British singer Kathy Kirby, a 1950s-styled curvaceous blonde, was an unlikely contender for pop stardom in the 1960s. With her ability to belt out a song, she found a winning formula that appealed to teenagers and mums and dads alike. Just as Dusty was known for her panda eye makeup, Kathy’s trademark was her lipgloss.
She was born Catherine O’Rourke in Ilford, Essex, to the east of London, on 20 October 1938. On leaving school she worked at the Ilford Recorder newspaper but yearned to be a star.
Her chance came in 1956 when eminent bandleader Bert Ambrose appeared at the Ilford Palais. Dressed to impress, Kathy went along and asked to sing a song with his band. She delivered the hit tune of the day, Love me or leave me, and although she didn’t finish in time with the band, Ambrose saw her potential and signed her to appear on the rest of his UK tour.
During the late 1950s, under his guidance and management, Kathy perfected her craft, singing at London nightspots and in cabaret seasons in Spain and Portugal.
In 1960 she signed to the Pye label and issued her first single, Love can be. This, and the follow up, Danny, failed to chart and, impatient, Ambrose signed a deal with Decca records.
Kathy’s years with Decca proved to be her most successful. After stalling with her first release, Big man, issued in the autumn of 1962, came Dance on, a lively vocal of The Shadows’ instrumental hit that had topped the charts in 1962. Kathy entered the hit parade and took her version to number 11 in the charts in August the following year.
Undoubtedly, Kathy is best known for her third Decca single, Secret love, issued in November 1963. Originally a chart-topping ballad for Doris Day nearly ten years earlier, Kathy gave the song an upbeat tempo and took it to number four in the UK charts and number one in Australia.
With the successful format of updating a ballad, Kathy then injected dramatic urgency to Let me go lover, which had been a UK hit for Ruby Murray in 1955. Kathy reached number ten with the disc in February 1964.
Besides her chart achievements, Kathy also appealed to television viewers. She quickly became noticed in the Associated Rediffusion series Stars and garters, which led to her own BBC TV series, The Kathy Kirby Show. Paid £1,000 per show, Kathy was the highest paid female singer in Britain at the time (1964-65).
In May 1964 she picked up the award for Top British female singer of 1963 at the NME poll winners’ concert at Wembley and belted out her current single, the Latin-styled You’re the one, which peaked at number 17 in the charts. Kathy also appeared on the 1964 Royal Variety Performance alongside Cilla Black, amongst others.
In 1965 she was asked to represent the UK in the Eurovision song contest. The cream of British songwriters submitted songs for the UK selection, which Kathy introduced on her TV show. The six entries, written by the likes of Tony Hatch, Les Reed, Barry Mason and Tom Springfield, were issued on the Decca EP, A song for Europe. But it was I belong by little-known writers Peter Lee Sterling and Phillip Peters that was voted for by the viewing public. (Fourth-placed One day had been submitted by Chris Andrews, the writer of many of beat babe Sandie Shaw’s hits, and Andrews had the Dagenham star record a version of the song for her Me album, issued later that year.)
Kathy took I belong to the contest held on 20 March 1965 in Naples, Italy. In the event, she finished as runner up to French yé-yé girl France Gall, representing Luxembourg with Poupée de cire, poupée de son. The disc was Kathy’s last chart entry, making number 36.
Other notable singles of the period include The way of love, a version of a song by French Eurovision hopeful Frédérica (Je le mal de toi) with English lyrics, and Where in the world. Kathy was very disappointed that the former didn’t chart – though it did nudge into the Billboard chart in the US. Cher went on to record the song and this has since become the better-known version.
In 1966 Kathy took a dramatic Bond-style approach for The Adam Adamant theme especially for the BBC TV series starring Gerald Harper. The disc has since become a collectable for Kirby fans and cult TV collectors alike. (The B-side, Will I never learn, is a terrific dramatic Italian ballad that had originally been cut by Marisol as Il mio mondo è qui.)
In the summer of that year she parted ways with Decca, and Ambrose arranged what was thought to be a superior deal with EMI for the Columbia label. The years between 1967 and 1973 saw a string of single releases including Turn around, Come back here with my heart, I’ll catch the sun and My way, and the 1968 album My thanks to you, but none recreated the chart success Kathy enjoyed with Decca.
In 1971 Ambrose died and, without the advice and guidance of her mentor and soul mate, the direction in Kathy’s life and career fell apart.
A single released in 1973 on the Orange label called Singer with the band is a semi-biographical song about her life with Ambrose and is now her most collectable UK single.
For Kathy, the 1970s witnessed bankruptcy, health problems and a short-lived marriage. The newspapers had a field day with headlines that reported in detail her fall from grace – a suicide attempt, a stay in a mental hospital and rumours of a lesbian relationship.
She bounced back in 1981, relaunching her career with TV interviews, theatre dates and a new single on the President label called He – a female approach to the Charles Aznavour hit She.
Two years on, she slipped into early retirement. “I’d worked solidly from the age of 16,” Kathy says, “but for the first time in my life, I found I liked not working. Touring can be very tiring, especially the one-nighters, travelling to a different town, a different theatre each night. When I was popular, I was always on stage, in the TV studios or eating out. I never had the opportunity to spend any length of time at home.”
There were a number of lucrative offers over the past 25 years, but none persuaded Kathy to return to the spotlight.
She died of a heart attack in the early hours of 20 May 2011.
With thanks to Mark Willerton for contributing this piece.
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