“Where’s the car?” said Shirley Bassey. “The car should be here. You shouldn’t have sent it away.” We have to walk from the Langham Hilton in Portland Place to the BBC, which is also in Portland Place. In fact if it wasn’t for the pedestrian crossing that separates the two buildings, they’d be on the same side of the road as each other. But for a moment Shirley Bassey is being “Ladies and Gentlemen… Miss Shirley Bassey”. She is accompanied by a small posse of men – me, her manager, her assistant, her PR – and also a light drizzle. But they tell her not to worry. They sent the car away because it’s only a short walk. In fact it’s much further than they thought because the reception has temporarily been moved. But with no wailing, whingeing or stamping of celebrity foot, she just gets on with it. And through the wet we walk to the BBC.
When we round the corner of Broadcasting House I spot a pick-up lorry with a two-seater cabin, a ton of rubble in the back and a huge mechanical grab. “There’s your car”. Everybody else laughs. She grimaces at me in a “ha ha” bigger sister sort of way, winks and then laughs herself. That’s the thing about Shirley Bassey. She is half tomboy, the youngest of seven children from Tiger Bay, and half Maria Callas. It is a wonderful conjuring trick. And her magic wand is that mouth. She just has to throw it open to sing, or flash a dentally perfect shimmering smile, and she becomes Shirley Bassey, the Diva, the Star, the human embodiment of diamante and, to her fans, almost Divine. And what is it about her I ask that inspires their total dedication? Without hesitation she gives the first of only two definite answers in the whole interview. “Glamour”, she says. The other unequivocal answer was “No”. The question was “Would you ever think of taking a different musical direction in the future?” Bassey knows exactly what has sustained her through 44 years of showbiz, starting at sixteen, becoming a star at 20 and now drawing two open-air crowds of 14,000 to record her 60th birthday album, which is out this week. And she’s not about to change it. “I’m not a jazz singer, I’m a ballad singer.”
Many column inches have been spent recounting her personal life. Conveniently for journalists it has been a bit of a disaster and thus has contributed neatly to their cliché that it is the suffering and agony, the Judy Garland of it all, that makes her sort of woman such a great singer. To recap this life unfairly in a hundred words or so – her father left when she was two, she never saw him again; she grew up in an all-white area of Cardiff: she got pregnant when she was 17, her sister Iris raised the little girl for nine years; her first husband and manager, Kenneth Hulme, divorced her, came back and then killed himself; her second husband also her manager, Sergio Novak, left her; her second daughter, Samantha, killed herself and Shirley subsequently, and dramatically during a concert, lost her voice; her adopted son got involved with drugs and these days refuses to make contact with her; she doesn’t see her family in Cardiff now that her mother has died and she lives alone, in Monte Carlo, without a man in her life.
There it is, summarised for instant interpretation, the torch singer’s identikit CV. It is a list of personal tragedies whose supposed gift to her has been the ability to become the country’s prima heart wrenching interpreter of the great standards. Except that she has been singing these great big drag queen ballads ever since she was 16. It’s not her life that has made her voice; it’s her voice that has made her life. “I feel an outsider,” she says, “because of this incredible voice and the situation it has put me in.” It has made her a full time celebrity and her awareness of that makes her a lone figure. “I was singing at 14, professional at 16 and I don’t know anything else.” Many times she has been quoted as saying that the men who have left her have done so because they could not cope with her fame. “Love us just a pain, it really is. I don’t want it. It doesn’t suit my life” And her family, how important are they? “I don’t know. I left town at sixteen. I don’t really have any contact with them. Also I was alone when I was a child. I never really had anything in common with my brothers and sisters.” So is she happy? “I am at the moment. The older I get the better it is. I’m on my own at a time in my life when it is wonderful. I shan’t marry again. I’m not the marrying kind. I’m a celebrity and that’s it.”
She professes disbelief at what she’s achieved. And it certainly didn’t have very auspicious beginnings. At 16 she was plucked from the Working Men’s Clubs, where she could only sing at weekends “when the women were invited”. This was after all 1953. She got cast in a show, called Hot From Harlem but swiftly she decided that she hated show business. “I was the little soubrette and I left after two months. I was the youngest in the show and there was a lot of bitchiness from the other girls. I didn’t like that. There was only one white man in the show and I had to sing a duet with him. It was a Jolson number. ‘By The Light of the Silvery Moon’, I think. All the black people were supposed to be cotton pickers. Can you imagine? The English, what do we know about slavery? Although they do say the English started it.” It’s unclear whether this last remark is ironic or not. I doubt it. Shirley doesn’t do irony. She is full on and always has been. That singing style was there from the beginning.
Despite her initial misgivings she went back into another touring show and was spotted by her first manager the late Michael Sullivan. With him she ended up getting into The West End, via the Astor Club in Mayfair, in a show called “Such Is Life”. “I was kind of pushed into show business really. Although obviously I allowed myself to be,” she says now looking back from the top of her powers. “I became my image. It’s all really been out of my control. I’ve just gone along with it. Michael Sullivan started it and it’s still going.” And the reason for that is her fans. They are remarkably loyal. And, despite not having had a chart hit since the early seventies, she has never needed to try and re-invented herself for them. She had a brief link-up with the eccentric Swiss pop duo Yello in 1983 for a record, now of some cult value, called The Rhythm Divine. But it never caught on in the way that the dramatic rescue of Tina Turner by Heaven 17 four years earlier did with ‘Let’s Stay Together’. But then Bassey never needed rescuing from the doldrums because career-wise she’s never been in them. She has just carried on being that very typically British kind of show business star you think doesn’t exist any longer – Big Hair and A Family Audience. And her fans have gone all the way with her. What they want is those iridescent anthems ‘Goldfinger’, ‘I am what I am’ and ‘This Is My Life’. They want those characteristic lyrical rushes that dive into a great swoop of a high note at the end. And that’s what they get.
At her Birthday Concert at Althrop Park the burghers of Middle England gathered to celebrate their idol and her mastery of the stylishly vulgar. With their M&S picnics and their hampers, and some of them even in Dinner Jackets, it was a middle market Glyndebourne without the opera. But most definitely with a star. Her stagecraft is supreme. As she stood swathed in sparkling white, the feathers on the hood of her cloak fluttering in the wind around the soft brown of her face, you realise that she has made an entire career out of entrances and exits. And the crowd literally worships her. They hold out flowers, champagne and soft toys to her. “They overwhelm me”, she says in the ordinary light of day. “I feel like I am…” she pauses a while, “…some Goddess and they are giving up an offering. Sometimes I go home to my hotel room after the show and these thoughts come to me. Why do they do this? Why do they reach out to me like that? Why do they give me these gifts?” She seems to have no answers herself. But, although it may seems a little silly to put it like this, they do it because she is “Shirley Bassey”. She is the creation of a life lived in public. She is their creation and, even on stage with an orchestra and in front of thousands, she is truly alone. And Goddesses derive splendour from their isolation. Her audience is in awe of her but also maybe they are offering her gifts of consolation as a hedge against their own solitude. What they get in return is her total commitment. “Their applause is thrilling, just incredible. And of course I need it, it’s what keeps me going. It’s my life.” And at 60 is she now in control of it? “I have control of it when I sing.”