Kathy Kirby – Secrets, Loves And Lip Gloss – James Harman (2005)- A Real Life Review

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This is a very British tale.  The story of the singer dubbed “The British Marilyn Monroe” who at one point in the mid 1960’s was reputed to be the highest paid woman on UK television – and then it all went wrong.  I think this is what is termed a “published on demand book” (I got my copy from Amazon ) by Harman, a life-long fan who went one step further and for a short time believed he could engineer a comeback when he became Kathy Kirby’s manager.  It didn’t turn out quite the way he planned it.

                                    Kathy Kirby   and Ambrose at the peak of their fame                                                      

 Essex-born Kirby was discovered by Bert Ambrose, a band leader, big in the 1940’s, who by this time was really from another era who saw her as a way of bringing a younger audience to his venues.  Her look, the obvious glamour and the fantastic voice made her a television regular and she was very much a household name even before she began a run of chart hits in 1963-5.  Kirby was very much controlled by the much older Ambrose and they became lovers.  He reputedly financially exploited her, gambling away her money whilst all the time convincing her she was a great star.  When Ambrose died Kathy went into free fall- a catalogue of bankruptcy, incarceration in a mental hospital, inappropriate relationships, attempted comebacks and increasing mental health problems.  For the last years of her life she lived very much as a recluse, shunning the limelight she once craved.  She died in 2011, but throughout Harman’s work there is the hope that she would return and shine in show business again.

The structure of the book is odd.  It begins with an extended series of tributes from those in the business, wishing her well.  Frank Ifield uses it as an excuse to plug his autobiography and when you get to singer from much the same era, Julie Rogers, beginning “Kathy and I never met” you do begin to question this format.  The narrative throughout is brokn up by italicised sections of Harman’s own words and reminiscences, rather needlessly as the whole book is surely his own words and reminiscences.  That aside, this book is a permanent fixture on my bookshelves because of the absolutely fascinating story he tells.  I re-read this to remind myself of some of the incredible things that happened to her before reviewing the Essential CD – The Very Best Of Kathy Kirby.  Kathy was obviously too naive for a life in show-business but kept attempting to bounce back – a real survivor.  She was also too honest for the press and many  way hastened her own “downfall” by the things she told them.  The media treated her very much as the girl who found fame and lost it, creating a self perpetuating myth which got her selling stories but probably didn’t do her much good.  If anyone wanted a view on the fickleness of fame it was Kathy they turned to.  The Sunday press were always keen on stories about her and scandal made good reading- her every mistake and misery was taken apart by the press.

Kathy was really just a victim of changing tastes in popular culture.  By the 1960’s fame was not a life-long thing it had maybe been the generation before  and Kathy became one of the many casualties of changes in pop music at this time and yet she railed against this.  She was determined to remain a star, her legion of fans saw her always as a star but bookings diminished to bingo halls and restaurants as, despite the talent, she was just no longer in vogue and that had a serious effect.  As time went by she became deemed to be“difficult” which further compounded things.

For anyone who wonders “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” Harman’s tale is an eye-opener and very much a tale of the shallow world of showbusiness and the vulnerability of some who rose to the top.

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Kathy Kirby- Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss was published by Mediaworld in 2005

100 Essential CDs – Number 79 –Kathy Kirby – The Very Best Of

The Very Best Of – Kathy Kirby (Spectrum 1997)

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Now this is a real guilty pleasure.  Back when I was reviewing the retrospective by Cilla Black “Best Of The Emi Years”, there was a little bit of discussion about who was the best of the Britpop girls from the mid 60’s.  There was definitely a Premier League of Cilla, Dusty, Sandie and Lulu who stood apart from the myriad of names including Marianne Faithful, Twinkle, Julie Rogers, Anita Harris, Kiki Dee, Susan Maughan, Helen Shapiro, Shirley Bassey (bigger in the 50’s) and Petula Clark (likewise) but there was one other name that I would put in that league of big-hitters, an artist who has perhaps less stood the test of time but at one point in the mid 60’s was the highest paid woman on British television – the woman dubbed “The British Marilyn Monre”, the sublime Kathy Kirby.

