Sharp as a diamond, and a diva forever
The Monday Interview: Deborah Ross talks to SHIRLEY BASSEY
Shirley, could you ever see yourself packing it in? "Never!", she cries. "I would wither away. It's what keeps me alive. It's what keeps me young." Shirley Bassey's now 60. And a granny, to boot. But somehow it doesn't matter that Shirley's 60 and a granny and still getting up there in those spangly, glamourpuss frocks with the slits up the side and, often, the necklines so low a good part of her bosom's hanging out. There is nothing even vaguely grotesque or ghoulish or pathetic about it. It's a good bosom. It's Shirley. She loves doing it and we love to have her do it. She believes in it so we believe in it. She may, now I think about it, be one of the last of The Great Stars. "Oh, do you think so?" she says, immensely pleased, and liking me a lot instantly, which makes something of a nice change. "Today's so-called stars, they don't know how to do it, do they? They have one hit record and the world hails them as a star but they dress like tramps - like tramps! - and they don't know how to relate to audiences or anything." Whereas you, I tell her, sing as if you really mean it. "I do! I do!" she cries excitedly. I am saying all the right things, obviously. I think she may even be a bit in love with me by now. We meet at a hotel in London where she drives up in a chauffeur driven Daimler which doesn't have a "VIP" sticker in the windscreen because it has a "VVIP' one. She is wearing, today, an Yves St Laurent jacket splashed with multi-coloured hearts and a Donny Osmond-style cap. Her fingers glitter with diamonds which don't so much cluster on her rings as gather into mountainous heaps. You would never find Shirley banging on about glamour being a trifling, inconsequential thing. Shirley believes absolutely in things that sparkle and glitter. She can clearly remember her first great dress, which she bought when she was 15 or so and was working in a Cardiff enamelware factory. "It was tartan, with a big skirt that rustled. I wore it to the factory dance and was in heaven." There is something so old fashioned about Shirley she's almost noble.
Some people think Shirley's had quite a tragic life, all told, and in many ways she has. Marriages have failed. Children have suffered. (Samantha, her middle child, was found dead at the foot of Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol in 1985 at the age of 21.) She's had her run-ins with drink, was even arrested for being drunk and disorderly once. She was a good friend of Dodi Al Fayed. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it," she moans.
There's been a great deal of pain in her life, to be sure, but for someone like Shirley, it doesn't necessarily mean it's been a bad life. It may even have been a good life because it's been a star's life, and that's all she's ever wanted to be ever since one of her older sister's took her to a Billy Eckstein concert when she was very small and she saw the audience `go ape' over him. Anyway, you don't get to be a true star - get to be a Judy Garland or an Elizabeth Taylor, say - unless, it seems to me, you suffer pain then get up there and do your stuff and show everyone how you can survive it. If you don't have the pain, then you're just the Nolan Sisters. Possibly, there was no way Shirley was ever not going to have a tragic life. But now. Is there some happiness now? Yes, she says, she thinks there may be. These days she lives alone in Monte Carlo and rather likes it. Previously, she's always had lovers or husbands or both on the go and it's quite nice, she says, being on her own for a change. "I have no one to worry about apart from myself. I can eat what I want, go where I want, do what I want." She has never had much luck on the man front. Everything's always ended in tears or, in the case of her first husband, suicide. She says, now, "sometimes I hate love because it is so heartbreaking and destructive". Of course, it doesn't have to be, but you can see why it is with her.
She says she likes her men to be "real men". She went, last night, to see Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory but hated it - "I dozed off, to tell you the truth" - because Mel's character was very wet and you don't go to the movies to see Mel being wet, do you? "You go to see him being whooar!'' she says. "I hate wet men. Hate men who dither. Hate wimps. Rhett Butler. Now he's my kind of man." So you want to be carried off to the bedroom in a like-it-or not sort of way? "Yes! Yes!" But then, later, she says she can't stand men who want to make decisions on her behalf. I think, as a woman, Shirley might be quite difficult to please.
Certainly, she is still very good-looking. And sexy, yes, although she isn't sexy in a feminine way. By this, I don't mean she is butch, just that there is nothing fragile or dainty or tender about her. She is all strong mouth, strong bones, strong body. She is sexy in a tough yet triumphant way. Gay men are mad for her, as are straight ones. My dad's been crazy about her for years. But dad, I say, she's a 60-year-old Welsh granny. "So," he says, "she still looks as if she'd be dangerous in bed." Yes, well, that's quite enough from you, father.
