Authors: Muriel Burgess
Shirley Bassey is one of the all-time greats of the entertainment business. She has sold more records than any other British female singer and still commands massive audiences around the world. Now, after a career spanning decades, her life story can be told: the story of a triumph over enough tragedies to last several lifetimes. The personal hardships that have fuelled the emotionalism of her songs have never before been revealed. Here her poverty-stricken childhood in Wales is detailed: how her mother struggled to bring up seven children on Income Support after their Nigerian father was deported; how she worked in a saucepan factory when her first struggles for stardom were halted by her pregnancy at sixteen. Shirley had a series of tortured loves: she married a homosexual Cockney who died of an overdose; she had a highly publicised affair with actor Peter Finch; and her second marriage, to an Italian, also failed. The shocking death of her second daughter, Samantha, just before her 21st birthday caused Shirley to lose her voice for nearly a year. Behind the showbiz glamour and consummate professionalism there lies a fiercely resilient and independent woman.
Muriel Burgess has been writing for forty years. Born in Birmingham, she wrote her first article as a journalist at sixteen and has since written two thrillers, a TV play for the BBC and various books on film stars and celebrities, including
Over My Shoulder: The Story of Jessie Matthews
(1984). She lives in Betchworth, Surrey.
Over My Shoulder: The Story of Jessie Matthews
All of Me
Kiss the Boys and Say Goodbye
A Kiss a Day Keeps the Corpses Away
In loving memory of my brother Alan Burgess
I heard a slim young girl called Shirley Bassey sing on television for the first time in 1957. I was captivated by the way she looked and her extraordinary voice And then my memory went back two or three years and I realised Shirley was no stranger. I had known a girl who had held her in her arms when she was a baby. I’d seen the very house in Bute Street, where she was born. Here was little Shirley Bassey of Tiger Bay.
In the cosmopolitan, pre-Suez, society of Alexandria, a tall, half-Egyptian woman was rather a mystery to us foreigners. She was a friend of the royal princesses who had stayed on in Egypt after their brother Farouk had abdicated. Her name was Hinda Battanouny.
She told me she was from a place in Cardiff called Tiger Bay down by the docks. She had fallen in love with a naval cadet and followed him out to Egypt. The Bassey family were neighbours in Tiger Bay and she had known Shirley as a baby. When she grew older, Hinda’s brother, Annis, used
to take Shirley out. I felt a link with the little Bassey girl.
Years later in the nineties I was writing a book about Marlene Dietrich. Bernard Hall, my collaborator said one day, ‘Marlene was always jealous of Shirley Bassey. She didn’t like it when I toured with Shirley.’
‘Tell me more,’ I said. ‘Let’s forget Marlene.’
IT IS JUNE
1998. Shirley Bassey has arrived in London to conclude another of her famous ‘Diamond’ tours of Europe. The Royal Festival Hall is packed to the rafters with adoring fans waiting, many for the twentieth time, to see, hear and applaud their diva.
Bassey takes the stage to an ecstatic reception. She glitters in lamé and feathers; she commands with those dramatic movements of sweeping arms and expressive hands; she sparkles with ‘naughty’ repartee, teasing her audience even as she invites them to adore her. Above all, she opens her mouth and sings.
Full-throated and magnificent, she goes through the trusted routines, revealing strength and vulnerability, humour and sadness, through that God-given instrument which soars, swoops, trembles, and vibrates. There is nothing subtle about Bassey’s voice or stagecraft; rather, it overwhelms with power, drama, sex appeal and the expertise of long practice.
By the end of the evening, ecstasy has become hysteria as the fans and the flowers crowd to the stage. Shirley has not disappointed. It was all there: ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Big Spender’, ‘Something’, ‘This is My Life’ and, from Sondheim’s
‘I’m Still Here’.
still here, a seemingly indestructible and dazzling symbol of glamour and excitement. The Maria Callas of popular music, she ranks alongside legendary performers such as Judy Garland, Lena Home and Frank Sinatra. She is, incredibly, sixty-one years old.
If the voice was God-given, the rest of her uniquely exciting armoury was fought for with determination, discipline and passion. Shirley Bassey is indubitably a great star, but that stardom, which remained intact for over four decades, has been bought at the cost of much personal pain and sacrifice. Only her indomitable will and a driving hunger for success have helped her to overcome the obstacles of her humble origins, and the exploitation of her talent by those who stood to benefit from it.
The extraordinary tale of how Shirley Bassey, the girl from Tiger Bay, rose from rags to riches, and from obscurity to become a famed icon of the age, is told in these pages.
