Shirley Bassey was born in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales, and raised in the nearby working class neighbourhood of Splott. Her mother was originally from Yorkshire, and her father was a Nigerian seaman who left the family when she was less than two. She later helped to support her family by working in an Enamelware factory.
In 1953, 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. She next took up a professional engagement in Hot from Harlem, which ran until 1954. By this time Bassey had become disenchanted with show business, and had become pregnant at 16 with her elder daughter, Sharon so she went back to waiting tables in Cardiff.
In 1955, a chance recommendation to Michael Sullivan, a booking agent, put Bassey firmly on course for her destined career. He saw talent in Bassey, and decided he would make her a star. She toured various theatres until she was seen by Jack Hylton whose interest in her put her firmly on the road to stardom. He invited her to star in Al Read's Such Is Life at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End. During the show's run, Philips A&R and record producer Johnny Franz spotted her on television, was impressed, and offered her a recording deal. Bassey recorded her first single, entitled ‘Burn My Candle', and Philips released it in February 1956, when Bassey was 19.
Owing to the suggestive lyrics, the BBC banned it, but it sold well nonetheless, backed with her powerful rendition of ‘Stormy Weather'. Further singles followed, and in February 1957, Bassey had her first hit with ‘The Banana Boat Song', which reached No. 8 in the UK Singles Chart. During that year, she also recorded under the direction of American producer Mitch Miller in New York for the Columbia label, producing the single ‘If I Had a Needle and Thread' and ‘Tonight My Heart She Is Crying'. She then travelled to Las Vegas to make her American stage début at El Rancho Vegas. In mid 1958, she recorded two singles that would become classics in the Bassey catalogue. ‘As I Love You' was released as the B-side of another ballad, ‘Hands Across the Sea'; it did not sell well at first, but after a chance appearance at the London Palladium things began to pick up. In January 1959, it reached No. 1 and stayed there for four weeks. It thus became the first number 1 single by a Welsh artist. Bassey also recorded ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me' at this point, and while ‘As I Love You' raced up the charts, so too did this record, with both songs being in the top three at the same time. A few months later, Bassey signed to EMI's Columbia label, and the second phase in her recording career had begun.
In the early and mid 1960s, Bassey had numerous hits on the UK charts, and five albums in the Top 15. Her 1960 recording of ‘As Long As He Needs Me' from Lionel Bart's Oliver! reached No. 2, and had a chart run of 30 weeks. On 13 November 1960, Bassey made her début performance on American television, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1962, Bassey's collaboration with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra produced the album Let's Face the Music (No. 12) and the single ‘What Now My Love' (No. 5). Other Top Ten hits of the period included her second No. 1, the double A-side ‘Reach for the Stars'/'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' (1961), ‘I'll Get By' (also 1961), and a cover version of the Ben E. King hit ‘I (Who Have Nothing)' in 1963. During this period, Bassey appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine, and sang at a Washington gala celebrating the end of President Kennedy's second year in office.
In 1965, Bassey enjoyed her only U.S. Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hit with the title song of the James Bond film, Goldfinger. The single peaked at No. 8, while the original soundtrack of Goldfinger hit No. 1 in the U.S. that same year. Also in 1965, she sang the title track for the spoof James Bond film The Liquidator, and had a Top 20 live album recorded during a sell-out run at London's Pigalle.
From 1964 onwards the ‘Goldfinger' single had a lasting impact on her career: writing for the sleeve notes of Bassey's 25th Anniversary Album, Clayton (1978) notes that: ‘Acceptance in America was considerably helped by the enormous popularity of (‘Goldfinger')...But she had actually established herself there as early as 1961, in cabaret in New York. She was also a success in Las Vegas...'I suppose I should feel hurt that I've never been really big in America on record since ‘Goldfinger'...But, concertwise, I always sell out.'...' This was reflected in the fact that Bassey had only one solo LP to reach the Top 20 in a US chart (R&B, Live at Carnegie Hall), and she was technically a one-hit wonder, making only one appearance in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, ‘Goldfinger'. But in the aftermath of ‘Goldfinger' her UK sales started to falter as well: only two of her singles would enter the UK Top 40 until 1970. She had signed to United Artists, and her first album on that label, 1966's I've Got a Song for You, spent one week on the chart; from there until 1970, only two albums would chart, one of those a compilation. In 1967 came the release of one of her best-known singles ‘Big Spender', although it charted just outside the UK Top 20.
Bassey started living as a tax exile in 1968, and was not permitted to work in Britain for almost two years. Also in 1968, at the Sanremo Festival in Italy, she performed ‘La vita', an Italian song by Bruno Canfora and Antonio Amurri, with some lyrics re-written in English by Norman Newell for her performance. Her version of the song with chorus sung in Italian became a Top 40 hit on the Italian chart, and Bassey recorded several songs in Italian, some appearing on a 1968 Italian album titled La vita.