Shirley Veronica Bassey was the youngest of seven children born to Eliza, a Yorkshirewoman, and Henry Bassey, a Nigerian seaman who left home when Shirley was two and was never seen again. No. Shirley's never been tempted to track him down or find out more. "I never even asked my mother about him. I didn't want to carry that baggage through my life. I just let it go." She doesn't seem to have a very inquiring mind, or be a deep thinker. No, she doesn't read books. She tries sometimes, but can't concentrate sufficiently. "I can never get to the end. I've been trying to read Liz Taylor's life story. It's fascinating. But I know I'll never finish it."
She doesn't know if her mother was ever happy or not because she never asked her. OK then, what was she like? "She was quite Victorian in many ways. She was a quiet, Northern woman with beautiful, very white skin who didn't give much away about herself and was a great cook. I remember her egg and bacon tarts. And her Yorkshire puddings. We also had a lot of offal because offal was cheap, but I hated that."
Shirley grew up in Tiger Bay, the docklands area of Cardiff before moving to Splott, an all-white area of Cardiff, when she was three and her mother remarried. I wonder, naturally, what it was like growing up as mixed race child in 1940s Britain, but she says if there was any racism, she never saw it. Possibly, she says, this was because everyone knew that if you called the Bassey children names "you'd get a punch in the nose." Tough as old boots, as I said. As the youngest of so many children, Shirley never got a lot of time from anybody. She got under her mother's feet. Her older sisters were always scolding her for putting her dirty hands on their dresses or messing with their lipsticks. No, she never felt unwanted, but did feel "awkward and in the way".
Then, one evening, one of the sisters took Shirley to a Billy Eckstein concert at Cardiff's New Theatre. She doesn't know why this sister picked her out, but reckons "it must have been fate". She remembers not so much the concert, but going to the stage door afterwards with her sister and all the other autograph hunters and seeing Billy come out "and everyone going mad". As someone who had never been given much attention, this impressed her deeply. "I had never been interested in show business until that point. And then, a few days later, my brother came home with a Judy Garland record - Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I think - and that was it." I tell her she may be the nearest thing to Judy Garland still going. She is very pleased. "You know, that's one of the most wonderful things anyone's ever said to me," she sighs happily. We may be getting married shortly. Shirley left school at 14 for the enamelware factory where it was her job to pack pots in brown paper for export. She loved it, actually. "The social life was very good. There was a club. I became quite good at archery. I had high-heels and lipstick." And boys? "There were quite a few, yes. Men have always liked me. When I was quite young, married men would be after me. I remember, once, me and my mother were walking down the road when this married man came out of a pub and said to my mother `I love your daughter.' My mother said: `Go away. Leave her alone.' I was so ashamed. `But mum, I love him,' I kept crying." She has always fallen in love quite easily, she says. She always had a good voice, was always being asked to sing at family weddings, and while at the factory she sang in working men's clubs in the evenings. She made her West End debut in a British revue called Hot From Harlem and had her first hit record with something very colonial called `The Banana Boat Song'. She was a star by the time she was 20. And being a star was even better than working in the factory. And much better, as it turned out, than being married.
She's been married twice. First there was Kenneth Hume, a B-movie director who committed suicide after their divorce, and then there was Sergio Novak, an Italian producer. Both eventually became her managers, at her request, probably because she wanted to be controlled by them. But, of course, as the person bringing the money in, she was really the one in control. "I've always been the breadwinner and men don't like that. They turn on you. They bite the hand that feeds them. Eventually, too, they become very jealous of the love one has with an audience.''
She's had three children, Sharon, Samantha and Mark. Sharon was born when Shirley was 17 and unmarried. She was raised by one of Shirley's sisters until she was seven. ("At 17, what could I have offered her?") Samantha threw herself from a bridge. Mark took drugs. She has castigated herself in print many times for being a bad mother. She was never there. Her children would weep to see her suitcases lined up in the hall yet again. Her work came before everything. In 1972, she gave an interview in which she described her life like this: "My work is a cycle of world tours. After our Christmas holidays in the Italian Alps skiing with the children, I will go to Australia for three weeks, then to Japan for two TV shows and two concerts. In March, I've a concert tour of America and in May I return for a tour of Britain ..." Yes, of course she wishes she'd done things differently. But could she have? No, probably not. After Samantha died, she did try to retire. But a year later she was back. She couldn't hack it. She needs to perform. She needs audiences and applause. She loved her children, but probably not enough, because she's always loved being "a Star" first. This is sad in some ways, I guess, but, then again, it does make her Shirley Bassey, the woman who can still pack them in like no one else of her generation and who sings as if her life depends on it. Because it does.
Shirley's latest album, `The Birthday Concert', is released today. A live recording of the concert she gave in July to celebrate her 60th birthday, it's out on Artful Records and costs pounds 12.99 for the CD and pounds 8.99 for the cassette.
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