Girl from Tiger Bay

No one planned Tiger Bay. It just happened. In the 19th century, the Welsh port of Cardiff started trading with the world, and some of the world decided to stay. And some of these stayers were not white people. They coalesced into a dockside slum, Tiger Bay. It was a poor community, but also a place of welcome, of acceptance. By the 1930s, a black and coloured population of many thousands called Cardiff home. The community was astonishingly diverse. Muslims lived alongside Catholics and Sikhs. People from Barbados, from South Africa, from Singapore, mixed with and went to school with and married Arabs, Malays, Somalis. In an era of entrenched and unapologetic racism, Tiger Bay was a place of inclusion. A window, in its way, onto a better future.

And so it was possible, in 1937, for a Nigerian man, Henry Bassey, and his English wife, Eliza Jane Start, to have a daughter. She was lucky, this girl, Shirley. How many places in the world other than Tiger Bay would have allowed a mixed-race family to stay together? Like most of those in her community, Shirley was poor and left school early, working in a steel plant. But Shirley Bassey could sing, really sing. She was also possessed of a will as powerful as her voice, and through sheer persistence and a few lucky breaks she became a star.

bassey
Shirley Bassey in 1963. Image: Dame Shirley Bassey Blog

Shirley Bassey tends to be remembered now as a semi-caricature, a glamorous showbiz diva, the voice of those bombastic themes to James Bond movies. But there is so much more to her art. Have a listen to this 1957 single. “You, You Romeo”, the B side, is by turns coy and a belter; “Fire Down Below” a more seductive number. But both showcase Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary timing, delivery — even humour. Just listen!

You, You Romeo 

Fire Down Below

  • Artist: Shirley Bassey
  • A Side: Fire Down Below
  • B Side: You, You Romeo
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Philips 
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 326278 BF
  • Year: 1957

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