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Now, I’ll admit it, from a very young age I was always a bit obsessed with Kathy Kirby.  It might have been the old-school glamour kick I found so fascinating- there wasn’t too much glamour around in Britain at that time.  Her run of five Top 40 chart hits (all included on this CD) were before my time but at home we had one of her singles her Top 10 cover of an 1954 American hit by Teresa Brewer “Let Me Go Lover” (just writing the title causes nostalgia to prick up the hairs on the back of my neck).  I played this and its B-side (remember them?) “The Sweetest Sounds” (also on this CD) to death over a period of many years.  It’s a family story that as a toddler I would like to regale relatives with my own version of this song with incorrect lyrics- at the time I obviously did not know what a “lover” was, I sang the more baffling “Let Me Go Wooda”.  Older members of my family never want me to forget that.

Kathy’s was a star who burnt brightly only for a short time but throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s she would crop up now and again on television, on things like “The Golden Shot” and I would always seek them out, fascinated by this blonde, lipglossed vision with great diction and a fantastic voice.  She would also appear regularly in the Sunday papers, with some story which I didn’t ever know whether I should be reading or not.  There were tales of bankruptcy, inappropriate relationships, incidents involving the police and throughout it all Kirby seemed to be smiling on through, apologising and explaining in a very British way.  This was a lady who was one of the early examples of life through the media which we just take for granted nowadays.  She became the go- to-lady for stories about fame which had been lost- which although would have paid her money in many ways compounded her problems.

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How many 60’s stars can you recognise?  Kirby with Cilla Black, Freddie & The Dreamers, Kenny Lynch amongst others

There’s another issue with “Let Me Go Lover” which gets those goosebumps forming.  Fast forward to about 12 years ago.  What started off as a drink in a Brighton pub to celebrate my sister’s birthday became a pub crawl and probably one of the most drunken evenings of my life.  Waking the next morning I found a crumpled raffle ticket by the side of the bed.  Not exactly having much recall of events  but vaguely remembering the places we frequented I did know the significance of that ticket – it meant for the first and only time in my life I had done Karaoke.  Not only did I have a massive hangover to deal with but no doubt public humiliation.  The story got pieced together during the day.  My sister and I had got up on stage and put quite a crowded pub through our rendition of “Let Me Go Lover”.  I asked people who had witnessed this event – but how did I read the screens as I knew I was having trouble focusing?  “You didn’t even use the screens,” I was told, “you knew every word.”  From nowhere came every word of a song that I had spent my childhood listening to but probably hadn’t heard for ten years before that night.  Proof that Kathy Kirby is somehow ingrained into my soul.

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This twenty track CD came out in 1997.  CD’s of her hits on the Decca label were slow to appear but there are a couple to choose from now.  This is the collection I would go for although I also have a 30 track Best Of from Marginal released in 1996 and there are a couple of harder to find “Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss” compilations and a 2005 double CD called “The Complete Collection” (which collects together her Decca recordings but not those from other labels).  I’ve chosen this one because of its good range of hits, the inclusion of the aforementioned “Sweetest Sounds” and its avoidance of some of the cheesier moments of Kirby’s career (pub singalong tracks like “Show Me The Way To Go Home”).

Kathy Kirby was born Kathleen O’Rourke in Ilford, Essex in 1938.  She came to fame as a protégée of big band leader Bert Ambrose who had been around since the 40’s and saw Kirby as a way of bringing a more youthful audience to his performances.  As manager he dominated her career and the two became lovers, an open showbusiness secret because of the difference in ages.  Kirby was a natural for television and starred in “Stars And Garters” a variety series set as in a pub.  TV appearances became regular and in 1963 the hits started coming.

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Kathy Kirby with Ambrose

 It was when Ambrose died in 1971 that Kathy’s career went into freefall, but by then the hits had long dried up although her legion of fans forever wanted and expected there to be more.  Kathy’s somewhat turbulent life can be read about in books such as “Secrets, Loves And Lipgloss” by James Harman (2005)    which I have recently re-read and the more recent, published after her death in 2011- “No Secret Anymore- The Real Kathy Kirby” by Mark Willerton (2013) which is on my reading wishlist.

