The idea of a theme song for a James Bond movie brings with it a few basic connotations. There are usually bombastic horns, a slinky, snake-like rhythm, and a femme fatale vocal, beautiful but deadly sharp at the same time. While the first two signatures can be credited to a number of musicians over the years, one woman is largely responsible for that James Bond sound: Dame Shirley Bassey.
As one of the many performers at Sunday night’s (February 24) Oscars, Bassey participated in the ceremony by singing “Goldfinger” as a tribute to 007’s 50-year history on the big screen, but who is the singer, and how did she come to be so closely associated with James Bond?
“Gold,” “Diamonds” and the “Moon”
Born in Wales, Bassey experienced moderate success in the U.K. before officially crossing over in 1965 when she sang the theme song for the third Bond movie, “Goldfinger.” The first theme of the series to incorporate a vocal track, the song set the standard for the franchise’s title sequences. The song rose on the U.S. charts, eventually peaking at #8, but the album eventually topped the charts. The popularity of Bassey’s first theme led to her singing on two more title tracks: “Diamonds Are Forever,” which Kanye West later sampled, and “Moonraker.”
An Attempted Return
When developing a Bond film, several possible themes are often recorded. Bassey had actually recorded a fourth theme for “Quantum of Solace,” but producers ultimately decided to go with the Jack White and Alicia Keys collaboration that appeared in the film. (You can listen to the unused Bassey theme for “Quantum of Solace,” “No Good About Goodbye,” here.)
For the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, “Skyfall” returned to the franchise’s roots in many ways — most notably, perhaps, in the style of theme song. The opening numbers for Daniel Craig’s first two 007 films fell into the alternative-rock category with Chris Cornell and Keys and White providing the tracks, but when Adele signed on to write the theme with her producing partner Paul Epworth, it came as an indication of a return to a style more reminiscent of Bassey’s. And it was. The single debuted to massive popularity, marking the series’ and Adele’s first song to debut in the Billboard Hot 100, and proving that after all these years, the sound Bassey helped shaped maintained its cultural significance.