William Price King meets some Legends – Dame Shirley Bassey – The Early Years

Welcome to the new series of William Price King meets some Legends and for me this is definitely a trip down memory lane. Dame Shirley Bassey was part of my childhood and teen years as my parents were devoted fans. I can remember my father calling out to my mother in the kitchen of their flat, to hurry back as Shirley was just coming on. Sunday Night at the London Palladium and The Royal Variety Performance were always the more special if Shirley Bassey was the headliner.

Over to William now to tell us more about her early life and to share some of the first public performances. As you will see life was not easy for the young Shirley Bassey which is why the first video might be considered appropriate.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” is an inspirational Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune from the musical “The Sound of Music.” Shirley Bassey’s cover of this song went straight to the top of the charts in the UK, peaking at #1 in 1961. Young Shirley Bassey gives an amazing performance in this emotional piece.

The Early years

Shirley Veronica Bassey was born in Tiger Bay (Butetown) Cardiff, Wales.  The docklands were established in the 18th century by the Bute family who owned most of the land in Cardiff as the new coal mining industry made Cardiff the capital city of wales. This caused a population explosion and dockworkers and sailors from across the world settled in nearby neighbourhoods known as Tiger Bay because of the verocious currents in the tidal stretches of the River Severn.

The records show that migrant communities from up to 45 different nationalities including Norway, Somali, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the Caribbean made this a melting pot and created a multicultural community that Shirley Bassey was born into.

Obviously being so close to the docks Tiger Bay developed a tough reputation with a flourishing red-light district and crime mostly unsolved with the suspects shipping in and out of the busy port.  However, from accounts of the day the locals who took up permanent residence reported a much more friendly and community minded spirit to the place.

Shirley was the youngest child of Henry Bassey and Eliza Start and was born in 1930 and then she grew up in the next community of Splott. Henry Bassey was Nigerian and her mother came from Teeside. Eliza had four children from previous relationships and by the time Shirley arrived the house was filled with two half-sisters, three sisters and a brother.

Surprisingly, considering the force of nature that Shirley Bassey is on stage, she was a quiet and shy child. She attended Moorland Road primary school and even at this young age the teachers did notice that she had a strong voice but she was given little encouragement.

“Even in the school choir the teacher kept telling me to back off till I was singing in the corridor!” A classmate recalled her singing the refrain “Can’t help lovin’ that man of mine”’ from “Show Boat” with such feeling that she made their teacher uncomfortable.”

Shirley went on to Splott Secondary Modern School but left at age 14 to work in a factory whilst performing in public houses and clubs in the evenings and weekends.

At age 16, Shirley Bassey signed her first professional contract to sing in a touring variety show  “Memories of Jolson,” a musical based on the life of Al Jolson.

“I knew I was a singer the first time I heard applause,” she would say later. But her love for song wasn’t what drove her to hit the road. “I think what really motivated me to leave Cardiff was that I wanted to travel,” says the singer, who these days owns homes in everywhere from Marbella to Monte Carlo. “I didn’t know as a 16-year-old that singing would be a springboard for my wanderlust. I wanted to be a model, I wanted to be a nurse, I wanted to be an air hostess. I thought all those things would get me travelling.”

This first tour was followed by an engagement in  “Hot from Harlem,” which ran until 1954. However, Shirley Bassey became pregnant and refusing to name the father was forced to return to Cardiff and wait tables until after the birth of her daughter. Her sister, Sharon took in the baby whilst Shirley returned to performing in various theaters until she was noticed by the band leader and impresario Jack Hylton in 1955.

By the 1950s Jack Hylton had already enjoyed a successful career as a band leader and toured both the UK and the USA.  He had met many of the early jazz greats and in fact is credited with bring Duke Ellington to the UK in 1933. An astute businessman Jack had also become director and major shareholder of Decca records.

At the time that he discovered Shirley Bassey he was a successful impresario managing radio, film and theater productions from ballets to circuses. He dominated London theaters with productions such as The Merry Widow, Kiss Me Kate and Kismet.

On meeting Shirley Bassey he invited her to feature in Al Read’s “Such is Life” at the Adelphi Theater in the West End. This brought her to the attention of entertainment agent Mike Sullivan who was impressed with this young singer’s powerful voice and he began to manage her career. One of his first moves was to change her image and the butterfly that emerged in her daring off the shoulder dresses and sophistocated performances was born.

This show was a turning point for Shirley Bassey as it put her firmly in the spotlight on stage and television. Phillips record prouducer Johnny Franz was impressed and offered her a recording contract which resulted in her first single  “Burn My Candle,” released in February 1956.  Owing to the suggestive lyrics, the BBC banned it, but it sold well enough nonetheless, backed with her powerful rendition of “Stormy Weather.”

Compared with Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Judy Garland (who she said she tried to “emulate”) Shirley Bassey scored her first Top 10 hit in Britain with the “Banana Boat Song.” This is a traditional Jamaican folk song commonly classified as as a work song, with a repeated melody and refrain (called call and response). It is also an example of calypso music.

This was followed in 1958 with two singles that would become much loved classics by the growing fans of her singing.  “As I love you,” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for the film “The Big Beat” in 1958 and recorded by Shirley Bassey with the Wally Stott Orchestra, was very well received by critics and the public. “As I Love You” was originally released as the B-side of another ballad, “Hands Across the Sea.” This was Bassey’s first #1 single in Britain.

Later that year Shirley Bassey signed to EMI’s Columbia label and she was ready for the next phase in her long and successful career.

Buy Dame Shirley Bassey’s music: https://www.amazon.com/Shirley-Bassey/e/B000AQ2D9K

Additional material

About William Price King

William Price King is an American jazz singer, musician and composer. Originally he studied classical music and opera but over the years his style has evolved to what many refer to as the ‘sweet point’ where music and voice come together so beautifully.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. His jazz album, ‘Home,’ is a collection of contemporary songs and whilst clearly a homage to their wonderful legacy it brings a new and refreshing complexity to the vocals that is entrancing.

His latest album Eric Sempe and William Price King is now available to download. The repertory includes standards such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” (a jazz classic), Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” Queen’s “The Show Must Go On”, Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and other well-known jazz, pop, and rock classics.

William and Eric Sempe have also brought their own magic to the album with original tracks such as Keep on Dreaming and Red Snow with collaboration with Jeanne King
Download the new album. http://cdbaby.com/cd/williampriceking

William is currently in France where he performs in popular Jazz Venues in Nice and surrounding area.

Connect to William

Website – http://www.williampriceking.com/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/WilliamPriceKing
Twitter – @wpkofficial
Regular Venue – http://cave-wilson.com/
ITunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/william-price-king/id788678484

Previous Legends can be found here:


You will find the previous artists..  Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Kiri Te Kanawa in this directory.


And for the Jazz in this directory.



35 thoughts on “William Price King meets some Legends – Dame Shirley Bassey – The Early Years

  1. Pingback: William Price King meets some Legends – Dame Shirley Bassey – The Early Years | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. So fascinating to learn about Shirley’s early years. I, like Sally, remember a few LPs being played a lot in our house – the music we listened to of my mother’s choice when we weren’t in our rooms listening to our own little 45s. Namely – Shirley Bassey, Vicki Carr, Engelbert Humperdink, Perry Como and Tom Jones. Lol, the things we remember. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Round Up – Dame Shirley Bassey, Easter Treats, Music Memories | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  4. I’ve enjoyed Dame Shirley for years. Always remember here voice in our house as a child. One of my parents favorite singers and we lived in the USA. Would love to see her in person. She always give my heart a “warm fuzzy.” Love learning more about her.

    Liked by 1 person

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