Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

In Praise of Her Bond Groove: Shirley Bassey

Shirley OO7 ThreeIt’s clear to me, with the release of Bond 23 (AKA the next James Bond film), Skyfall, later this year, and its recently unleashed teaser trailer, I needed to get this post finally out of my Draft’s bin. I’ve been busy of late, and a little lazy about getting it online. Still, when you have wonderful periodic content on the topic in general already available, there’s been no hurry. I mean, my friend Ruth’s Bond threads are the stuff of blog comment heaven and my colleague Fogs’ thoughts and judgements on the subject seem to follow closely with mine, who can compete with that? But, since I’ve been on a music bent lately, I guess there’s no better time than the present.

As the longest continually running film series in history, Ian Fleming’s character of James Bond continues to press on with distinct style (if not a different face every few years). It’s little wonder that our own American Cinematheque Los Angeles is offering up the entire 22 films in a retrospective to “licensed to kill” fans next month. My son is on record that he wants to attend every single movie and double-feature offered. For which I say, “How will you be able to afford this, and have you started working yet?” I’m sure I’ll be attending some of my favorites and avoiding my least-loved (cough… A View to a Kill).

Generally, this piece is meant as an appreciation of the music for the long-time film series, and one stunning vocal artist in particular. Let’s be honest, in the 50 years covering twenty-two films so far in the series there is a wide range in sweet-sounding quality when it comes to its title theme songs. Sure, there are fans for each and every song out there. More power to them, I say (well, maybe not the Madonna crowd who may somehow like the horrid one for Die Another Day, which I honestly consider the worst in the canon). Without question, the impact of composer/film scorer John Barry cannot be minimized among all of those who’ve contributed musically to the Bond series. And yet, there’s only been one singer in that five-decade period who has belted out more OO7 theme songs in number while simultaneously setting the standard: that would be the Welsh music icon, Dame Shirley Bassey.

thunderball
Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
: The unused Shirley Bassey number, written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, is really underrated as a number. “Barry had thought he could not write a song about a vague “Thunderball” term or the film’s story, so his song was a description of the character James Bond.”, per Wikipedia.

Shirley Bassey easily was one of the most popular singers in Britain over the last decades of the 20th century. She possesses one of the most distinct and powerful voices in the music world. And we have John Barry to thank for bringing this talent into the Bond universe, beginning in 1964. Out of the three theme songs she’s recorded, I’d have all of them in my Top Ten. Not a bad batting average out of twenty (in reality, those for Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are purely John Barry instrumental pieces). So, here then are those song rankings and thoughts on each including the films, the actor portraying Bond, and that all important villain.

3. Moonraker

Song Released: June 1979
Music By: John Barry
Lyrics By: Hal David
Bond: Roger Moore (not my favorite)
Bond Film Rating: Fogs has it as Cheese, and I’d have to agree; it’s not total crap because…
Bond Villain: Michael Lonsdale as Drax is one of the best in the entire series

This was the singer’s third and final theme song, and she was not even the first or second choice as singer. Still, Dame Shirley really is the reason to listen to it (decent musically, but the lyrics are just okay). Kate Bush was originally set to write and record the song. Didn’t happen [strike one]. Then, Frank Sinatra was considered and dropped [strike two]. Finally, Johnny Mathis was lined up, didn’t like the song Barry and Hal David penned, and balked [strike three]. In the few weeks left and backs against the wall, Barry returned to Ms. Bassey to save the day (she did so only as a favor to the composer, even though it’s her least favorite). Trivia: this is the only Bond song that actually has two official versions. Per tradition, the song plays during the movie titles. Crazily, the other plays over the end credits. But Hell, I’ll take Dame Bassey’s disco version of the tune over Madonna’s any day of the week, thank you very much.

2. Goldfinger

Song Released: September 1964
Music By: John Barry
Lyrics By: Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse
Bond: Sean Connery (even decades later, he remains my favorite in the role)
Bond Film Rating: Fogs has it as Classic, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s my all-time favorite
Bond Villain: Gert Frobe as Goldfinger, like the film, established the template for the entire series

Yeah, I can’t believe I’m putting this in second place, either (but, by only a razor-thin margin). In addition, this is where we’ll forever be beholden to John Barry for extending the invitation to Shirley Bassey, plus the mutual musical satisfaction of all of things Bond due to it. Only because of their working relationship, they were touring together at the time when he approached her, did she agree to the singing gig. There weren’t any lyrics, yet, and she took it purely because of Barry’s music. That she brought and used those impressive pipes of hers in a bravura performance goes without saying. And like almost everything associated with Goldfinger the film, this one set the standard that all others are judged by. The Bond theme songs that came before are almost an afterthought due to Shirley Bassey singing “the song in a pull-out-the-stops manner”, as AllMusic noted. Trivia: “Bond producer Harry Saltzman hated this and he took a lot of convincing to use this as the film tune. John Barry explained in his interview with NPR that Saltzman called it “the worst song he’d ever heard in his life,” but because there was no time to change it, he had to live with it.”

