The Magic Dragon
Interview from UK magazine FHM, October 2000
Legendary Seventies pop belter, turned ironically cool singing pensioner - FHM catches up with Shirley Bassey
Words: Mike Peake
Any man in or nearing his thirties approaches nostalgic apoplexy whenever anyone brings up the Seventies in lively pub conversion. Most of the merry childhood memories are hazy - cruddy but endearing cartoon shows... skateboards the length of a trowel... the threat of dad's belt thwacking forcefully against naked buttocks - but some are carved in stone. Such as every TV "comedian", male or female doing an impression of someone called Shirley Bassey whenever they conned station bosses into giving them air-time. A "Bassey" was the climax of every impersonator's lousy routine. They'd shake their head wildly and gesticulate like a crazy street bum, and with lips a-quivering, would belt out some brassy show tune while the sound man tweaked the reverb up to 10. Mum would look up from the ironing. Dad would chuckle saucily, and Grandma would say "Oh, isn't he good!" between bites of a lemon curd sandwich. and the poor seven-year-old kid waiting patiently for Starsky And Hutch to begin would grow up with the lasting impression that Shirley Bassey - one of the most successful British singers ever - was some deranged cross-dressing weirdo with the shakes.
It's only recently that Shirley Bassey has started to mean something to people who don't yet have an eye on a plot in the local churchyard. She might be as old as your gran (she is a gran), but she has earned her place in the James Bond history books thanks to the theme songs to Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker, which Shirley made unforgettable by wrapping them up in her huge, soaring voice. Way back in 1968, Sean Connery - 007 himself - underlined Shirley's burgeoning popularity by agreeing to write the sleevenotes to her new album, 12 Of Those Songs: "A new collection of songs recorded by Shirley Bassey, like a new James Bond film, is an event" scribbled the charitable Scot. Recently, Bassey has won credibility amongst a new generation of nerdy music fans on the back of smooth big-band hit History Repeating, which was written especially for her by Propellerheads. There's even more kudos to come with the release this week of a new Shirley remix album, Diamonds Are Forever, which features some of her best-known songs tweaked by Moloko, Groove Armada and Superfunk, among others. "It's weird," says Shirley - now Dame Shirley - talking to FHM in her luxury Monaco home. "Just when I'm thinking of taking it easy, something magical happens and off we go again."
Sixty-three years old, and with just the tiniest trace of her native Wales evident in an accent best described as "posh", Shirley bassey has led an incredible life. There have been some truly bizarre relationships, an arrest (for shoving a policeman), a court case, deaths, booze, tragedies, fights - and even a siege. That incident is described in the biography Shirley, An Appreciation Of The Life Of Shirley Bassey, and centres around the singer - then aged just 20 - and a besotted ex-boyfriend called Terence Davies, who was given the disarmingly harmless sounding nickname of "Pepe". According to the biography, "a terrified Shirley was trapped in her room at the hotel with a loaded gun to her stomach. She knew the gun really was loaded because Davies had already blasted the telephone to pieces."
A male friend of Shirley's took a bullet in the incident, and Shirley was ordered to strip naked while Frank Sinatra discs were played by the armed psycho on the record player. The siege ended when the police - who had been anxiously watching the ordeal from across the street - steamed in.
Sadly, Bassey has long since buried this story, one of a number of eye-popping tales that today's crop of publicity-hungry divas would be quite delighted to share with the world. "We won't go there, thank you," Shirley tells FHM, with a verbal rap of the knuckles. "That was far to long ago."
Equally off-bounds are Shirley's relationships with a gay man and a bisexual man - one of whom she married. She does, however, admit that her career has always stood in the way of a quality love life. "Men get overawed by who I am, by the power thing, and they can't handle being 'Mr. Bassey'. It's been a hindrance."
Born in Tiger Bay near Cardiff in 1937 to a white mum and a Nigerian dad, Shirley's working-class upbringing saw her sleeping three in a bed with two of her sisters, clothed in hand-me-downs. When the family moved to the unromantically-named steel town of Splott after pops was deported in 1939, Shirley was soon subjected to racist taunts. She quickly developed a reputation at school as a fighter, and one old friend is reported to have said, "Anyone who called her 'darkie' got a real walloping."
Even now the Bassey temper is renowned. "I'm like a tiger," she tells FHM. "When people are not doing their jobs properly and I'm doing mine, that's when I become a tigress. If I'm working hard I demand that from the people around me."
In 1993, Shirley's assistant Hilary Levy filed a lawsuit against the singer after being dismissed. The assistant claimed she was belted by Bassey, but Shirley denied it and the allegations were eventually thrown out of court.
"I did once push one of my husbands," Shirley laughs. "But he was so tall I had to get on the toilet to do it. I said, 'Come here,' he did, and I went - whack! If he'd have gone up to anyone the next day and said, 'See this bruise? She did it!' no-one would have believed him, but he didn't want anyone to think I'd hit him, so he made up this story that he walked into a window - and no-one believed a word of that."
In a career spanning almost 50 years, Shirley Bassey has earned dozens of gold discs, sung for JFK at the White House, and played to millions of people in everywhere from New York and Vegas to Japan and Australia. She's still touring now - this summer she played seven sold-out dates - that's 3,000 people each night - at London's Royal Festival Hall. (Correction by Roman: It have been 10 concerts at the RFH plus many more concerts in other locations this summer.) And with so many years in the spotlight, it's little wonder that her renown as a fiery perfectionist is as well-known as her other reputation - as a bit of a minx. Even when Shirley was a teenager there were reports that she was up for it - and that she'd cunningly fashioned a mannquin to put in her bed so she could go out man-hunting...
