Dame Shirley Bassey has been in the public eye for so long now that it’s easy to lose sight of how extraordinary her story is. Just think: in 1954 Shirley was a 17-year-old, mixed-race single mother, working in a café and living in Splott, Cardiff, just over the road from the steelworks. Ten years later, she was singing Goldfinger and inhabiting Planet Glamour.
It’s one of the most remarkable rags-to-riches stories in showbusiness, brought to life in a BBC2 drama this week, the first programme in the BBC’s Mixed Race Britain season – and the only reason it’s not better known is because the intensely private Dame Shirley has never shown any inclination to trade on it.
She had a very tough start. Her mother, Eliza Jane, was a Yorkshirewoman who lived a wild life of her own. Shirley, born in January 1937, was the last of Eliza’s ten children. Her first two, born in Middlesbrough, were white, but when the third, a little girl called Ella, was of mixed race, Eliza was given a stark choice: give up the baby or get out of town. She chose the latter option.
She left her two white children behind – one with her mother, one with her first husband – and headed for Cardiff ’s Tiger Bay, the main multiracial community of 1920s Britain. There she had another child with a sailor, Sam Johnson, before settling down with a Nigerian merchant seaman, Henry Bassey. The couple had six children together and lived above one of the disreputable clubs on Tiger Bay’s main artery, Bute Street.
A year after Shirley’s birth, a scandal rocked the family. Henry Bassey was found guilty of a very serious count of child sexual abuse and sent to prison. So Eliza moved her family to another part of Cardiff, the area known as Splott. It wasn’t as multiracial as Tiger Bay, but it was a new start.
In school, the young Shirley endured a certain amount of racial name-calling but, in the aftermath of the Second World War, this was less of an issue to her than the family’s poverty: the Basseys barely scraped by on national assistance, living in a tiny terraced house with no indoor bathroom.
Shirley hated school and left at 14 to pack chamberpots in a factory. Her one talent was her extraordinary voice. She sang all the time: at school, at work, in pubs and clubs. At 16, she was cast in a couple of touring revues, Memories of Jolson and Hot from Harlem, in which she and a troupe of other mixed-race Cardiff girls were passed off as black Americans. In the early 1950s, before mass Commonwealth immigration really got going, black people were mostly seen as a novelty rather than a threat.
Shirley soon dropped out of touring: she was pregnant. She wouldn’t name the father, but was set on having her baby. Staying with her sister Ella in London, she gave birth to the first of her two children, Sharon, and then went back to Cardiff to live with her mother, assuming her chance of stardom was over. Six months later, she was invited to perform in Jersey. Her mother urged her to go. There, she met a manager, Mike Sullivan, who recognised a diamond in the rough. He trained and groomed her and within a year she was headlining on the West End stage. And from then on, she barely looked back.
Her private life was less harmonious. Two marriages ended in divorce – in 1965 and 1977 – and she had another daughter, Samantha, who tragically drowned in 1985, aged 21.
Dame Shirley, now in her 70s, is the most successful British female vocalist ever – more than 50 years on the charts, an estimated 135 million records sold. She lives alone in Monte Carlo – she likes it, she says, because you can wear your diamonds with impunity there.
Apart from a 2009 outing for Imagine..., she rations her public appearances to only the grandest of gala events. Not bad for a black girl from Tiger Bay, coming of age in the 1950s.
John L Williams is the author of Miss Shirley Bassey, now in paperback (Quercus, £8.99)
Shirley is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm