Kathy Kirby

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Kathy Kirby Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 31/5/15

Fame is a fickle thing. It comes to many who do not seek it, and is an unwelcome guest. Equally, it avoids many who do seek it, leaving them in vain pursuit. For those who find it, the experience is often unsatisfactory and destructive. After being destructive for a period, it often abandons them, leaving them in a worse state than they were before it arrived. Matters are often compounded by the mismanagement of their financial affairs by ‘svengali’ type figures. Kathy Kirby was one such victim.

The coiffured platinum blonde hair, hourglass figure, trademark glossy lips and powerful voice, all combined to make her one of the highest paid singing artists on British television, performing in a weekly series for the BBC that regularly attracted viewing figures of 28m. Whilst consistent chart success would elude her, she undoubtedly had the talent to ride out the competition from the ‘Beat group’ generation. As the 70’s dawned, continuing success seemed assured, but it was not to be.

By the time of his death in 1971, the acclaimed British dance band leader Bert Ambrose – Kirby’s manager and long term lover – had gambled away most of her £5m fortune. The preceeding five years had been characterised by poor management decisions, that were often fueled by an acute jealousy for his much younger paramour.

What would follow are my earliest recollection of a true “fallen star.”

Today, her legacy is further undermined by a dearth of available film footage. Her television shows for the BBC (1964-66), are missing, whilst her recorded legacy is woefully under-represented in record stores.


Her rise to fame, and how she came to the attention of Bert Ambrose, is well documented. Christened Catherine O’Rourke in Ilford, Essex, to the east of London, on 20 October 1938, she would leave school at sixteen to work at the Ilford Recorder newspaper, but yearned for stardom.

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.

A signature format now established for updating well known ballads, Kathy would then inject dramatic urgency into her recording of ‘Let me go lover,’ which had been a UK hit for Ruby Murray in 1955. The single would peak at number ten in the British cjarts in February 1964.

Besides chart achievements, there was clearly more potential for a greater mainstream appeal in her career. The British Marilyn Monroe was ideal material for the television medium. 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. The surviving film footage of the event is most disturbing. Introduced to the audience by the disc jockey Jimmy Saville – that vilest of creatures – she sashays onto the stage like a blond bombshell oozing class in every aspect of her deportment. If subsequent biographical research is indeed true, then the experience of sharing a stage with this man must have been repugnent to her. I can but marvel at how she was not overcome with insensate anger, for as a fledgling seventeen year old singer, she had experienced a previous ‘run-in’ with this most predatory of men. In his book, ‘No Secret Anymore: The Real Kathy Kirby,’ showbusiness historian Mark Willerton, one of the singer’s closest friends, tells how Savile, then 29, targeted her behind the locked door of a dressing-room at Ilford Palais.

Interviewed in 2013 to publicise his book, he was quoted as saying: “Kathy told me that Savile had been chasing her for some time, and he had also been chasing her younger sister Pat. But Kathy had, by then, met bandleader Bert Ambrose, with whom she wanted to lose her virginity. Ambrose had told her to go away and get some experience, and so the next time Savile tried, when he visited her in her dressing room at the Palais, she gave in. Or rather, she said that Savile hemmed her in and then it happened.”

Few of us who lived through Saville’s peak period would ever have described him as anything but odd, but his record as one of the very worst of paedophiles beggars belief. When I was in my teens, I knew someone who absolutely detested the man, and when I queried this fact with him, his answer was inconclusive. But it was a genuine ‘gut feeling.’ Clearly, any man who disliked children – or so he was quick to stress – yet spent most of his professional life riding the coattails of the the youth market, was a hypocrite. The reasoning behind such behaviour is now all too apparent. One can only imagine the repercussions if Kirby had found the resolve to warn her teenage audience about the man that day. We cannot blame her though – far more powerful and influential people are guilty by association for failing to initiate a warrant for his arrest.

Later that year, Kathy would appear on the 1964 Royal Variety Performance, alongside Cilla Black, amongst others. She was at the top of her game, the culmination of a journey that had begun ten years earlier.

Ambrose had been instantly smitten with the sixteen year old Kirby, telling more than one person at the time: “I have never known anyone with everything Kathy has to offer – voice, tone, range, feeling, personality and looks. In fact this girl has it all, and nothing can stop her becoming one of the greatest stars of our time,” he announced. She remained with his band for three years.

As her manager and Svengali, Ambrose guided her career, toured with her on the club circuit, and secured a contract on her behalf with Decca. His own, once illustrious career, had been on the wane; discovering Kathy would provide much needed income. The pair’s ambition was formidable, but, as in many showbusiness partnerships the relationship was far from equal. Behind the scenes, Ambrose was the power behind the throne, unwilling to let his young protege make her own mistakes, but more than happy to profit from her success.

While there were those who felt that Kirby was held back by Ambrose’s domineering presence, the inescapable fact remains that when she was unexpectedly released from his grip, the self-destruct button was pressed.


His protégée appeared on the coast to coast ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in the United States, and was courted by Hollywood film producers. Ambrose, born in 1896 and therefore well into his sixties by this time, had also became her lover. Unfortunately, the ineluctable facts of history include relationship problems between older men and younger women, whatever the initial attraction. Kathy was prospering in a male dominated industry; following her heart therefore, was a signpost to professional oblivion.

Two years before her death, Kirby claimed that she had had a fling with another celebrity – the entertainer Bruce Forsyth has subsequently confessed to his involvement – and that this had seriously affected her relationship with her manager/lover. She claimed that Ambrose had turned down work for her because he was concerned that she might leave him. Whatever jealousies he may have felt towards his much younger protégée, the fact remained that he was a married man, and therefore in no real position to feel such emotions. When her six month affair reached its highpoint, Ambrose applied emotional blackmail to end the relationship. When Kirby sold her story in the 70’s, she was quoted in the press as saying about Forsyth:

“Gradually our relationship grew warmer and I knew that here was a man who really understood me. Here was someone I could trust with my life. Had he asked me to marry him, I’d have accepted,for looking back I think I was truly in love as a young girl should be for the first time. And I know he felt deeply about me.”

Whatever these deeply held recollections, Forsyth was in fact separated from his wife Penny Calvert – his biographer Jules Stenson refers to seven such episodes throughout their marriage – and he had ‘consistent form’ with the ladies. As his first wife so succinctly put it: “Bruce really was a Don Juan and this often broke my heart. He could not resist a pretty face. It was not that he was particularly promiscuous. He just couldn’t stop himself falling in love.” Kathy was making inroads into the American charts at the time and opportunities must have existed to switch allegiance to another management agency. Instead, she chose to break off the relationship. As she told the press:

“Bert (Ambrose) kept my head busy with singing jobs and appearances. I know I was big in my day and there are times when I think I could have had a bigger career, but I loved Bert and I hated the fact that the affair was playing on his mind so much.” Her feelings towards him were evidently selfless, especially as she was discovering that he was a compulsive gambler who was losing most of her earnings in London casinos and clubs.

“I think I could have played romantic leads or light comedy roles in movies, but my silly affair had inadvertently brought it all to an end,” she recalled. “I could feel frustrated and bitter, but in the end I just put it down to experience. What else could I do?”

Following Ambrose’s death in 1971, Kathy Kirby struggled to find direction in her career. Once the full impact of her manager’s profligacy with her fortune was revealed, she was declared bankrupt and suffered health problems. After ending up in court for failing to pay a hotel bill and having no address, she was ordered to stay at St Luke’s psychiatric hospital in London. She would be diagnosed as schizophrenic. During her stay, a female fan called Laraine McKay began visiting, and looked after her when she was released. The couple reportedly started a lesbian relationship, and when they announced they wanted to get married the tabloid press had a field day. McKay would be later arrested and imprisoned for three years on charged of fraud and forgery. In view of her diminished mental state at the time – in addition to her past history with men – it is fairly obvious that this was no ‘later life coming out’ exercise, but rather a sad tale of a vulnerable woman coming under the spell of an opportunistic female.

There was a a brief comeback in 1981 with a reworking of the Charles Aznavour song ‘She’ (renamed ‘He’). Sadly, the return to the spotlight was short-lived, and she decided to retire in her early 40s, making her last major public singing appearance in the early 1980s on a TV special. In her personal life, matters did not improve. She married a policeman turned writer, Frederick Pye, in the 1970s but the relationship was short-lived.

In his autobiography, Bruce Forsyth reflected ruefully on Kirby’s career decline:

“Female stars have always been vulnerable – have always found it very difficult to find a man who will not only be a good manager but also a good partner or husband. This has hapopened to so many over the years – Doris Day and Judy Garland are just a couple of examples. I am so sad that Kathy fell on such hard times. But that’s the other side of the business we are in.”

Forsyth’s comments were insightful, and one can genuinely imagine that his sentiments were sincere. Nevertheless, it should have been obvious to him that Kirby was always likely to come off worse from the liason. At the time they became involved, she was in her mid twenties, romantically and professionally involved with a much older man, who was clearly handling every aspect of her career. Leaving him was clearly going to have enormous repercussions. Although she was beginning to resent his intrusion into every aspect of her life, there was no hint whatsoever that their ‘contractual relationship’ had run its course. Kathy and Bruce may have had much in common, but the inescapable fact remains that he moved on, whilst she was left with thwarted ambitions, and a dwindling diary of professional engagements as a result of Ambrose’s acute jealousy. We may presume to judge what on earth any twenty five old woman is doing with a sixty five year old man, but undoubtedly the reasons will be both profound and subtle.

