"Are you married?" gibes Bassey in perfect British accent, after hearing that compliment over the phone from her room at the Merv Griffin Spa and Resort in Palm Springs, California. "We'll have to talk about that when we meet," she punch-lines. Bassey heads to South Florida this week for two area appearances, one at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach November 20, the other at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach November 23. "It's been a long time since I've been in Miami -- about five years," she notes. "It'll be nice to be back."
Born in Cardiff, Wales, in the docklands known as Tiger Bay, Bassey's first professional gig came in 1953 when she was 16 years old, touring in a revue of Memories of Al Jolson. Two years later famed British bandleader Jack Hylton spotted the brash talent performing in the Astor Club, which led to her first success in London's West End Revue, Such Is Life, and her first hit, the calypso-flavored, "Banana Boat Song." ("Nobody remembers that one," she chirps. "So I don't sing it.") A string of Top 10 U.K. hits followed, including "Kiss Me Honey, Honey Kiss Me," (No. 3 in 1958), "As I Love You," (her first No. 1, released in 1959) and "As Long as He Needs Me," from the musical Oliver, (No. 2 in 1960). Bassey soon crossed the Atlantic, though she admits she was terrified at first. "We didn't have the same [racial] problems in England at the time. Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte opened doors for me to come to America. But I was just 20 years old. And I thought it would be a terrible time," she explains. "But it was not. Americans were wonderful to me."
While the American pop charts eluded her, it was her live performances, with her slinky, risque gowns (pre-Cher), over-the-top-voguing (a la Madonna), and balls-to-the-wall vocals (spelled A-R-E-T-H-A) that earned her a reputation as the cabaret concert ticket. "I love concerts best of all," proclaims Bassey, who has no immediate plans to return to the studio. She does admit that there was a time when the old hits were, well, starting to feel old. "I started to get fed up a bit," she notes. "I thought, I've got to inject something into them in order for me to get them across to people. I thought I sounded bored and the audiences weren't going to enjoy themselves at all."
From showstoppers such as "Big Spender," to cover tunes, such as George Harrison's "Something," and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," Bassey dazzles. "I love the Foreigner song," she beams. "I've attached myself to it, and so has the audience. They've never heard a solo artist sing it before." (As for her raucous live performances of "Big Spender," rumor has it that officials at Liverpool Airport would play a recording of the song at high volume to bump 'n' grind pigeons off the runways.)
This year a new legion of fans has discovered Bassey since she bonded with the English duo Propellerheads for their international hit, "History Repeating," on which she guested. The song appears on their 1998 album, decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which also features appearances by De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, plus the Propellerheads' hit version of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" -- yet another smack of Bondage. (And for the record, the aforementioned Springfield also had a musical menage à trois with a British pair, the Pet Shop Boys, when she sang on their 1987 dance ditty "What Have I Done to Deserve This?")
Of "History Repeating" Bassey screams, "Isn't it fabulous!" The song, a catchy, synthesizer-thumping dance number, has been all the rave in dance clubs around the globe. Bassey says she was asked to participate after lead Propellerhead Alex Gifford wrote the song with her in mind. "He said he was asleep, and he thought about me, and these words came out," she explains. "And I asked, 'What's a 35-year-old man doing thinking about a grandmother?' I couldn't imagine," she laughs. A demo was sent to Bassey and the rest, as the song says, is history -- but not without some initial reluctance on her part.
"When they sent it to me, I heard it and was dancing around. I loved it. But I didn't think it was for me." She felt the song was a little too rock 'n' roll and thought it would be more appropriate for Tina Turner. "It wasn't Bassey," she crows, matter-of-factly. "But, ah, thank God they didn't listen to me. They wrote it for Shirley!" Bassey hit the studio a few weeks later and made the song her own, with a little steering from Alex. "He said, 'This is not the way I want it. Can you go a little lower?'" she recalls, bringing her voice down a few notes. Bassey obliged. "And within an hour, it was all over," she says. "I walked away, we kissed and hugged. And that was it. I didn't think any more of it. And it was a hit." Bassey now performs the song in concert ("I have to! Everybody is waiting for it. They don't think I'm going to do it, but when I do, they howl!").
Naturally a video followed, though Bassey was less than enthralled with the process. "Well, at first they mentioned it, but I didn't think anything would come of it," she quips. "So when I did do the video, my God, it was so hard. They are so long, and they take forever. I stood there from 1 p.m. until midnight in this dress which I couldn't lift up. I couldn't even go for a pee." But the black-and-white clip, featuring a sequined Bassey shimmying for the camera, launched the bombshell into a second career as uber-diva and gay icon, the latter of which she's quick to downplay.
"Yes, everybody has been saying that, that I've taken over Judy Garland's role, but I don't like the way they go on about that," she says. Her audiences are very mixed, she adds, and she doesn't want to dwell on stereotypical labels. "I'm not really complaining about it," she emphasizes. "I just think the press makes too much of it."
So now that audiences -- gay and straight alike -- have placed the singer in the echelon of diva, how does Bassey greet such adulation? "Well, I'm really flattered by it. It's wonderful, because I always thought that divas were opera singers and temperamental and all that, which I am not. I don't go around demanding this and demanding that." So never a Kathleen-battle with anyone? "No! No! No!" she answers tersely. "God no! I save that energy for my performances. I can't understand any of my contemporaries doing that, of the few that do, instead of concentrating on their performances."
In this day and age of envelope-pushing music-making and blitzkrieg mass-marketing, Bassey remains markedly unimpressed. "There's nobody I see on the horizon," she observes. "I don't know where [the industry] is going. It's disturbing." Like many industry veterans, Bassey believes there are too many Hansons and not enough Hoagy Carmichaels from which to choose. "And the in-between," she corrects. "This bothers me. Maybe things will come around again. Maybe there will be romantic singers again."
Shirley Bassey performs at 8 p.m. Friday, November 20, at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, 561-832-7469. The show is sold out. She also appears at 8 p.m. Monday, November 23, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-673-7300. Tickets are $35 and $50.