Archive | Top Ten Female Singers RSS feed for this section

Kathy Kirby: a Unique and Troubled Star

21 May

Kathy Kirby sings at the NME Poll Winners concert in 1964

Hits, Rarities and Lipgloss: demand for Kathy Kirby's recordings remains high, despite her years away from the spotlight

A star’s longevity is a complex thing, often defying simplistic interpretation based on chart placings, millions of records sold and accumulated decades of success. So how to explain the enduring enigma of Kathy Kirby, whose death at the age of 72 made the headlines, despite the fact that nearly half a century had passed since she was at the peak of her television stardom, and it was four decades since she had made any substantial recordings?

Discovered and mentored by the great band leader Bert Ambrose, Kathy Kirby was groomed in the image of his ideal woman – a kind of late 1950s hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and Diana Dors, with crisply styled peroxide hair and startlingly glossy red lips. Ambrose’s concept was dated even by the time Kirby became a major television star on the strength of her early 1960s appearances in Stars and Garters. But somehow – largely thanks to a winning and cheerful personality that knew instinctively how to reach a television audience beyond the camera and, crucially, a voice of spectacular power and emotional force, which commanded attention whatever she was singing – she transcended the stylistic straightjacket he imposed on her.

As so often in the annals of show business, Kathy Kirby’s life eventually came to mirror the more dramatic lyrics of some of her songs. This, combined with the unique qualities of her voice, dusted her with an almost mythical fascination, long after her active career had waned.

Ambrose had given Kirby her first break as a teenager, employing her on a short contract as a vocalist for his dance band after she had persuaded him to let her sing for him at the Palais de Danse in Ilford when she was just 16, in 1954. She spent the next few years paying her dues on the club circuit, singing with Ambrose on and off, and gaining valuable show-business experience. But it was not until he became her manager and took control of her recording and television career that things really took off, culminating in hit singles and albums for Decca, and some hugely popular television series. Their relationship soon developed privately and they would be together until his death in 1971, an arrangement that would have disastrous consequences for Kirby.

Kathy Kirby’s repertoire, tightly controlled by Ambrose, was heavily standards-based. Her most enduring hit was an up-tempo cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”, and most of her television performances favoured the American song book and show tunes rather than the pop and soul songs that fuelled the careers of her contemporaries – Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Cilla Black and Petula Clark. Her look, too, was at odds with their fashionable styles, which would come to define the swinging 60s. And yet she carved a niche for herself in a competitive market, winning an NME Award for the best female singer of 1964 and singing “I Belong” with characteristic brio for the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She was defeated only by the mighty combination of one of Serge Gainsbourg’s yé-yé compositions and the nubile France Gall, who took the trophy for Luxemburg.

I Belong: Kathy Kirby’s performance at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest

There’s no doubt that Kirby could – and should – have had a much more versatile and long-lasting career. But Ambrose’s artistic and financial control were absolute. Occasionally she tried to persuade him to try something new. She begged him to let her record “You’re My World”, a typically extravagant 1960s Latin ballad that would have suited her vocal range and majesty down to the ground. He refused, the song went to Cilla Black, and she took it to the top of the charts. Not only were Kirby’s sharp musical instincts constantly repressed but when Ambrose died, she discovered how badly he had mismanaged – and misspent – her hard-earned fortune (she was for a while the UK’s highest-paid female television star).

Rudderless and naïve, and at the mercy of her own increasingly brittle temperament, Kathy Kirby soon found herself marooned at the edge of the spotlight. If she’d had the steely, worldly-wise verve of a Shirley Bassey or the common touch of a Cilla Black, and the backup of an astute manager, she might have been able to reinvent herself for the 1970s. As it was, for her, that decade imploded into tabloid notoriety, bankruptcy, mental health problems and a difficult reputation which made work difficult to come by.

Secret Love: Kathy Kirby sings her greatest hit in 1982 – a rare, late appearance that shows she’d lost none of her vocal power

Kirby did come back, several times. As late as 1983, she was making occasional television appearances and singing in nightclubs. Then she turned her back on the business, retreating to her flat in West London. Living quietly, she unwittingly added to her own status as a reclusive enigma. Occasionally a newspaper article would ask, “Whatever happened to Kathy Kirby?” but the lady herself preferred to keep quiet on the matter.

Then, in 2005, a biography (Secrets, Loves and Lip Gloss) written by her friend and manager James Harman appeared, generating new interest in her career and recordings. And in 2009, she made a DVD documentary with Harman – Kathy Kirby: My Story – giving her first live interview in decades. Some people were upset by her appearance – she was clearly not in the best of health, and perhaps they resented the changes that had taken place since she was last in the public eye. In fact, her lucid comments, her refusal to cast blame elsewhere for any of her troubles – she loved Bert Ambrose, she said, despite everything – and her gratitude for what she still considered to have been a career of high achievement (which indeed it was), proved a fitting and dignified valediction.

Among her considerable vocal talents, Kathy Kirby was a superb torch singer. You only need to hear her versions of “Body and Soul” or “The Man I Love” to understand the extent of her skill. Her large voice sometimes seemed too grand an instrument to be constrained by small rooms and venues, but given a classic number her phrasing and lyrical clarity were second to none and she was equally capable of great subtlety and an urgent emotional truth. We should have heard a great deal more from her.

I tried to interview her occasionally over the years, sending letters via Equity and Decca without a great deal of hope. Then one afternoon in the mid-1990s, the phone rang and a familiar, breathy, slightly off-centre voice started speaking to me in the third person about a note received for Miss Kirby from Mr Piers. Miss Kirby, said the voice, was not giving interviews at the moment but would pass the letter to her musical director who would let Mr Piers know when anything changed. As tends to happen on such occasions, I was too nonplussed to press the singer – for it was obviously the lady herself – any further and meekly thanked her for calling. Caller-ID allowed me to take a note of the number, which I kept for posterity but never had the courage to ring. Now, it’s too late. But I was delighted that the BBC bulletins made room for news of the death of this unique and quintessentially troubled star.