It’s the music I want to focus on here.  What I like most about it is the big sound, the almost cavernous wall-of-sound feel which is evident from the first moment of  the CD’s opener and the biggest hit.  The Doris Day hit “Secret Love” took Kathy to number 4 at the end of 1963 and it’s Kathy’s excellent voice that bangs in right from the start after a dramatic drum roll.  Her really quite startling elongated “Now” is almost an ecstatic  howl of joy after pain. Then it kicks in with a more uptempo version of the song and a cha-cha-cha rhythm.  This was the track which really established Kirby as a star, although it was not her first hit nor her best track.   It was, however, given what we know about Kathy and her relationship with Ambrose (and also entertainer Bruce Forsyth) an appropriate song, as it was 36 years later as the best track on “Songs From The Last Century” by George Michael.

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As far as I am concerned it’s the debut hit which really shines.  A vocal version of an instrumental by the Shadows which had already reached number one earlier that year.  “Dance On” gave Kathy her first chart placing in the summer of 1963 reaching #11. There’s a quirky blast of brass which gives the track real bounce and this ends up much stronger than the instrumental that inspired it.  The Australian public certainly thought so as Kathy’s version topped the charts there for three weeks.  There’s real Eastern promise in the number 17 1964 hit “You’re The One” which fairly gallops along and is the best example of how good Kathy was as a singer both in terms of range, pitch and diction.

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This CD also includes the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest entry “I Belong”, which is certainly one of the stronger United Kingdom entries.  It was the first time the song had been chosen by the public as the choices were performed on Kathy’s BBC TV series. It was much hoped that Kathy would give the UK their first Eurovision win in a competition which by this time was  9 years old.  Kathy performed second (which is a position where no act has ever won from, I believe). It finished in a position which would become very familiar to the nation – 2nd place with the winner that year coming from Luxembourg with a song written by French icon Serge Gainsbourg.  “I Belong” reached number 36 in the charts and was another example of the curse of the UK Eurovision entry as it became her last charting single.  The UK would have to wait another couple of years to get its first Eurovision win with another Brit-Pop girl Sandie Shaw.

Of the other tracks there’s a good mix of standards beautifully performed such as “Body And Soul”, “Make Someone Happy” “I Wish You Love” and a fantastic version of “The Way Of Love” a song also associated with Cher.  This track incidentally gave Kathy her only hint of chart success in America, reaching #88 in the Billboard Charts in 1965.  There’s songs that perhaps shouldn’t work but do, especially Kathy’s version of “Havah Nagilah” and just the one oddity in “Old Man Mose”, a slightly tasteless song about a dead man.  Throughout there is the quality in production, that big sound and the Kirby voice, which fascinated and entranced people years after she faded from the music scene.  Not included here is a version of the Beatles’ “Here, There And Everywhere” which Paul McCartney reputedly said was his favourite version of the song.  (Paul was a great champion of Kathy and like Sandie Shaw supported her when times got hard).  There are some later recordings of hers which I have never heard which come from the mid 70’s, including a disco version of “My Prayer” and a changed-gender version of Charles Aznavour’s “She” which got radio airplay at the time but never reached the charts.  A lot of Kathy’s television appearances no longer exist- her BBC series were lost as film was often recorded over in those days.  There is a DVD of collected performances released at a time when another comeback was mooted but Kathy died not long afterwards.

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Kathy with Ketty Lester – another much under-rated singer

She spent her last years in relative anonymity in South Kensington.  I always had this little fantasy that one day I would meet her and she would ask me to pen what is a fairly amazing life story, but that never happened.  It has since been said that Kathy was diagnosed with schizophrenia which would explain some of the real oddities in her life.  She has aristocratic connections within the next generation.  Her niece, Sarah, is now Lady Thatcher, the wife of ex-PM’s Margaret’s son Mark and another niece, Claudia, is Lady Rothermere.  These connections seem to add to the sheer  Britishness of the Kirby story.  I’m prepared to dish the dirt a little more with a  review of “Secrets, Loves And Lipgloss” but for now I’m just going to enjoy the music of one of Britain’s much loved singers of the 1960’s.

For a rare piece of existing footage of Kathy singing live and for those of you Eurovision fans out there- it’s back to 1965 when the show was on a considerably smaller budget!

The Very Best Of Kathy Kirby is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99, and used from £0.19. and as a download for £3.49.  In the US it is currently $8.70 new and used from $0.34.