Born in January 1937 in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales, Bassey was the youngest of seven children. Her parents, a Nigerian sailor and an English woman, divorced before she was three years old, but they kept the family together for the most part, and Bassey was able to sing duets with her brother at family get-togethers. After finishing school, she found a job at a local factory, and earned extra money singing at men's clubs after-hours. Bassey traveled around the country in revues during the early '50s, and made her big breakout in 1955 at a London Christmas show given by comedian Al Read (though it was promoted by bandleader Jack Hylton, who had caught Bassey's act at the nearby Albany Club). Soon after, she began appearing in Read's revue Such Is Life. The show ran for over a year and gained her a recording contract with Philips.
"Banana Boat Song" hit the British Top Ten in early 1957, followed by her number one hits "As I Love You" (1959) and "Reach for the Stars/Climb Every Mountain" (1961). A 1962 pairing with arranger Nelson Riddle increased her prestige in America, and a vaunted live show gained her headlining spots in both New York and Las Vegas during the early '60s. Popular recognition in the United States came in early 1965, when "Goldfinger" hit number eight on the Billboard Hot 100, instantly becoming her signature song across the Atlantic.
Bassey's hits at home in the U.K. continued into the mid-'70s, led by Top Ten entries such as 1970's "Something" (from the Top Five album Something), 1972's "For All We Know," (from I Capricorn), and the next year's "Never, Never, Never" (from Never, Never, Never). After the crowning achievement of her career, a 1977 Britannia Award for Best Female Solo Singer in the Last 50 Years, Bassey gained her own highly rated BBC-TV show in the late '70s, but gradually slowed down her busy schedule during the next decade. Semi-retired in Switzerland by 1981, she nevertheless emerged quite frequently, spurred by the recording of several television specials and LPs, including a 1987 date with the synth pop group Yello. Bassey became much more visible during the '90s, opening a nightclub in Cardiff, and touring the world several times alongside Top 25 releases like Keep the Music Playing (1991) and Sings the Movies (1995).
"History Repeating," her 1997 collaboration with the British big beat duo Propellerheads, featured highly on dance charts on both sides of the Atlantic, before The Birthday Concert -- a live document of her 60th birthday celebration -- was nominated for a Grammy. In 1999, "World in Union," her duet with Bryn Terfel opened that year's Rugby World Cup and then hit the U.K. Top 40. The next two decades saw Bassey make occasional, but notable, appearances at birthday parties of the famous, award ceremonies, tribute concerts, and charity events. These activities continued to be punctuated by modestly successful album releases, such as 2003's Thank You for the Years, 2007's Get the Party Started, and 2009's The Performance, all of which reached the U.K. Top 20. Among the highlights of public appearances were a 2012 performance of "Diamonds Are Forever" at the Queen's 60th Jubilee party and a well-received rendition of "Goldfinger" at 2013's Oscars ceremony. She followed that with the studio album Hello Like Before in 2014.
Enjoying the kind of continual career reappraisal that is often directed at artists who achieve such longevity, in 2019, Bassey's position as an iconic figure in British culture was underlined when she was awarded the Freedom of the City of Cardiff. Then, in late 2020, to mark her 70th year in the industry, Decca Records issued a mix of original songs and covers titled I Owe It All to You. It peaked at number five in the U.K., her first appearance in the Top Five since 1970. ~ John Bush, Rovi
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