suppose. I have found happiness in my work but not in my private life. The one takes from the other. I had to take from my private life to make my public life successful. I had to make a lot of sacrifices.’ Sacrifices? ‘When you are a singer you are constantly worrying about losing your voice. In the old days I was doing two shows a night. I would dash off to a nightclub and do a midnight cabaret. As you get older the situation gets worse, you don’t go out as much, instead you rush back to your hotel and put your head over a steam bowl. It’s sad because all your peers are out enjoying themselves.’
She did once lose her voice, didn’t she? ‘Yes [in 1985], when my daughter [Samantha] died. I walked out in front of 10,000 people in Sydney, opened my mouth to sing “Goldfinger” and nothing came out. I tried again and nothing. It was like a nightmare. I wanted the stage to open up.’ Her 21-year-old daughter had drowned in the River Avon the previous year. Her body had been found under Clifton suspension bridge. Does Dame Shirley think the loss of her voice was psychological rather than physical? ‘We cancelled the tour and I came back to London, saw a throat specialist who referred me to a vocal coach and, after a year, my vocal chords had been strengthened and the physical problem was over.’
What about the mental one? ‘I was grieving. The trouble was, I had nobody to talk to about my daughter’s death. I couldn’t even talk to my other daughter about it. I was guilt-ridden. By not being able to talk to anyone I hadn’t been able to come to terms with it. The shock had been too much. Even when I got past that stage and went back to work, I thought, “Don’t talk to anyone about it because they really don’t want to listen.” Which was true. People didn’t want to know. I would start talking about it and they would always interrupt with something that happened to them, as a way of comforting me, I suppose. But no one had an equivalent story to mine. My only option was to go to a therapist who I could pay just to listen. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to get hooked on that. I know too many people who get hooked on therapy.’
She had become reclusive in the months following her daughter’s death, moving to her home in Switzerland and spending her days comfort-eating chocolate and cheese. After a year she checked in to a health clinic, took on an exercise regime to lose weight and went back to work. ‘My instinct had been to hide behind my mountain. But after a while the mountain got closer. The place was getting smaller. Peter Finch [the award-winning actor with whom she had had an affair] told me when he was leaving Switzerland that every morning the mountains were getting that much closer. It was chilling. It came true for me. One morning they had come closer.’
Shirley Bassey blamed herself for Samantha’s possible suicide, partly because she had always gone away on tour and left her children with a nanny. ‘I never disciplined my children and I suppose that made me a bad mother. I was never disciplined by my mother. I never knew what discipline was. My mother never told me off or spanked me. As I grew up I began to fear that the men in my life would try and tame me. If you tried to discipline me now you would just get abuse. It’s too late. Come to think of it, there was no contact of any kind in my family. There was not a lot of love. We were not tactile.’ Was that reflected in her relationship with her own children? ‘Yes, though I probably cuddled them more, but not much more. If you’ve had that as a child, you will have it as a grown-up. I’m not demonstrative. I have to pretend on stage. Pretend to be the tactile person I would like to be.’
Bassey admits she had a tendency to spoil her children, buying them extravagant presents as a way of compensating for her prolonged absences. Her adopted son Mark nevertheless fell out with her, sold his story to a tabloid – about his mother’s drunken rows and strings of lovers – and went to live in Spain. Her sister Marina also sold her story, claiming that Shirley had sidelined her family in Wales. ‘My success became a barrier with my family,’ Dame Shirley now concedes. ‘They couldn’t relate to me and I couldn’t relate to them. But then I never could. I was just in the way.’
Although she’s close to her first daughter, she doesn’t seem to need other members of her family. What about friends? ‘I can count my friends on one hand. I’m not very comfortable with people around. I suppose it goes back to being a loner as a child. Lonely, basically. I would go to the matinée with friends, or to the thruppenny hop, but I was always basically alone.’ Another problem was that her fans were always telling her they loved her. ‘If someone can declare their love for you just because you sing a song, it devalues the words. And it was as if lovers became fans when they said that. The whole business is freaky and I’ve had 50 years of it. But what was the alternative? To be married at 17? I would probably have had 12 kids by now. But then I had the voice.’