In terms of her legacy, it is comparatively easy to suggest that she was pure history and long forgotten by the time of her death in 2011, but when a website dedicated to her was launched in 2008, it received 10,000 ‘hits’ a day. Clearly, she was still fondly recalled by many who remembered her blonde, youthful but mature, good looks. She may have held little appeal for teenagers, but their fathers all loved her. Her nickname ‘wet lips’ reflected her penchant for glossy lipstick, which produced an indelible shine when she made her small screen appearances. Sadly though, the musical tastes of the masses remain capricious. At a time when teenage record buyers were turning to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Kathy Kirby had a winning formula. She was undoubtedly a very good singer, and was able to give a bright new sound to older songs. She sang Britain’s Eurovision song entry for 1965, and carried on with TV work, but her record sales never recovered after the mid-60’s. By the start of the 1970s the TV appearances of this under-rated singer had become few and far between, and by the middle of the new decade, her disappearance was totally complete.

I would personally lay the blame for this decline in professional fortune squarely at the feet of her management. Other performers – like Matt Monro and Alma Cogan – had established a loyal fanbase in alternative European territories, and the Far East. They remained consistent record sellers in these markets, and ably positioned to weather the ‘pop revolution’ engulfing the British and US markets. Kathy should have enjoyed similar ‘safe havens’ to maintain both her annual revenue, and professional esteem.

She once sang a song called “Antonio,” and I remember being teased the next day at school. I would have wished more for her – enduring success, marriage and motherhood – but it was not to be.

All rather sad really ………………………

Recommended listening

The Long Lost Shows

Kirby’s BBC Tv series was produced by Ernest Maxin who said at the time ‘Kathy has tremendous potential. In preparation for the show she has been working twelve hours a day, learning dancing and the finer points of comedy, and I believe it will prove her a top-rank all-round entertainer.’

This CD compiles many memorable moments from the series.

BBC1 16th October 1964
An 18-show series, transmitted on a fortnightly basis, made Kathy one of the highest-paid TV performers of the time at £1000 a show. Produced by Ernest Maxim, musical backing for the girl with glossy lips was by the Eric Robinson orchestra and the George Mitchell Singers. The first four shows of the series were recorded and the remainder transmitted live.

BBC1 29th January 1965
On a special show, as one of an 18-show series appearing fortnightly from October 1964, Kathy sang the six U.K. hopefuls for the Eurovision Song Contest : I’ll Try Not To Cry, Sometimes, My Only Love, I Won’t Let You, One Day, and the eventual Eurovision entry, I Belong

ATV 1st March 1967
Producer: John Scoffield
A ‘special’ show for Kathy Kirby with musical backing from the Jack Parnell orchestra and the Wilfred Johns Singers plus guests Tommy Bruce, Clinton Ford and Daniel Remy. Choreography featured the Malcolm Goddard dancers.


Recommended reading

The Real Kathy Kirby (Mark Willerton) 2013

As a singer, Kathy Kirby enjoyed chart success both before and after The Beatles changed the game, and her transition to television, fronting her own TV show for the BBC in the mid-60s, seemed to herald a future as part of the musical establishment. So how did she end up suffering a drug overdose and becoming admitted to a mental hospital in 1979, prompting Paul and Linda McCartney to send help in the form of £500 in cash?

Mark Willerton’s book lays bare the entire story, from Kirby’s grooming in the 50s, at the hands of bandleader and manager Bert Ambrose (a lover who was decades older than Kirby), to her success the following decade; that she lost her virginity to Jimmy Savile and had a torrid affair with Bruce Forsyth are fascinating pit stops. Her career suffered a fatal blow in 1966, when Ambrose moved Kirby from the BBC, where she had her own TV show, to independent television: a subsequent row over the role of compere David Jacobs led to the series being abandoned. Kirby soldiered on, but the end of her show marked the beginning of a slow decline that led to bankruptcy, punctuated with episodes such as a dalliance with lesbianism, which made it into the tabloids.

Willerton dedicates the first part of his book to Kirby’s career, and the second to his friendship with the singer, which lasted 30 years, up until her death in 2011. An at-times uncomfortable read, the first part is an eye-opening insight into the girl behind the lip gloss.



The Official Kathy Kirby Website


Kathy Kirby - a tribute website