I know you'd like that to be true, but it isn't," Shirley chides. "It's wishful thinking that people have spread around trying to make out that I'm some sort of sex maniac."
But Shirley Bassey does have a revelation about her sex life, just for FHM. "I haven't had it for ages," she laughs. "What's the word I'm looking for - celibate. I have been for three of four years now."
But you did say a couple of years ago that it's sex that keeps you fit...
Well, that was a long time ago. I don't know what it's like any more. I've no-one serious in my life and I haven't for a long time. Now I keep fit at the gym.
The entertainer's stalker stood out a mile
Do you find yourself looking jealously at all the young girls with their firm,
No way! They're looking at me!
Can you share any hot sex tips with the FHM readers?
Well, I'd be working from memory. But no. You can't write what I'm thinking abou, I'm afraid. It's all too X-rated!
On that very subject, your costumes have always been rather revealing:
have you ever been mistaken for an "exotic dancer"?
No, but I do think there's a frustrated stripper in me trying to get out. When I do (the supremely raunchy) Big Spender, I'm away. I love doing that - I never get tired of it.
Have you ever "popped out" by accident?
All of those old costumes were treacherous. In the early days I was taking my body into my hands every time I performed! Whenever I heaved my bosom to take in a breath for a top note... oh, God! But I learned to live with it and not worry about things going wrong - and then one day the dreaded thing did happen. The gown split and started to fall, and I grabbed my breast - but it looked like I was grabbing my chest and everyone thought I was having a heart attack. And the song, believe it or not, was The Lady Is A Tramp.
Having half the world know what you look like must be a major pain in the arse
- what's the worst thing about fame?
Just being successful. Everyone wants a piece of you, and they want to touch you and be there with you because they think it might rub off on them. And you're never sure whether you're being invited somewhere for you, or because of what you represent. So I just tell myself I'm being invited somewhere for what I represent, because if I hadn't become Shirley Bassey the entertainer, I don't think I'd be quite so interesting. And I accept that.
Do you disguise yourself to hide from drooling fans?
I put on a hat and dark glasses, but it doesn't make any difference, because the minute I open my mouth I blow it. There's something about my voice that makes everybody look around. I was on a tour of America once and couldn't see my assistant so I called out. Instead of my assistant turning up this man suddenly popped up in front of me and said, "I knew it was you - I'd know that voice anywhere!"
Are there many deranged Bassey admirers?
No, but I do have problems with mothers who insist on shoving their little children in front of me in the street. That's not the ideal place to be stopped. It happened one time in Bournemouth and I said, "Look, I'm sure your daughter doesn't want my autograph" - the child was about two years old and wasn't even looking at me. So I said, "I'm sorry, Madam," and the woman started screaming at me: "I'm never buying your records again!"
What about other strange people lurking in the wings.
Mobsters, for example - from your Vegas days in the Sixties?
There was one time in Los Angeles when a mobster approached my manager and said he wanted to buy my contract. My manager said, "Yes, I'll sell it to you, as long as I remain her manager." Luckily, the Mobster didn't wnat the contract if he couldn't manage me and that was that.
Of all the stars you've rubbed shoulders with, some of them
must have been boring as hell. Or just plain nuts. Who was the most disappointing?
That would have to be Madonna. I thought she was going to be as outrageous as her videos, but I met her at a function and she was very quiet and really rather disappointing.
Who are the coolest stars you've hung out with?
Probably Sean Connery and Michael Caine, because we were all mates together, and then Sean went on to do James Bond and Michael did Get Carter. I met Sean because I was the mascot for a showbiz 11 football team - I would go round with them and kick off the ball at the start of the match. I was lucky for them so they adopted me - and I was the only girl travelling with all these handsome showbiz people. I met Michael through John Barry (the legendary James Bond composer). (Note by Roman: read more about Michael Caine and John Barry in Goldfinger.)
Connery or Caine - who's the sexiest?
It would have to be Sean. I mean, when he was Bond he was just so sexy. Those eyes. And that mouth; he was just sort of wickedly sexy. Whoah! And he was the best Bond, too.
Did you ever get it on with him?
No, we were just mates. But I would have liked to!
Of all those useless Seventies TV impressionists,
which one used to have you snarling at the telly?
All of them. They always got it wrong. They overdo the movements. Though once I did see an American impersonator, who was incredible. A man, blond - and I wondered how the hell he was going to do me. But he came out and he was me. It was scary. He had a wig on and he put brown contact lenses in and brown make-up on, and he'd copied one of my gowns... and for 10 minutes he took away my whole identity. It was freaky.
Now you've passed 60, do you have three years'-worth of pension
gathering dust in a post office somewhere?
I still have a British passport and I pay taxes when I work in England. But I don't collect my pension, no. That would be quite a sight, wouldn't it, queuing up for my pension? And I haven't got my bus pass, either.
If you were alone in the desert, Dame Shirley, and a complete stranger ambled past,
would you throttle him - just to see what it felt like?
No! My mind doesn't work like that. Most people aren't murderers unless they want to defend themselves. To kill a stranger isn't normal. If you asked me if I'd do it in self-defence, then yes, but not in the desert just for the hell of it. No way!
Finally, what are you hoping for in the next few years?
Well, I think I'd like to have a relationship with someone. I'm ready for it now - I've had all the success and there's nothing more that I want to achieve. I'm ready to settle down. She says! Ha!
And what's your ideal man like?
Someone I can get on with, who will respect me and someone who can live with my success.
And a shit-hot lover in bed?
Well, that goes without saying...
Diamonds Are Forever, the remix album is available now on EMI Liberty.