She often talks of her voice as if it were separate entity. ‘I don’t know where my voice came from. It was like some gold dust went down my throat one day. Maybe I am an alien. Maybe my mother never gave birth to me. Maybe I dropped out of the sky.’ She nods to herself, her hands shake. ‘I’m going to find love one day and then I will never sing again.’ She has never found love? ‘No. Not enough to make me stop singing. I was young when I married. 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. Maybe I’m not meant to find love. Maybe I’m meant to be tormented.’
She has certainly had a strange effect on men – in 1957, for instance, a jilted boyfriend forced her at gun-point to strip naked in a hotel room, and armed police had to break down the door and rescue her. ‘In my past I’ve had boyfriends who liked what they saw onstage,’ she says. ‘They wanted a trophy. They wanted “Shirley Bassey”. Then they would get jealous if another man came up to talk to me, and I started behaving like “Shirley Bassey”. I would say, “Make up your mind.” No wonder I have a split personality.’
Does she worry about not having companionship as she approaches her eighth decade? ‘I’d hate to be alone as I get older. If the singing was to stop tomorrow, I would hate to go on on my own. I still have a lot of romanticism, or how would I be able to sing a love song with conviction?’ She could fake it. ‘No, it is genuine and I have to keep a tight rein on it because if I let my emotions go when I was singing, then…’ She trails off, examines her fingers. ‘I’ve been so close to tears on stage. But it is fatal because your voice box closes up. I cried once before opening at the Pigalle [restaurant in London]. It was nerves. And frustration. I’d gone up to the nursery to see my daughter [Samantha] and she was so independent, doing her own thing, and I was trying to play with her and she was, “No, no, no.” And she was only three! She didn’t want to know and I couldn’t stop crying. I was in a terrible state.’
Does she take anything for her nerves? ‘That time I did. A doctor gave me something for that particular time because I said if it ever happens again, I won’t go on. He gave me a tranquilliser but it left my nerves dead and you need your nerves. You need the adrenaline. If the adrenaline doesn’t flow, the nerves take over. Your hands go like this [she exaggerates shaking her hands]. After that, I took to sipping cognac before I went on. I developed a taste later for champagne instead.’
The champagne drinking, like her love of furs and diamonds and big houses, became part of the Shirley Bassey legend. But after her daughter Samantha died she became less hedonistic and materialistic. She sold her houses in Switzerland and Sardinia. ‘I didn’t want property abroad again. I didn’t want staff abroad again. It had lost its magic. I had become possessed by my possessions. When you are travelling and wanting to be free your possessions start crowding in on you. The more things you own, the more you have to look after them. I rent a place in Monte Carlo now and I have a place in London. I still like my jewellery and my shoes. I’m a serious shopper – I have a black belt in shopping. But the houses and the cars in every place, that’s all gone.’
Has she ever tried writing a song about that dark time in her life? ‘No, never. I’ve never written my own material. I don’t even write poetry or keep a diary. I will never put down anything intimate again, even in love letters. Because it can be used against you.’ Not only did she become suspicious of men declaring their love for her, she also found it difficult to articulate her own affection for men. ‘I’d heard so much of it and seen so little success. All these people professing their undying love,’ she sighs. ‘just words, just words. But I think I’m getting there.’ She hesitates. ‘I met somebody.’
Really? ‘Yes,’ she says with a throaty giggle, her hand covering her mouth. ‘Yes, yes. It’s early days yet but can you see the glint in my eye? Can you see this smile on my face? Everyone who knows me says, “You look different. What are you up to?” Well, it’s this. Quite new, but it could be it.’ Given what she said earlier about never finding love, that is quite a declaration. ‘I know! I know! And I’m old enough and wise enough to say this is what I want this time and to go with my feelings. Whenever I’ve ignored my feelings in the past it has been a disaster.’ Does he work in her business? ‘Indirectly.’ Her voice softens. ‘He has a great sense of humour. I like being with him. He makes me feel comfortable. It’s early days, though, so I shouldn’t really be saying this. I mean, he might say, “Sorry, I don’t want to settle down.”‘
At this point, Dame Shirley’s assistant enters the room and the mood is broken. ‘He’s convinced I’m mad!’ the singer says with a laugh, nodding at me. ‘He’s been analysing me! But he hasn’t seen the funny side of me yet! When I’ve had a couple of glasses of champagne the stories come out, that’s when you see the funny side. Ah well, another time.’ Yes, another time. I’d like that.