The dictionary definition of a diva is, quite simply, ‘a distinguished female singer’. It was first used to describe the great opera singers in the 1880s, but the word has taken on additional nuances over time. Just as 'prima donna', literally the 'first woman' or lead female in a production, has come to mean someone who behaves temperamentally (probably because so many of the 'first ladies' let that title go to their heads), diva is not as straightforward as the dictionary would have us believe.
Judy Garland, photography by Harry Hammond, 1959. Museum no. S.11550-2009
Born Frances Gumm in 1922, Judy Garland was only two and a half when she began performing on stage with her family. At six, she was outshining her two older sisters who, with her, made up The Gumm Sisters. Her voice was huge for her size and filled with a maturity and melancholy far beyond her years. She was quickly snapped up by MGM and became one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Both in films and in her later cabaret career, Garland sang the Gershwins' songs with impeccable style. She is inextricably associated with some of their biggest hits including, I got Rhythm and Embraceable You.
The stresses of Hollywood stardom eventually overcame Garland and after a series of breakdowns (partly fuelled by the drug addiction dating from her childhood, when the studio pumped her with pills to keep her to its grinding work schedules,) the studio cancelled her contract. She then set out to rebuild her career on television and on stage. This photograph by Harry Hammond shows her in the 1950s, when she was wowing audiences worldwide in cabaret and with her stage show.
Eartha Kitt, photography by Harry Hammond, 1950s - 1960s. Museum no. S.12498-2009
Born of mixed race parentage on a cotton plantation in South Carolina in 1927, Eartha Kitt never knew her white father, who had named her for the good harvest that year. She was given away by her mother when the man she was marrying objected to Eartha’s paleness, but when she was eight an aunt in Harlem, New York, took her in.
She began her showbusiness career as a singer and dancer with the Katherine Dunham Troupe, but while performing in Paris, she was signed up as a cabaret singer by a nightclub owner. Her feline beauty, captured so well here by Harry Hammond and the sultry voice, somewhere between a purr and a growl, quickly won her fame and admirers. She went on to make a career not only as a singer, but as a respected actress too. As an American paper reported, ‘Now in her fifth decade of making men nervous, Eartha Kitt still electrifies audiences with her one-of-a-kind persona, peppering her flirty set with gold-digging songs about champagne, stretch limos, and pearls’.
Shirley Bassey, photography by Houston Rogers, mid 20th century
Shirley Bassey was born in 1937, the youngest of seven children, in the deprived docks area of Cardiff called Tiger Bay. Her mother was English and her father Nigerian at a time when racism was still very strong. They separated when she was three. At 15, she was working in a sausage factory and singing in working men’s clubs in the evenings. She was spotted by a London talent scout in 1953, but returned from her first big job, touring with the American show Hot From Harlem, pregnant. A mother at 17, she returned to London and to her singing. Her massive voice, and the oceans of emotion she poured into every song, scored her hit after hit, including no fewer than three James Bond themes.
But while her career went from strength to strength, her personal life was far from smooth. Her first marriage to her manager, Kenneth Hume, was short-lived, and their daughter drowned aged 21. Hume later committed suicide. But after more than 50 years in show business, an unbelievably youthful Bassey is still performing, wearing her trademark ‘waterfalls of diamonds’.
Dusty Springfield, photography by Harry Hammond, 1962. Museum no. S.15303-2009
After some success in the early 1960s with country music trio The Springfields, with her brother Tom, Dusty Springfield hit the big time when she went solo and made her way to the heart of Swinging London. Her almost caricatured appearance - thick, thick mascara and a stack of peroxided hair - seemed to be worn to mask the shy, self-critical girl within. But everything was revealed in her voice, which she used to communicate a world of fragile emotion. She could tackle the rawness of rhythm and blues, the smooth sophistication of a Broadway standard, or the simplicity of classic pop. Hits including You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (which went to number four in the US) and Son of a Preacher Man cemented her reputation as 'the first white woman of soul'.
But the constant search for perfection drove her into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. She fought back, and a 1987 collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, and her soundtrack for the film Scandal a year later re-established her career. In 1998 she received the OBE, but lost her battle with cancer the following year.
Doris Day at Philips Records reception at Claridges, London, photography by Harry Hammond, 1956. Museum no. S.7327-2009
Despite a private life full of incident - her German parents divorced when she was eight, a car crash at 14 almost ended her promising dancing career, four marriages (the first ending in violence, the second lasting only eight months), the death of her older brother when she was 34, and a work schedule that took her close to collapse - Doris Day always maintained the sweet, girl-next-door image that made her one of the most popular stars of the 1950s. Shimmeringly blonde and pretty, with an unmistakably husky voice, it was perhaps the combination of the innocent appearance and the seductively throaty singing voice which made her so appealing. Her screen persona of an intelligent, wholesome woman of unfailing optimism and understated strength of character, came to epitomise the ideal American woman of the 1950s.
Her many films include Calamity Jane (this promotional stunt by Philips Records is a nod to the hit song The Deadwood Stage) and Pillow Talk, but she was also a superb live performer with a huge catalogue of recordings over a 20 year recording career.