Advertisements

Who are Your All-Time Top Ten Eurovision Female Singers?

27 May

55 years of Eurovision history: Oslo hosts the latest installment

The 55th Eurovision Song Contest – Europe’s annual televised pop music extravaganza – takes place in Oslo on Saturday 29th May. Why do I still love this much mocked and derided event? I suspect it’s largely to do with nostalgia. I’ve seen every show since 1971 and if I’m perfectly honest, watching it is more a habit than an eagerly anticipated event these days.

The glory years of a live orchestra – for me, always an element that heightened the excitement – bringing the best (or worst) out of the artists, and occasionally conjuring an unexpected silk purse from a sow’s ear of a song, are long gone. So too are the days when singers were expected to use their native tongue, which was always as much a part of Eurovision’s unique, idiosyncratic appeal as the preposterous voting system.

The whole thing has become a victim of its surge in camp popularity during the last decade: a sporting event, held in vast arenas, which has shed its concert-focused origins. I haven’t attended Eurovision since Copenhagen in 2001, when the to-ing and fro-ing of the live audience throughout the evening completely ruined any sense of occasion. The singing is still live, but today it’s really all about the decibels of the backing tracks, the eccentricity of the costumes and the litheness of the dancers.

However, I will be watching on Saturday as usual. And as always, the big lady singers will command my particular attention. Female solo artists have dominated the contest throughout its history, winning many more times than their male counterparts or group entries. And the competition has attracted some pretty big names, whose reputation extends well beyond their own countries, in its time.

This is my personal top ten, in descending order. They weren’t all winners – my favourite entries rarely have come out on top! – but on the night, the combination of artist and song gelled to create a memory that still rises above all the ridicule. Do you agree? Why not share your top ten with us?

10 – Semiha Yanki: Seninle Bir Dakika, Turkey (1975)

This was Turkey’s first ever entry. Semiha Yanki was just 17 but sung this ambitious, elaborate and symphonic ballad with a conviction well beyond her years. She came last, with just three points – a result that still seems baffling 35 years later. Yanki has continued recording.

9 – Mariza Koch: Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou, Greece (1976)

Greek folk singer Mariza Koch presented this absorbing protest song (a reaction to Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus) complete with bazouki accompaniment. Her dignified stage presence and powerful voice really captured my imagination; remember, this was the year that Brotherhood of Man won for the UK! Compare and contrast… Koch still performs and records.

8 – Remedios Amaya: Quién Maneja Mi Barca, Spain (1983)

Flamenco singer Remedios Amaya stormed the 1983 event in Munich – and scored the dreaded nul points. Why? This torrid, authentic entry was an uncompromising masterpiece, and makes a mockery of the faux-ethnicity of songs like last year’s Norwegian winner. Elfish folksiness be gone. Give me Remedios and her hearfelt wail every time.

7 – Mia Martini: Rapsodia, Italy (1992)

Class, with a side order of razor blades. This was Mia Martini’s second attempt for Italy, a glorious, rambling ballad of pained love, presented with simplicity and all the assurance of an artist who knows that whoever tops the leader board, she has the only seriously good song in the competition. Martini died too young, but her marvellously ravaged voice lives on in the memory.

6-  Kathy Kirby: I Belong, United Kingdom (1965)

I know Sandie Shaw should be on the list, but everyone knows “Puppet on a String” and this performance epitomises the brittle, high-octane talent of a singer who really should have enjoyed a longer career. Kathy Kirby lives quietly in London these days but her music remains hugely popular with her loyal fan base.

5 – Alice (and Franco Battiato): I Treni di Tozeur (1984)

OK, not exactly a solo artist on the night but Alice’s moody glamour and resonant voice rose above songwriter Franco Battiato’s awkwardness so magnificently that I became an instant fan. The song is a classic: haunting, singular and atmospheric, complete with the surprise of an operatic chorus. Alice’s career went from strength to strength and she remains one of Italy’s most important and inventive musical artists.

4 – Paloma San Basilio: La Fiesta Terminó, Spain (1985)

Spain’s greatest musical theatre star (she played Evita) should have walked the contest with this stately torch song. But in the end, the performance was just a little underpowered and instead, Paloma San Basilio had to settle for a lowly 14th place. Eurovision juries really are a law unto themselves.

3 – Patricia Kaas: Et S’il Fallait le Faire, France (2009)

Another moment of class, this time from the modern age of Eurovision. I’ve been a fan of Patricia Kaas since hearing her 1990 hit “Les Mannequins d’Osier” and saw her live at Hammersmith back in 1994. Her participation in the 2009 contest was a welcome surprise, and she didn’t disappoint with this austere, slightly haughty performance of a top-quality chanson.

2 Anne-Marie David: Tu Te Reconnaîtras, Luxemburg (1973)

Anne-Marie David’s three-time ballad was polished and perfectly suited the attractive emotional timbre of her voice. She saw off the challenges of Spain’s equally strong entry from Mocedades, “Eres Tu” and Cliff Richard’s “Power to all our Friends” to gain Luxemburg’s second win in a row.

1 – Vicky Leandros: Après Toi, Luxemburg (1972)

The winner that does it for me, every time I hear it. Vicky Leandros swept to victory with this all-or-nothing declaration of love, an up tempo ballad with a loud, brassy refrain that I used to play at full volume. And this is why I still love Eurovision.