Kathy Kirby

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Kathy Kirby
Eurovision Song Contest 1965 - Kathy Kirby.jpg
Kathy Kirby at the Eurovision Song Contest 1965
Background information
Birth name Kathleen O'Rourke
Born (1938-10-20)20 October 1938
Ilford, Essex, England
Died 19 May 2011(2011-05-19) (aged 72)
London, England[1]
Genres Pop
Occupation(s) Singer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1963–1983
Labels Decca Records

Kathy Kirby (born Kathleen O'Rourke; 20 October 1938 – 19 May 2011) was an English singer, reportedly the highest-paid female singer of her generation. She is best known for her cover version of Doris Day's "Secret Love" and for representing the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest where she finished in second place. Her physical appearance often drew comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, her popularity peaked in the 1960s, when she was one of the best-known and most-recognised personalities in British show business.

Early life[edit]

Kirby was born in Ilford, Essex,[2] the eldest of three children of Irish parents, her mother Eileen brought them up alone after their father left early in their childhood.[3] Kirby grew up in Tomswood Hill, Barkingside, near Ilford, and attended the Ursuline Convent School in Ilford where she sang in the choir.[4]


Kirby's vocal talent became apparent early in life, and she took singing lessons with a view to becoming an opera singer,[5] she became a professional singer after meeting bandleader Bert Ambrose at the Ilford Palais in 1956. She remained with Ambrose's band for three years and he remained her manager, mentor and lover until his death on stage in Leeds in 1971.[6]

During the summer of 1957 Kirby performed at the Florida Park Restaurant in Madrid, and after returning to the UK not only performed with Ambrose's orchestra, but also with Nat Allen and his band;[7] in 1959 Kirby joined vocalists Tony Mansell and Rikki Henderson in the Denny Boyce Band, and appeared regularly at the Lyceum Ballroom in London.[7] In the summer of 1959 she made her solo cabaret debut at the Astor Club, and was subsequently signed to Pye Records in 1960 where she released two singles, "Love Can Be" and "Now You're Crying", which sold few copies but helped her get a six-month contract at Mayfair's Blue Angel nightclub.[7] She adopted a "blonde bombshell" look and was compared to Marilyn Monroe.

In 1962 she signed a contract with Decca Records, for whom her first single was "(He's a) Big Man" in October 1962, the single sold well over a long period of time, but failed to reach the top of the British charts.[7] It was however a hit in Vancouver's CFUN in January 1963;[8] in the summer of 1963, after becoming a regular on the musical TV program Stars and Garters, she had her first hit, "Dance On!", which peaked at No. 11 in the UK chart and No. 1 in Australia.[9] Its follow-up was an upbeat reworking of the Doris Day classic "Secret Love" which peaked at No. 4 on the British chart and stayed there for about five months.[7] In the same year she won Top British Female Singer in the New Musical Express poll, her album 16 Hits From Stars & Garters was released at the end of 1963, and cracked the top 20.[7] The single "Let Me Go, Lover!", another upbeat reworking, this time of the classic by Joan Weber, reached No. 10 in early 1964. Kirby disliked the song, stating that: "Honestly, I was really surprised because I never had much hope for this record, and when I recorded it I thought it might never get anywhere at all."[7]

"Let Me Go, Lover!" was followed by "You're The One", which peaked at No. 17 in May 1964. This success was followed by a record-breaking summer season show at the ABC Theatre in Blackpool.[7]

Kirby became one of the biggest stars of the early to mid-1960s, appearing in the Royal Command Variety Performance and three television series for BBC TV.[7][6] She represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965[10] and came second with the song "I Belong" which also became a hit. Author and historian John Kennedy O'Connor describes Kirby's "I Belong" as being far more representative of current musical tastes than other songs from the contest,[11] but she was beaten by France Gall from Luxembourg, singing an even more contemporary song written by Serge Gainsbourg. An EP was issued featuring the six songs selected for the Eurovision Contest, featuring a different version of "I Belong", which peaked at No. 10 in 1965.[7] An Italian version of I Belong was recorded by her under the title Tu Sei Con Me, she also sang the theme tune of the BBC television series Adam Adamant Lives!.

In September 1965 her single "The Way of Love" charted at No. 88 on the US Billboard Top 100. The song also charted in some of the regional charts, such as No. 35 in New York, No. 16 in Philadelphia,[12] No. 39 in Detroit, No. 39 in Washington,[13] and No. 38 in Los Angeles.[14]

After the chart success of "I Belong", Kirby recorded more than a dozen singles between 1965 and 1967, but they all failed to chart,[15] she continued to make television appearances, and her 1974 appearance on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club TV variety show was for some time available to watch on YouTube but, as of October 2014, has been taken down due to a copyright claim by Network DVD (Sound & Media Ltd).[16]

During the 1970s Kirby's singing career was eclipsed by a turbulent personal life, but she made occasional television appearances and performed a few live concerts on the "nostalgia circuit", on 31 December 1976, she performed her hit song "Secret Love" on BBC1's A Jubilee of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II's impending Silver Jubilee.

In December 1983 she gave one last concert in Blackpool, then retired from show business altogether.[17]


She did not perform in public after her retirement, but an amateur recording of Kirby singing the song "He", made in about 2005, is available online.

