Dame Shirley Bassey finally invaded America. At last night's 85th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the 76-year-old, Welsh-born pop singer brought Hollywood's elite to their feet with a rousing and coy performance of Goldfinger—the James Bond movie theme she first recorded in 1964 and made famous in the years that followed.
Though Dame Shirley eventually would record two additional Bond themes—Diamonds are Forever (1971) and Moonraker (1979)—Goldfinger was her only Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1965, with the movie's soundtrack reaching No. 1 in the U.S.
Dame Shirley's limited chart success in the States has always been somewhat surprising when one considers how revered she was and still is in the U.K.—winning superstar status there with dozens of hit singles and albums. But unlike her British peers Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu and Sandie Shaw—all of whom had American pop-rock hits in the '60s—Dame Shirley never made the leap. Instead she became known here solely for her Bond themes.
Though Dame Shirley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in November 1960 and had success at New York and Las Vegas clubs in the early '60s, she was never signed to a major American label and missed out on recording radio singles for the exploding youth market. This absence caused her to skip a crucial generation of U.S. record-buyers, making her known here primarily to movie-goers of a certain age who recalled her Bond themes.
A statuesque pop performer with a husky voice, powerful timbre and sassy persona, Dame Shirley seemed like a natural fit for '60s America. But there was little room at the top for the towering star. The traditional pop, pop-rock and R&B markets were already represented by accomplished American female black artists— Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, respectively. Dame Shirley preferred to remain in Britain where her status as a commanding entertainer was assured.
But while Dame Shirley did not become a household name on the U.S. pop charts, she firmly established herself as a singing force with her gripping and near-operatic recording of Goldfinger. Part of the song's appeal was the ambiguity of Dame Shirley's delivery. Was she singing from the perspective of Britain's secret agents or on behalf of the villain? Was that fear in her voice or admiration? Was she with the diabolical precious-metal hoarder or against him? You never quite knew whose side she was on.
And then there was the ending, in which Dame Shirley's admonitions were elevated steadily to urgency, capped by a long-held note as the bombastic orchestra pounds away.
When Dame Shirley was originally chosen to sing the Goldfinger theme, she and John Barry—the song's composer, arranger and conductor—were old pals. They had already worked together on big recordings. When Barry first played her a demo of the Goldfinger orchestration, Dame Shirley said she had goose bumps and agreed to sing the lyrics whenever they were finally written, according to The Music of James Bond (Oxford), by Jon Burlingame. [Pictured above: Shirley Bassey and John Barry display gold discs for Goldfinger]
Recorded in London on August 20, 1964, Barry asked for take after take—not because of Dame Shirley's inability to produce a flawless take but because of musician errors and technical difficulties. Throughout the all-night session, she remained a good sport.
According to Burlingame's book, Dame Shirley struggled to sustain the final note at first. The problem was solved, said guitarist Vic Flick, when she removed her bra behind one of the partitions and then turned in the now-famous ending, a story she confirmed for Burlingame. Vic relayed the same story to me when I interviewed him last year for my Wall Street Journal article on the James Bond Theme.
As for that final note, she told Burlingame: "I was holding it and holding it. I was looking at John [Barry] and I was going blue in the face—and he's going, hold it just one more second. When it finished, I nearly passed out."
Last August, when I interviewed Sir George Martin for the Wall Street Journal, I asked him about Goldfinger, which he produced at EMI between sessions for the Beatles, Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers and other artists signed to the label:
Marc Myers: The vocal attack you got out of Dame Shirley Bassey remains incredible, especially how she holds the last note.
Sir George Martin: I've had plenty of attacks from Shirley Bassey [laughs]. Before we did Goldfinger we did I Who Have Nothing, which also was dramatic. She still is something. The days of those kinds of singers are gone.
As we saw last night at the Oscars, Dame Shirley is a revelation. Her ability to engage and blow away audiences remains a tribute to her understanding of the Bond oeuvre and the dramatic skill needed to win hearts. As Sir George noted, she remains in a class by herself.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dame Shirley Bassey in 1973 singing Goldfinger...