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Documentary: Dame Shirley Bassey


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Most Americans know Shirley Bassey only from her three brassy James Bond film themes—Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker. In the U.K., Dame Shirley was enormously popular from the late 1950s on. She delivered on stage the way Judy Garland did, belted songs out the way Barbra Streisand did and was as coy and as intriguing as Nancy Wilson. Yet she never crossed over to the U.S. pop market. While she appeared occasionally in Las Vegas and on American TV variety shows, the youth culture had moved on to the British Invasion and singers like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and to Black singers such as Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. Dame Shirley's adult, supper-club repertoire never made it onto the youth culture's radar here.

In the U.K. and much of Continental Europe, however, Dame Shirley was a sensation. Her stage shows in music halls and vast theaters like the Palladium brought down the house. There was a theatrical quality and dramatic sensuality to her delivery that entertained and enraptured audiences but seemed lost on American audiences, who found her over the top. As television grew in popularity in Europe in the 1960s, where many more young people lived at home and watched with parents, her presence and celebrity was much more widespread and well known across generations. As for the U.S. market, she didn't bother recording material that made it to the transistor radio charts.

A superstar in Britain, Dame Shirley was beloved for her ability to excite but also for the many blows she took due to bad luck and lousy personal decisions. Her ups and downs were constantly reported on in the papers and her vulnerability and ability to take it and move on became admirable. As a result, for many, she became a highly optimistic underdog, someone who had achieved and battled back despite the hurdles thrown up in front of her or the pitfalls of her own making. She was a tireless survivor whose pain and tears surfaced through her singing and then were instantly wiped away by her smile and grace.

Viewing her concert footage now and listening to her British album releases, Dame Shirley was an astonishing force, even if her performances seemed more at home abroad. Many of her songs were unknown here or uninspiring. For anyone who loves jazz-pop singing, however, Dame Shirley's contribution has been significant and important from a delivery and phrasing standpoint and is worth absorbing. Here's a documentary on her life and career...

Here's her fabled appearance at the Royal Variety Performance in 1961 at London's Prince of Wales Theatre...

Here she is on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969...

Here's Dame Shirley at the Royal Albert Hall in 1973...

And here's Goldfinger, when the song and album were global hits...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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