LEGEND HAS IT
that a Portuguese seaman gave the name Tiger Bay to this corner of the Cardiff docks. He swore that his voyage up the estuary had been so terrible, so wild and so dangerous that it was like entering a bay of tigers. It remained Tiger Bay for more than 150 years until, in the Sixties, the Cardiff council decided to do some slum clearance and tidy up the area. It is now named Cardiff Bay, but the locals have always referred to it as simply The Bay.
When the bulldozers moved in to the little streets with pretty names (called after the daughters of the Earl of Bute), the humble houses were destroyed, to be replaced by council buildings. Many people were broken-hearted as they watched their past being obliterated. Estranged from their familiar landscape, they felt they were paying too high a price for bathrooms and inside toilets. By the 1990s the docks had gone, and one of the few remaining landmarks on the headland over the Bay is the white Norwegian Church for Seamen, now a tea-room.
In 1937, when Shirley Bassey was born, Bute Street was the heart of the real Tiger Bay, forming the main thoroughfare from rigid Presbyterian Cardiff at the top to unruly Tiger Bay at the bottom. In those days Tiger Bay was a successful mixed-race community that had come into being thanks to coal – the black gold of Wales. Foreign seamen sailed into the docks to load their cargo of coal, seamen from Africa, Arabia, Egypt and parts of Europe. There was plenty of work here, and the lure of pretty girls encouraged some of the men to slip over the side of their ships and find a friend or relative in Bute Street. Indeed, most families in Tiger Bay could trace their origins to a foreign seaman jumping ship, and many of these families continued to live there for generations.
Henry Bassey, a member of the Efik tribe, hailed from Calobar in Nigeria. Had he been born in the vicinity of Lagos, inside the British colony, he would have been a British subject with rights of entry to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Calobar was only a protectorate and its inhabitants were not classed as British subjects. Henry Bassey jumped ship in the Twenties and went to live in Bute Street. As with many of the defecting sailors, he had no legal documents and lived permanently in the shadow of possible deportation should anything go wrong.
Henry Bassey’s wife, Eliza, was English, from North Shields on the Tyne Estuary. Her neighbours talk of her northern accent and describe her as an intelligent woman who ‘did her best’ for her children. One of Shirley’s older sisters has said that she thought her mother’s family disapproved of her marriage to the Nigerian Bassey and, because of this, she never went back to Tyneside. A next-door
neighbour of the Basseys knew the area where Eliza came from and used to chat to her about her home. She had grown up in a busy fishing port. The harbour at North Shields was ringed with fishing boats, and fishwives sold the catch down at the docks.
Any resemblance between North Shields – its houses grey and austere, its surroundings the wild moors – and Tiger Bay began and ended with the fact that they were both dockside hamlets. Life, as Eliza Bassey discovered, was certainly more pleasant and happy-go-lucky in South Wales than in the north of England; and in Tiger Bay one was surrounded by friendly brown faces and a lot of music.
The Bassey home was one of the many two-storey terraced houses that were later demolished, but when Shirley was a toddler, Bute Street was a friendly and lively place. The entrance to 182 was through a side door off the main road. Down the road was the Maria Street police station, where the bobbies lived with their wives and children. Then came the butcher’s shop, the grocer, the milk bar, the fish-and-chip shop and, if you walked far enough, the Chinese laundry and a Chinese restaurant.
There were pubs everywhere, from the Golden Cross at the top down to the Ship and Pilot near the docks. The food shops catered to many tastes and to the dietary laws of the several religions that co-existed in the mixed community that was Tiger Bay – North Africans, Greeks, Slavs, Spaniards and Portuguese, Somalis, West Africans, Arabs and Chinese, as well as a good sprinkling of native Welsh men and women. Despite having grown into a melting pot of differing peoples, Tiger Bay, situated beside the docks
and surrounded by green hills and countryside, was a coherent and integrated hamlet.
Although the community was a friendly one, its members obeyed their own rules of silence and discretion. They didn’t readily open their hearts to strangers, and wouldn’t tolerate interference from the snooty welfare workers from St David’s city who came poking around. Nobody forgot 1919, when the men of Tiger Bay, armed to the teeth, stood sentry at the corner of every one of the Bay streets while white rioters rode through Cardiff on their way to the Bay, protesting against black men taking their jobs. The line of police at Custom House, above Bute Street, parted as the mounted protesters thundered towards them, and warned them that they would proceed at their peril, for the men of Tiger Bay were ready for them.
At the summit of Bute Street, scuffles and fights broke out, but the protesters did not pass the barricades. Not a single horseman rode down Bute Street itself. After this confrontation, several families in Tiger Bay took heart and decided to buy 99-year leases on a house from the Earl of Bute, who owned the freehold of the properties. Up in Cardiff, the rumour took hold that it wasn’t safe to venture down to Tiger Bay and, to this day, traffic wardens warn lone women drivers to be careful. The Bay people laugh at these allegations.