Interest in Kirby and her work continued long after she stopped performing,[18] particularly among gay men, for whom she was something of an icon;[19] in her last decade, she recorded short greetings for her official website.[5] A biography was published in 2005, and there was a 2008 stage show about her life, written and produced by Graham Smith, called Secret Love. Smith re-wrote the show for the 2012 Haworth Festival, entitling it: Dance On: The Kathy Kirby Story.[20]

The Daily Express reported in 2008 that plans for a new filmed interview had been abandoned, but later reports confirmed that the interview had been filmed, and it was subsequently included on a DVD compilation released the following year, she also gave an interview to the Express in 2009, which included recent photographs and was billed as her first in 26 years.[21]

Following the 2009 interview, the Sunday Express reported that some previously unreleased recordings would be made available on CD in 2010, and that Kirby had been approached to appear on Desert Island Discs,[22] although neither the programme nor the CD has been released.

Personal life[edit]

Kirby met bandleader Bert Ambrose in her teens and, despite his being 42 years older and having an estranged wife at the time,[3] began a relationship with him that lasted until his death in 1971;[23] in the 2009 interview, she said she had had an affair with Bruce Forsyth during this time.[23]

Kirby was married briefly to writer and former London policeman Frederick Pye in the 1970s.[2][6] Following her bankruptcy in 1975 and a court case following an arrest over an unpaid hotel bill, she was referred to St Luke's psychiatric hospital in London in 1979.[17] Following her discharge, she lived with[17] a female fan, Laraine McKay, and said that they intended to marry. McKay was imprisoned for fraud and forgery;[23][24] in the early 1980s Kirby had relationships with musician David Cross[25] and lawyer Alan Porter.[21][26]

Kirby was diagnosed with schizophrenia[23] and was in poor physical and mental health for much of her life, after her retirement she lived in a series of apartments and hotels in west London, settling in an apartment in Emperor's Gate, South Kensington, surviving on state benefits and some royalties, and maintaining what has been called a "Garbo-esque" seclusion. Shortly before her death Kirby moved to Brinsworth House in Twickenham at the insistence of her niece Sarah, Lady Thatcher, wife of Mark Thatcher. Another niece, Claudia, became Lady Rothermere after marrying Viscount Rothermere.[27]

Kirby died on 19 May 2011, a few days after moving to Brinsworth House. According to a message posted by a relative on a fan website, she suffered a heart attack,[28] she was survived by her sister Pat and her brother Douglas.[3]



Year Title Chart positions
1963 "Dance On!" 11
"Secret Love" 4
1964 "Let Me Go, Lover!" 10
"You're The One" 17
1965 "I Belong" 36

Note: Kirby had one charted single on the US Billboard Hot 100. "The Way of Love" peaked at No. 88 in 1965; Cher also recorded the track.[30]


Year Title Chart positions
1963 "Sixteen Hits From Stars & Garters" 11[31]
1965 "A Song For Europe" (EP) 10[7]
1966 "Make Someone Happy"
1968 "My Thanks To You"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sixties star Kathy Kirby dies, The Daily Mirror, 20 May 2011.
  2. ^ a b Obituary in The Telegraph
  3. ^ a b c Obituary in The Guardian
  4. ^ "Ilford's 'Blonde Bombshell' Kathy Kirby dies age 72" Ilfordrecorder.co.uk. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  5. ^ a b "Kathy Kirby: The Official Website". Kathykirby.me.uk. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c "In search of Kathy Kirby, the star who fell to Earth". Yorkshire Post. Retrieved 21 May 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k McAleer, Dave (2005). Kathy Kirby The Complete Collection. Universal. 
  8. ^ CFUN 5 January 1963
  9. ^ Billboard Magazine, November 1963. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  10. ^ "Eurovision singer Kathy Kirby dies aged 72" NME. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  11. ^ O'Connor, John Kennedy. The Eurovision Song Contest – The Official History. Carlton Books, UK. 2007. ISBN 978-1-84442-994-3
  12. ^ Billboard Magazine, September 1965. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Billboard Magazine, October 1965. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  14. ^ Billboard Magazine, October 16, 1965. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  15. ^ "Kathy Kirby". 45-rpm.org.uk. 20 October 1940. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  16. ^ Kathy Kirby – Wheeltappers and Shunters Club on YouTube
  17. ^ a b c Obituary in The Independent
  18. ^ "KATHY KIRBY – Biography". Myweb.tiscali.co.uk. 20 May 2011. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  19. ^ Kathy Kirby
  20. ^ The Haworth Festival Website
  21. ^ a b "Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | Express Yourself :: EXCLUSIVE: Kathy Kirby breaks her 26-year silence". Express.co.uk. 1 March 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  22. ^ "Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | UK News :: Kathy's secret songs uncovered". Express.co.uk. 18 October 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  23. ^ a b c d Herald Scotland obituary
  24. ^ "The singers singer". Matt Monro. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  25. ^ "KATHY KIRBY – Meeting Kathy". Myweb.tiscali.co.uk. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  26. ^ "KATHY KIRBY – Meeting Kathy". Myweb.tiscali.co.uk. 31 July 1982. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  27. ^ "Farewell to Kathy Kirby, the 60s Golden Girl of Pop has died aged 72" Daily Mail. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  28. ^ "KATHY KIRBY – Biography". Myweb.tiscali.co.uk. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  29. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 304. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  30. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1991). Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955–1990. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin (USA): Record Research Inc. p. 323. 
  31. ^ "UK Singles Charts page for Kathy Kirby". Retrieved 27 November 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Willerton, Mark (2013). No Secret Anymore – The Real Kathy Kirby. Matador. ISBN 978-1-78088-447-9. 

External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Matt Monro
with "I Love the Little Things"
United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest
Succeeded by
Kenneth McKellar
with "A Man Without Love"