Authors: Muriel Burgess
Shirley Bassey had confidence in her natural gifts and considered them sufficient for the task – an attitude that remained largely unchanged throughout her career, although she learnt to hone her attributes to perfection. Her attitude to music was somewhat different from that of the formidable Miss Jones, who had two problems with this young unknown: Firstly, ‘Stormy Weather’, which was Shirley’s chosen audition song, was not to the producer’s taste; secondly, Shirley couldn’t read music.
Wyn Calvin, however, was impressed with the girl the moment she opened her mouth and began to sing. ‘She was young and raw,’ he later recalled, ‘but here was brilliance.’ Although Shirley’s voice was untrained, Wyn Calvin immediately detected its purity and responded to its warmth and emotion, and although the voice needed to acquire some polish, Shirley hit the high notes without faltering. Listening to her, he hoped against hope that Mai Jones would give this kid from Tiger Bay a chance, but when he saw the expression of faint distaste on Miss Jones’ face, he knew she would not. He guessed that Shirley had failed to impress, not because of her performance, but because she didn’t fit in with his producer’s ideas for
, which displayed pretensions to more highbrow material.
Wyn Calvin saw Shirley out, telling her that he thought she had a wonderful voice, and that the BBC would be writing to her. He tried to soften the blow of what he knew would be rejection, by telling her that if she were turned down, it would be on the grounds of the Corporation’s age policy. After all, she was only fifteen. ‘Get all the experience you can,’ he advised her, ‘then come back, will you?’
Watching Shirley leave, Wyn Calvin felt depressed on her behalf. He had grown up in white, middle-class Cardiff but he knew all about Tiger Bay, with its mixed-race community of people living in economic hardship. As a boy, he would cycle to the docks to see the big ships, and remembered his mother’s warnings to be careful of the dangers that lurked in Tiger Bay. Recalling now the Halal butchery with its stringy meat in the window, the men playing dice on the pavement, the shabby pubs on every corner, and the children darting between the slag heaps in the dock area, Wyn Calvin knew that this girl deserved far better.
After her audition, Shirley’s life appeared destined to settle into the same old routine, factory work by day, singing in the working men’s clubs on weekend nights, securing her limited reputation. That reputation, among the older girls of Tiger Bay was sometimes less than enthusiastic. One of Marina Bassey’s friends was fed up with ‘That girl Shirley Bassey’. As she told it, ‘Here we are in this nice, well-run dance hall in Cardiff then Shirley and this gang from Splott comes in and spoils it all. You know Shirley, it’s “look at me, look at me”, and then someone started a fight over her, and then they all got thrown out. I felt ashamed coming from Tiger Bay because of her antics. We all got tarred with the same brush.’
But Shirley’s mother was confident that her daughter was destined for better things, and had always expressed the belief that one day she would be famous. There was never a less typical stage mother than Eliza Mendi, a quiet woman except when roused beyond endurance – as when any of her
children were insulted. Modest and unassuming, she nevertheless knew instinctively that Shirley was different, one in a million, and she wasn’t going to sit by and watch her packing chamber pots and saucepans for much longer. Not that she had any clear idea of how to change things for her daughter. She certainly had no desire to see Shirley go away or travel abroad. As she told everybody, she wasn’t one for travelling herself, and once she had landed up in Tiger Bay, that was as far as she intended to go. The move to Splott had marked the end of her travels.
It was in a working men’s club in Paradise Place, Cardiff that something at last began to happen for Shirley. She had a booking to sing there one Saturday night, and when she arrived the club steward came over to her. ‘There’s someone here called Georgie Wood,’ he told her. ‘He’s a Cardiff man, but he acts as an agent for films and shows and things. After your song I’ll take you over to him and introduce you. It might be a good idea to pretend to be American. You know, a pretty dark girl from Harlem.’
