Who Is Shirley Bassey?
A singer since childhood, Shirley Bassey's bold voice, along with her perseverance, helped her move beyond her impoverished upbringing. Of mixed-race heritage (with an English mother and a Nigerian father), Bassey reached a level of international acclaim that few other Black British performers had seen before her. She recorded numerous hits throughout her career, including the theme songs for three James Bond films: Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker.
Shirley Veronica Bassey was born in the Tiger Bay section of Cardiff, Wales, on January 8, 1937. She was the youngest of her parents' seven children. When Bassey was a baby, her father was sent to prison for the repeated sexual abuse of a child. This prompted Bassey's mother to relocate her family to Splott, a working-class neighborhood in Cardiff. Bassey's mixed-race heritage (her mother was English, while her father was Nigerian) made her stand out there. However, the family's poverty was an ever bigger problem.
In 1952, Bassey left school to work in a factory. She also sang in pubs, and, at 16, was cast in a musical revue. Those performances came to an end when she got pregnant. But, after giving birth and leaving her daughter Sharon in the care of a sister, Bassey soon started to perform again.
When agent Mike Sullivan heard Bassey singing, he was impressed enough with her powerfully expressive voice to begin managing her career. It was at this time that Bassey started to adopt the cleavage-baring tops and gowns that would become her signature look.
Bassey released her first single, "Burn My Candle," when she was 19 years old. In 1957, she had her first hit with "Banana Boat Song." Her worldwide popularity took off when she sang "Goldfinger" for the 1964 James Bond movie of the same name. She also sang the theme songs for two other Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker. These Bond songs, along with her interpretations of numbers like "Big Spender" and "I Am What I Am," made Bassey's career an unmitigated success.
Unfortunately, Bassey's family life wasn't as successful as her career. It wasn't until Bassey's daughter Sharon was nine years old that she learned Bassey was her mother. In 1963, Bassey gave birth to another daughter, Samantha. Just as with her first child, she wouldn't name Samantha's father. Bassey married twice, to Kenneth Hume and Sergio Novak, but both marriages ended in divorce. She was also estranged from her adopted son, Mark, for several years.
The most difficult blow for Bassey was the death of her daughter, Samantha, in 1985. The death was considered an accidental drowning, but, in a 2009 interview, Bassey admitted she had doubts about that conclusion. After receiving information that a convicted killer had stated he was involved with Bassey's daughter, the police reinvestigated Samantha's death in 2010, but found no evidence of criminal involvement.
Bassey was made a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2000. It was another mark of distinction in a career that has seen her sell over 135 million records. Although she has a reputation as a diva, Bassey continues to be lauded for her unforgettable voice, and for her sex appeal. She even received a standing ovation at the 2013 Academy Awards for her performance of "Goldfinger." Bassey has truly come a long way from her humble beginnings.
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