Miss Shirley Bassey – John L Williams (2010) – A Real Life Review

realivesmissshirley

My recent review of Dame Shirley’s “20 Of The Best” CD in my 100 Essential Music section reminded me I had a copy of this biography sitting on my bookshelves. Williams sets his stall out early on, it is the young diva he is interested in and not the Dame. This volume goes up to the mid 60’s and Williams claims he will not be writing another as it is the attaining of fame which fascinates him, rather fame itself or maintaining it. There is no doubt that Bassey’s rise to stardom is an extraordinary story. Shirley sometimes speaks of her upbringing but there’s plenty here to suggest that she airbrushes it and that things were much grimmer than originally believed. Firstly, there’s her parentage. Williams implies that in interviews Shirley has tended to merge her biological and step father into one composite. Williams has unearthed Henry Bassey, the father, imprisoned for long-running sex offences against a young girl and there is no doubt that the TigerBay/Splott environment was tough and she faced real rather than a romanticized poverty. Shirley comes across as strong and determined, not always liked by those who encountered her on her way up, but they couldn’t ignore her. Relationships with Peter Finch and John Barry are documented together with her ill-fated marriage to gay TV producer Kenneth Hume, who Shirley has been known to claim was the love of her life. There’s her illegitimate daughter (father unknown but the author does speculate) whose existence had to be kept quiet when Shirley’s star was ascending but was forced out in the open when the Sunday press got onto it. Shirley does have another daughter with Hume but the two girls’ lives do not come into this book’s remit. This is a compelling story, well-told with a sequence of appendices at the end on Tiger Bay and the history of elements of British Variety which does give it a literary edge. I’m sure the Dame herself, notoriously guarded about what she reveals about her life, would not be keen on Williams’ desire to unpick all the unsavoury truths but it is fascinating reading. fourstars

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