1. Diamonds Are Forever

Song Released: December 1971
Music By: John Barry
Lyrics By: Don Black
Bond: Sean Connery (in his last “official” stint in the role)
Bond Film Rating: Fogs has it as Crap, which I disagree; it’s comfort food Cheese to some of us, and it’s all because of Connery (I’ll leave the Crap rating for Never Say Never Again, though I can re-watch that over A View to a Kill without too much complaint)
Bond Villain: Charles Gray as Blofeld was underrated, also like the film, and remains watchable. One of the better ones in that long line of bad guys

I know, some of you will vehemently disagree on this pick, but hear me out first. When I looked back at my Bond song play counts, I thought Goldfinger would be the clear winner. To my surprise, this one edged it out. Examining this further, I now surmise it’s because both John Barry with his music, and especially his arrangement and orchestration of the song, and the Dame’s virtuosity with the lyrics and her intonation matched each other perfectly. At no time do they upstage the other in the piece. Barry scored it with all the right touches — note the bass line he quietly builds throughout the piece and how he uses it to touch off the tune’s crescendos. Not to mention, he weaved Bassey’s singing flawlessly all the way through to where the final result is a theme song that’s just a smidgen better than their first time together for the third Bond film. This is a theme title tune that works on all cylinders and is their best collaboration in the series, IMO. Trivia: “John Barry enticed Shirley Bassey’s passionate rendering of this song by suggesting that she should imagine that she was singing about a penis. Don Black recalled to the Sunday Times August 10, 2008: “But he never said that to me when I was writing it. I was writing about a diamond!””


Your turn to list a theme song favorite :-)

20 Responses to “In Praise of Her Bond Groove: Shirley Bassey”

  1. ruth

    Thanks for the link love, Michael!

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these three songs. I mean Shirley Bassey is incomparable, she sort of become almost synonymous with Bond I think considering how many times she’s done it. Her voice is just powerful and exudes confidence & sassiness that’s perfect for Bond. I also have a soft spot for Rita Coolidge’s All Time High for some reason.

    Oh man, I wish I could attend that event at American Cinematheque Los Angeles! That’d be sooo cool! I’m so jealous of you for living in LA! :D

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    • le0pard13

      Always happy to pass along the link love. Especially when it’s one of favorite movie categories :-). Bassey was the perfect singer for the Bond theme for exactly the reasons you stated. I agree, Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’ was one of the better ones. Thank you very much for reading and commenting, my friend.

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  2. Jamie Helton

    Shirley Bassey definitely had some memorable Bond songs, though two of my favorites (not by her) are for “The Spy Who Loved Me” and of course “Live and Let Die.” The ones for the last couple of decade mostly are terrible.

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    • le0pard13

      Your two definitely are in my Bond Top Ten, as well. And I’d also have to agree some of the recent were nothing to get excited about. Thanks very much, Jamie.

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  3. Paula

    Agree with Ruth, I am jealous of you…I’ve never seen even ONE of these in a proper cinema, let alone all of them!

    Great info in this post…lots of stuff I didn’t know. The three songs are 3 of my fave Bond themes too. VIEW TO A KILL may not be the greatest Bond movie ever, but I’d put the song up there, and then the songs from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and LIVING DAYLIGHTS. LIVE AND LET DIE and “You Know My Name” from CASINO ROYALE are in there somewhere.

    Not to totally babble on but I think that the Brosnan Bonds were among the most forgettable movies of the series and so were the songs…even though arguably the most popular musical acts were involved.

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    • le0pard13

      You’ve named many on my top ten, Paula in your splendid comment (which I listed here in Ruth’s November 2011 post). I’m with you on how good Duran Duran’s A VIEW TO A KILL theme song is. Anyway, wish you and Ruth could join me next month in that retrospective. It’s probably going to be one of the best attended for the American Cinematheque in these parts. Many thanks for reading and the comment, Paula.

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  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    Moonraker was in heavy rotation on my record player that year. I had the album and I just loved that soaring theme song. Great tribute here. Kate Bush eh? Hmmm. That would be intriguing. Madonna…. good grief. I like some songs by her, but she annoys me to no end and her theme song feels mailed in.

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    • le0pard13

      Moonraker, the theme song, is good one, alright. It does soar. Same here with Madonna, SFF. Thank you very much, my friend, for chiming in :-).

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  5. 70srichard

    OK, you get credit for choosing the classiest of singers for the Bond films. All three are worthy and well ahead of much of the dreck that passes for music these days (That Madonna Song is pissing me off ten years later), but as lovely as Diamonds are Forever is, The opening horns and closing brass voice of Bassey in Goldfinger, set the standard for all other films not just Bond. While Diamonds is a smooth and sexy song, it does not linger in the memory the way Goldfinger does. Nicely put together post, so glad I stopped by (I listened to all three songs while I was here). By the way, the Adele song is rapidly moving up my own personal list. Thanks to Fog’s for sharing your post.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, Richard. I really can’t be adverse to your pick — ‘Goldfinger’ really is the standard all of those that came after are measured against. I’ve never tired of it.

      Yes, Adele’s song is, rightly, moving up every Bond fans’ list. It has a marvelous throwback feel to it, beside having a dynamite singer belting it out. Now, I’m wondering how that title sequence will lay out.

      Thanks so much for stopping and leaving your thoughts on this.

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  6. fernandorafael

    Nice post. I haven’t seen many Bond films but, from what I’ve heard, my Top 3 is “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell, “Diamonds are Forever” and “Skyfall” by Adele.

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