Aktueel: GREAT SINGERS NEED PAIN.
She gives a concert with Liza Minelli and Ray Charles over the weekend. Her colleagues didn’t feel like giving an interview but Shirley Bassey was prepared to talk for 15 minutes. The 15 minutes became very emotional after a rehearsal in Gent in Belgium. ‘Is it possible we saw a tear?’ ‘Yes, sometimes I am becoming too emotional’.
Five p.m. The music conservatory from Gent is getting ready for a visit by Shirley Bassey. She is coming here for an extended rehearsal and the orchestra is already warmed up with songs like: ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds are forever’ and ‘Big spender’. The dinner ladies are trying their best to give her a reception in style. ‘How does Miss Bassey drink her coffee?’
Half an hour late ‘La Bassey’ arrives. A frail lady accompanied by a small entourage: a publicity lady, a makeup artist, and a catering lady. The dinner ladies showed up for nothing. A pity. Giving orders and a bit bitchy she withdraws herself to her dressing room. Politely she shakes some hands but doesn’t make any eye contact. Her publicity lady tells us that Miss Bassey only wants to speak to us for 15 minutes. ‘If she had enough of it you will notice that for sure’. The dinner ladies are disappointed. She is not nice and has pretensions. After 15 minutes she comes out of her dressing room. With a straight face she walks to the stage where the orchestra is already waiting. In less then a minute they burst into ‘Goldfinger’. After that: THAT VOICE! Flawless, strong and confident. The publicity lady comes down and guides us to the concert hall. For one and a half hour the singer treats some ‘privileged’ in an empty hall with her rehearsal that sends shivers down your spine. Her voice has not lost any of its power over the years nor has she lost any of the emotion she puts in her performance. Especially her emotional songs like ‘I (Who have nothing)’ make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The power of this voice cannot be captured on vinyl. The empathy in all her songs is phenomenal. At a certain point she even sheds a tear. It’s obvious; this woman is singing about her own life. A life with loads of success but sure with a lack of love. After the rehearsal she sits down for the interview and seems unreachable, even insecure. She is looking for words and it takes some time before she switches from singing, a form of expression she controls very well, to talking which she does very bad.
‘Do you prepare thoroughly for your performances?’ Yes, I know artists who arrive an hour before a show and do a half an hour rehearsal. I could never do that. It is an orchestra that I have never worked with before and I would be terribly insecure if I had to work with them. I don’t want any surprises. I like to rehearse twice. The day before and the actual day of the show’.
‘Doesn’t that take a huge toll on your voice?’ No, it even helps to loosen the voice. I do my vocal exercises before every show. I have a whole program to keep fit. I am in training every day. I do not jog though because I just hate it. But I have some home trainers and machines that help me to strengthen the muscles I need in order to sing.’
‘Did your voice ever desert you?’ ‘Yes, there has been a time when I abused my voice. I took the voice for granted, a God given talent. I never practiced and I didn’t even avoided getting a cold, things like that. At a certain point I lost my voice and I thought: ‘My God, now I have lost it and it will never come back’. At that point I decided that if it would come back I would never abuse it again. And when it did come back I took singing lessons. Classical exercises like an opera singer. You know opera singers never abuse their voices. They practice every day whether they have to perform or not. So why shouldn’t we modern singers do the same? Like any machinery you have to maintain, change oil, feed and never abuse it.’
‘How would you like your audience to see you?’ ‘I want them to see it all. I show everything. I am an open book when I sing. I open my heart and tell my autobiography in my songs. My life is in my songs. And my audience experience what I have experienced if they are able to feel it. The pain, the happy moments, everything. For they have felt pain also and they identify with me.’
‘You were so emotional during the rehearsal. Do you also let your self go during the show?’ ‘No, not as much as during the rehearsal. A rehearsal is more relaxed then the actual show and I can allow myself to let go a little bit more. If I am in front of my audience the adrenalin is pumping so much and I am afraid to make a mistake or forget my lyrics. That is my biggest fear to make a mistake. Not being able to hit a high note. And so I have to leave my emotions behind.’
‘Is it possible we saw a tear?’ ‘Yes, sometimes I get too emotional which is not good. But sometimes when I perform a song I think of the time when I decided to sing it for the first time. Probably after some unhappy event in my life. And then I relive that moment all over again. I think being great acquires an certain amount of pain. I don’t know why but it drives one to the real emotion of it. Pain gets to your soul and can be seen in your eyes when you sing and it can be heard in your voice. You have to feel your songs not just sing them. I remember when I was 17 and just sang. I opened my mouth and out came a beautiful sound. One evening my manager came backstage and he said to me: ‘You have a wonderful voice. But it is like a diamond. A rough diamond’. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He told me that a diamond is beautiful when it isn’t rough anymore around the edges.’ And I remember thinking: ‘This man is crazy. Does he want me to fall in love? Be deserted, lose someone precious only for the sake of becoming a great singer?’ Years later when I went through all of that I knew what he meant’.
‘Is that the toll of your fame?’ ‘Among other things, yes. You cherish your pain a bit. But the profession I am in is very demanding. Not everybody understands that. You have to turn away from a lot of things you would like to do. And you have always to be careful. If somebody next to me sneezes I am scared to death. You can’t smoke, drink or eat unhealthy or have late nights. And it gets worse the older you get. Oh and those times: when others sleep I am awake and when I am awake others sleep. Sometimes it gets lonely and is very demanding.’
‘We get the feeling that you are very demanding on yourself’. ‘Yes, that’s true. After a show it takes at least 3 hours before I come down and get back to normal. If I know what ‘normal’ means!’
‘Would you like to know that?’ ‘No, not really. But I would like to know what real love is. Good title for a song. Normal for me is the difference between good and bad.’
‘But wouldn’t you like to be the frog now and them instead of the prince?’ ‘I am the frog every now and then. Sometimes I force myself to switch off. I don’t have to be on stage constantly. I love to be around ‘normal’ people and talk about everything except show business. Loosen my hair, having a couple of drinks, those are wonderful moments when I allow myself to be…. the frog for some time.’
‘Would your life be different if you could do it again?’ ‘No, I don’t think so. You know I love to sing. Can’t do without it. What I don’t like is everything that comes with it. The contracts, the wheeling and dealing of it. But you shouldn’t bother your audience with that. They don’t know anything about it and they shouldn’t know. That is the magic of my world for them and that’s the way it should be.