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Cardiff’s greatest musical exports

Cerys Matthews of Catatonia, in 1996 - Credit: Getty Images

SOPHIA DEBOICK on Cardiff’s considerable musical credentials.

“Singing is in my people as sight is in the eye,” says the protagonist of How Green Was My Valley (1941), John Ford’s sentimental cinematic portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh village.

The South Wales valleys have indeed rung with “the sound of many voices”, as Ford’s film put it, singing being central to the unique Welsh cultures of mining, chapel and rugby.

Cardiff, with its Millennium Stadium where Calon Lân, Cwm Rhondda and Gwahoddiad are belted out from the stands, and the Millennium Centre, home of the Welsh National Opera, is where this musical history is writ large.

But for all its traditional music, Cardiff has also excelled in producing perfect pop, even if its purveyors have sometimes been ambivalent about their home city.

Ivor Novello’s name is forever synonymous with the musical excellence that is the stock-in-trade of the Welsh capital, even if he came to be far more associated with the lights of London. Born David Ivor Davies in a terraced house on Cowbridge Road East, central Cardiff, in 1893, he imbibed music with his mother’s milk.

Dame Clara Novello Davies was a formidable woman who, as a singer and teacher, was deeply involved in musical life in Cardiff and beyond – her Welsh Ladies’ Choir toured internationally under her baton to great acclaim, she founded a singing school in New York, and published the ‘teach yourself’ book You Can Sing (1928). The book was dedicated to Ivor and she was a large presence in his life even into his middle age.

Novello’s principal musical training came at Magdalen Choir School in Oxford, but his immersion in scared choral music only turned him towards the popular.

He began writing songs for musical theatre while also teaching piano in Cardiff. A move to London with his mother at the age of 20 on the eve of the First World War marked the beginning of a new life just as the world seemed to be spinning off its axis.

It was that war that made Novello’s career. As a still unknown 21-year-old he wrote Keep the Home Fires Burning.

It was his first hit and one of the many rabble-rousing songs of the conflict which masked the reality on the continent.

While Novello underwent initial training in the Royal Naval Air Service, two crashes proved him unsuited to flight and he ended up with an Air Ministry desk job.

The song’s American lyricist Lena Guilbert Ford, meanwhile, was killed in a German air raid on London in March 1918.

Novello would go on to success as a film star – a matinee idol in the ‘dark and handsome’ mould of Valentino – stage actor and playwright, and although a spell in Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1944 for misuse of petrol coupons and his life-long relationship with actor Bobby Andrews meant he was never formally honoured by the establishment, the founding of the Ivor Novello Awards five years after his 1951 death has made his name immortal.

Novello’s Welshness was never much in play in his public image as a bon viveur of the inter-war golden age of showbusiness, throwing legendary parties in his famous flat above Aldwych’s Strand Theatre. But back in Cardiff he is still remembered as an important son of the city via a statue outside the Millennium Centre, and the wit of his work, along with its unabashed emotion, could be called Welsh traits.

Four decades after Novello’s first hit, another dramatic figure also left Cardiff behind in search of a more glamourous life. Shirley Bassey’s youth in the city was a turbulent one and her image as a rhinestoned and feathered diva was a far cry from her early childhood in Tiger Bay, the docklands where crime and vice were fed by a transient population of sailors.

Bassey was the mixed-race child of a Nigerian father who, a recent biography claimed, was jailed for sexual offences against a child the year after Bassey’s birth and subsequently deported. Born above a bar on Tiger Bay’s Bute Street, Bassey and her nine siblings and half siblings later lived in the shadow of a steelworks in the nearby suburb of Splott, and she left school at 15 to work in a factory. Cardiff seemed to offer little hope for the future and the young Shirley plotted an escape.

“I’d sing instead of cry,” Bassey has said of herself as a child, and her voice proved not just a coping mechanism but a passport to a better life.

Shirley Bassey (left) joins in a skipping game with members of her family outside their home in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff, in 1955 – Credit: Getty Images

Having started by performing in Cardiff’s pubs, she got a London manager and began her professional career with a contract to sing at the NCO Club of the Burtonwood US Air Force Base in December 1953.

When she became pregnant at 16, the baby was taken on by her sister while Bassey performed across the country. She released her thoroughly sassy debut single Burn My Candle (At Both Ends) aged just 19.

While that single failed to chart, Bassey’s softened version of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song climbed to No.8 in 1957 and two years later her lushly romantic As I Love You hit No.1, staying there for four weeks while her Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me was also sitting at No.5.

She was launched to overnight success and the first Welsh artist to have a No.1 single. A full half century elapsed between Bassey’s first Top 40 hit and her last in 2007 and she has sold well over 100 million records.

While tragedy tempered success – Bassey’s marriage to her manager Kenneth Hume ended in divorce and his early death, and her second daughter Samantha died in strange circumstances aged just 21 – Bassey’s best-loved songs remain those of escapism, opulence and glamour, from her only other No.1, double A-side Reach for the Stars/ Climb Ev’ry Mountain (1961) to Goldfinger (1964), Big Spender (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1972).

Long absent from Cardiff as a tax exile in Switzerland and then Monte Carlo, Bassey has been accused of forgetting where she came from.

She has indeed rarely talked about her childhood – perhaps looking back would be too much of an emotional risk. But a generation who had their younger years in a very different Cardiff – one where the slums had been cleared and subsequent redevelopment revived the city’s fortunes – have worn their civic pride on their sleeves.

In the late 1990s era of ‘Cool Cymru’ Cardiff bands were all over the charts, displaying rock credentials which had begun with acts like psychedelic rockers Amen Corner, metal pioneers Budgie, and pub rocker Dave Edmunds. In 1998, Catatonia had two Top 5 hits, while Stereophonics had a No.3 with The Bartender and The Thief, the first of ten Top 5 singles.

The following year Super Furry Animals had their biggest success with Northern Lites and Cardiff-born Cerys Matthews and Pontypridd’s Tom Jones’ cover of Baby It’s Cold Outside became a new Christmas classic.

Blackwood’s Manic Street Preachers added to the general impression of Welsh achievement with No.1s in 1998 and 2000, and even if nearby Newport has a decent claim to the status of Wales’ premiere rock city, and Cardiff’s real star of 1998 was Charlotte Church with her mega-selling debut LP Voice of An Angel, the city’s rock success has been breath-taking.

Cardiff is still one of the UK’s greatest cities for live music, with legendary venues like the Clwb Ifor Bach on historic Womanby Street fostering local talent.

As the Welsh lockdown lifted last week, Clwb Ifor Bach was filled with music once again, and the musical history of the capital of the Land of Song goes on.


Spillers Records on Cardiff’s Morgan Arcade is certified by Guinness World Records as the oldest record shop in the world, first opening in 1894. After Spillers was saved from developers in a campaign backed by the Manic Street Preachers, Tom Jones, who shopped there as a boy, released his 2011 single Evil exclusively through the shop. In 2019 Spillers stopped stocking Morrissey’s records after he voiced support for far-right party For Britain.

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