Meeting Georgie Wood after her number, Shirley disregarded the steward’s advice. After all, as she realised, Wood was probably from Tiger Bay himself and there would be little point in embarking on such a far-fetched charade. This totally unexpected meeting in a noisy, smoky workers’ club went very well. Georgie Wood was impressed with Shirley’s voice and told her so. She was one of the Bay Girls, wasn’t she, he asked? That was good he said, because he was about to audition some of the Bay Girls for a show from London called
Memories of Jolson
and they wanted a nice chorus line from Tiger Bay. Naturally, there’d be a bit of singing involved and would Shirley be interested in
coming to the audition next week at Frenchie’s? Frenchie’s studio in Bute Street? And after that would she be interested in coming to London?
Would she ever! Shirley left the club in a state of mixed excitement and disbelief wondering whether she was at last on the edge of the ‘big break’ that the Tiger Bay girls had talked and dreamed of for years. She needed to talk to somebody and despite the fact that it was midnight, she made her way over to her best friend Iris Freeman’s house in Sophia Street, Tiger Bay. She didn’t think, in the circumstances, that Iris would mind being woken. Nothing was stirring in Sophia Street, and for a moment it seemed that even the doorbell wasn’t going to rouse anyone in the Freeman household. ‘Iris’, Shirley finally yelled up to the front bedroom window where her friend was sleeping, ‘Iris, open the bloody door!’
Iris’s head finally appeared at the window. ‘For God’s sake Iris, open the door! We’ve been discovered. We’re going to London.’
Walter French, as he was christened, or Frenchie, as he was known, was, according to local gossip, ‘a bit of a lad’. A thin, elegant black man from West Africa, he owned a nightclub in Bute Street that was frequented by visiting sailors in search of romance and a bit of a jive. The nerve-centre of Frenchie’s little empire, however, was the Annexe, where he had his studio. Also on Bute Street, the Annexe was a simple construction that looked like a pre-war village hall, but which was the venue for the most popular Saturday night dance in the district. Saturday night dances were held at the Big Apple and the Colonial Centre as well,
but Frenchie’s was the best, everything really ‘happened’ there. The American GIs had loved it during the war because the jiving was really wild, and then there was the Calypso, and a dance called the West African High Life which absolutely raised the roof. The Annexe was also used for auditions because Frenchie, in his own way, was also into show business, and Shirley Bassey had learned to tap-dance in one of Frenchie’s classes.
Georgie Wood was a bona fide agent from Cardiff, who supplied film companies and London theatre managements with exotic extras, or chorus girls who could appear as Orientals or Africans or Americans from Harlem. In
Memories of Jolson
, the Bay Girls were going to fill a slot as Americans from Harlem. They hadn’t known this when Frenchie rounded them up for Georgie Wood’s audition, but they weren’t bothered; they were all delighted to have a chance to get into real show business. Only Shirley Bassey had been personally invited to audition. The other Bay Girls there – Iris Freeman, Mahalia Davies, Robina Ali, Maureen Jemmet, and Margaret and Daphne Freeman – were to make up the chorus line. Though Shirley gathered that she, too, would be in the chorus, she assumed that she would be given solo songs.
All the Bay Girls were a cut above the average. They were pretty, and they could dance and sing with some proficiency. Their mothers were heard to declare that, when the girls used to march arm-in-arm down Bute Street, singing in harmony, they were just as good, or better than, ‘those big American’ groups. And they believed it themselves after the auditions, when Georgie Wood pronounced them good enough to go to London for the
final audition. He filled them in on
Memories of Jolson
. ‘I’m sure you’ve all heard of Al Jolson, the big American star who made a film called
The Jazz Singer
? The first ever talkie?’ They hadn’t, but tried to look as if they had. ‘Well,’ Wood continued, ‘Al Jolson won’t actually be in your show, but there’s a British star called Eddie Reindeer who will. You’ve heard of these big American shows that come to London, and this will be that kind of show, and you girls will have to be very glamorous and look as if you’re straight from the Cotton Club in Harlem . . .’
The agent was being somewhat economical with the truth. The London variety show producer Joe Collins had discovered that coloured shows, masquerading as American, were going down very well in the British provinces. They were cheap to mount and made good money on the road. They were part of the last gasp before television killed off this particular kind of variety ‘spectacular’ that had been touring the provincial towns for as long as anyone could remember.
