23 February 1959: As the winter drew to a close, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited the USSR to meet with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Macmillan was the first British leader since Sir Winston Churchill during World War Two to visit the country. At the time there had been a slight thaw in the Cold War. The atmosphere at the meeting was cordial, and the two discussed expanding cultural ties, but a few days later, the famously volatile Khruschev snubbed Macmillan and his entourage.
In the same week, Shirley Bassey became the first Welsh artist to have a UK number 1 when As I Love You knocked Elvis Presley from the top. Born on 8 January 1937 in the large multi-ethnic area of Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Bassey’s father was Nigerian and her mother was English. grew up in a nearby community – the fantastically named Splott. She was equipped with that famously loud singing voice (more on that later…) before she had even hit her teens, but it made her teachers and fellow students feel uncomfortable and she was often being told to, in her words, ‘shut up’. She left school at 14 to work in a steel factory while singing in pubs and clubs on evenings and at the weekend.
Her pre-fame life was tough and eventful, with the whole family struggling to afford to eat. Bassey was only in her teens when she began performing, but dirty old men in the crowd would be shouting at her to get her clothes off. She became pregnant with her first child at 16 but never revealed the name of the father. In 1955 while appearing in the West End, she was offered a record deal with Philips. Her first single, Burn My Candle, was banned by the BBC in 1956 for its slightly saucy lyrics. Bassey had her first hit with her rendition of The Banana Boat Song the following year. In mid-1958 she recorded both As I Love You and Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, with both reaching the top 3 simultaneously.
So, Bassey’s voice. I have to confess I am not a fan. I think you either love her powerful bellow or hate it, and I’m the latter. This made me reticent to try As I Love You, but fortunately, the shouting is kept to a minimum. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ (the duo behind Doris Day’s Whatever Will Be, Will Be) tune is a chirpy love song, and it sounds ahead of its time. It’s hardly innovative, but to me it’s comparable to the type of tune Bacharach and David were writing in the 1960s, complete with some catchy brass sounds in the chorus. It’s ultimately not as impressive though, and rather throwaway, but not as bad as I was expecting. And so, Shirley Bassey was the last female artist to have a number 1 in the 50s, and it was a full two years before a woman would be number 1 again.
Written by: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
Weeks at number 1: 4 (20 February-19 March)
Field hockey player Richard Dodds – 23 February
Philosopher Simon Critchley – 27 February
Zoologist Mark Carwardine – 9 March
Poet Ben Okri – 15 March
Scholar Kathleen Freeman – 21 February