Bassey's UK comeback came in 1970, leading to one of the most successful periods of her career. In that year, she returned to the UK with a record breaking run of performances at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Also in that year, she released the album Something, which showcased a new Bassey style, a shift from traditional pop to more contemporary songs and arrangements (the single of the same name was more successful in the UK charts than the original Beatles recording - the only artist to have achieved this), though Bassey would never completely abandon what had been her forte, standards, show tunes, and torch songs. ‘Something' was also a Top 10 U.S. hit on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other singles of this period included the top ten hit ‘Never Never Never', an English version of the Italian ‘Grande grande grande', reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart, the UK Top 10 and number one in Australia and South Africa. The success of ‘Something' (single No. 4, album No. 5) spawned a series of successful albums on the UA label, including Something Else (1971), And I Love You So (1972), I Capricorn (1972), Never Never Never (1973), Good, Bad but Beautiful (1975), Love, Life and Feelings (1976), You Take My Heart Away (1977) and Yesterdays (1978). Bernard Ighner wrote and duetted with Bassey for the track ‘Davy' on the Nobody Does It Like Me album (1974). Additionally, two of Bassey's earlier LPs entered the charts, 1967's And We Were Lovers (re-issued as Big Spender), and 1962's Let's Face the Music (re-issued as What Now My Love). Two compilations, The Shirley Bassey Singles Album (1975) and 25th Anniversary Album (1978) both made the UK top three: The Shirley Bassey Singles Album her highest charting album at number two and earning a gold disc, and 25th Anniversary Album going platinum.
Between 1970 and 1979, Bassey had 18 hit albums in the UK Albums Chart. Her 1978 album The Magic Is You featured a portrait by the photographer, Francesco Scavullo. In 1973, her sold-out concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall were recorded and released as a two-LP set, Shirley Bassey: Live at Carnegie Hall. This album and the majority of her recordings from this period have been re-mastered and released on CD by EMI and BGO Records. In 1971, she recorded the theme song for Diamonds Are Forever. The recording was featured as part of Sydney, Australia's 2007 New Year's celebration.
Bassey appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, broadcast on Christmas Day in 1971. In 1976, Bassey starred in the six-episode The Shirley Bassey Show, the first of her television programs for the BBC, followed by a second series of six episodes in 1979. The final show of the first series was nominated for the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1977. The series featured guests including Neil Diamond, Michel Legrand, The Three Degrees and Dusty Springfield; filmed in various locations throughout the world as well as in the studio. Bassey closed out the decade with her third title theme for the Bond films, Moonraker (1979).
Throughout most of the 1980s, Bassey focused on charitable work and performing occasional concert tours throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States, having ended her contract with EMI-United Artists and taking what she referred to as ‘semi-retirement'. In 1982 Bassey recorded an album entitled All by Myself and made a TV special for Thames Television called A Special Lady with guest Robert Goulet. In 1983 she recorded a duet with Alain Delon, ‘Thought I'd Ring You', which became a hit single in Europe. Bassey was now recording far less often but released an album in 1984 of her most famous songs, I Am What I Am, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. In 1986, she released a single and video to support the London Tourist Board, ‘There's No Place Like London', co-written by Lynsey de Paul and Gerard Kenny. In 1987 she recorded an album of James Bond themes, The Bond Collection, but was apparently unhappy with the results so she declined to release it. (Five years later it was released anyway, Bassey sued in court, and all unsold copies were withdrawn).
In the 1998 film Little Voice, Bassey was one of three central figures along with Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, and Bassey's track ‘Goldfinger' featured in the movie. Jane Horrocks, the lead actress in the film, went on to impersonate Bassey both on record and television, as well as during a UK tour.
In 2001, Bassey was principal artiste at the Duke of Edinburgh's 80th Birthday celebration. On 3 June 2002 Shirley Bassey was one of a prestigious line up of artists including Elton John, Paul McCartney, Queen, The Corrs, Annie Lennox, Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Cliff Richard, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Ricky Martin, Phil Collins and Tom Jones who performed at the Queen's 50th Jubilee Party at Buckingham Palace. Then, in 2003, Bassey celebrated 50 years in show business, releasing the CD Thank You for the Years, which was another Top 20 album. A gala charity auction of her stage costumes at Christie's, Dame Shirley Bassey: 50 Years of Glittering Gowns, raised £250,000 (US$500,000) for the Dame Shirley Bassey Scholarship at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Noah's Ark Children's Hospital Appeal. Bassey topped the bill at the 2005 Royal Variety Performance, introducing her new song ‘The Living Tree'.
In 2009, Bassey recorded the album, The Performance, with James Bond composer David Arnold as co-producer (with Mike Dixon). A number of artists wrote songs expressly for Bassey, including Manic Street Preachers, Gary Barlow, KT Tunstall, Pet Shop Boys, Nick Hodgson of the Kaiser Chiefs, John Barry and Don Black.