The girls had believed every word of Georgie Wood’s spiel. Rehearsals would start on a certain date soon to be announced and they must be ready to leave for London as soon as the call came. Shirley and her mother decided that, to be on the safe side, she should give in her notice at Curran’s. A fortnight passed, then a month, and still no word came. A month turned into six weeks, Shirley was seriously out of work, and even Mrs Mendi was downcast. All the girls were growing anxious, devastated by the knowledge that the Tiger Bay community was beginning to enjoy a laugh at their expense. ‘That’ll teach the little madams to brag about their wonderful American show,’
seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. What nobody had pointed out to worried girls was that the delay was absolutely typical of show business at that level, and that rehearsals rarely began on time.
And then the call came. The Bay Girls took a train to London and presented themselves for their final audition at rehearsal rooms opposite the Windmill Theatre in Soho. A black stage manager named Bennie marshalled the girls into a row and introduced Eddie Reindeer, the star of the show and the only white face in the entire company. Reindeer flashed his ‘star’ smile at the girls, and asked what they were going to sing.
Shirley, supposedly toughened by her years on the pub and club circuit, was the natural spokesman for the group. But tough or not, this was London and the big time, and she was scared to death. Nervously, she stepped forward and muttered that they would sing ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’. She then had the difficulty of trying to sort out the key with the pianist, but at last they got under way and delivered the number.
Eddie Reindeer thought the group sounded a bit ragged, and asked to hear Shirley sing on her own. He pronounced her ‘not bad’ but, ironically in view of her future career in which she came to utilise arm movement to dramatic effect, said, ‘Not so much of the arm movements dear, you’re not directing the traffic.’ To Bennie, Reindeer said, ‘Nice loud voice. We’ll give her a song.’
The Bay Girls in a state of stunned disbelief mixed with euphoria, returned to Cardiff. They had one week at home before starting rehearsals and going on tour in a professional show. Shirley’s mother, bursting with pride at
the news that her daughter had been given her own song in a real show, decided to give a party. All the Bay Girls came, of course, several with boyfriends, and some of their families, and toddlers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’. By the time the party really got going and the toddlers were fast asleep in corners, the guests were so numerous that they overflowed and everybody went along to the Lord Wimborne pub. When the pub finally closed, those – including Shirley and her family – who still weren’t ready for bed, moved on to the lounge of a nearby hotel and partied the night away.
There would be other nights and other parties all around the world for Shirley. But this one was special – the first and one of the best. She was surrounded by those who loved her, with her mother by her side. She had a glimpse of an exciting new life.
THE GRAND THEATRE,
Luton, always had standing room only on Saturday nights. Both houses on Mondays were sparse, but things improved during the week and filled up by the weekend, when people were looking for a night out. Few houses in Luton had television in 1953, and a trip to the Grand was usually a good night out. You were guaranteed an orchestra with lots of brass, bright lights and pretty girls – a good show.
It was at the Luton Grand that Shirley Bassey fulfilled her first truly professional engagement, appearing twice nightly for a week in
Memories of Jolson
. The Luton people were full of this new show ‘from America’, noting that ‘Al Jolson’ wasn’t a real darkie, ‘he wears greasepaint.’ The girls were good, too. Real American coloured girls.
The Ben Johnson Ballet had been engaged for the show, and the Bay Girls were delighted to discover that Louise Benjamin from Tiger Bay was in the ballet company. She had come to London some months earlier and found
herself the job through an ad in
. She already considered herself an old hand at touring, but it was Ben Johnson’s wife, Pamela Winters, who was appointed to act as house mother for the Bay Girls.
The girls from Tiger Bay were novices, and everything was exciting to them. Even watching the tour bus being unloaded in Luton was a novelty. It was just as well. Anyone who knew anything about show business would have recognised what kind of a show
Memories of Jolson
was just from looking at the backdrops that were being hauled off the roof of the bus – old rubbish from bygone shows or pantomimes, bought cheap for their mediocre depictions of a palm-encircled South Sea isle, a hotel terrace in Monte Carlo, skyscrapers in New York and the Statue of Liberty.