In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Shirley Bassey- “Goldfinger”
PEAK: #8 on March 27, 1965
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Supremes’ “Stop! In The Name Of Love”
It’s one of pop music’s most prestigious traditions. Every time we get a new James Bond movie, an artist is picked to perform the theme song for that film. Usually, these themes are bombastic torch songs that largely exist outside of what’s popular at the moment in the greater pop music world. In the movies, the themes play during the opening credits amid montages of silhouette figures resembling various characters. Like the Bond films these themes soundtrack, many times they’ll hit and many times they won’t. Regardless, being asked to perform a Bond theme has come to be one of the highest honors you can get as an artist.
Currently, we are awaiting the 25th Bond film No Time To Die in October after being delayed multiple times due to the pandemic. Of the 25 theme songs for each Bond movie, 15 have charted on the Hot 100 with seven hitting the Top 10 and only one getting to #1. In anticipation of the new movie, I’m reviewing each Bond theme that has charted in keeping with my site’s theme and because I find this tradition cool and interesting. To start off, we go back to the first hit Bond theme that by many is the consensus pick for the best Bond theme.
Shirley Veronica Bassey grew up the youngest of six children to a Nigerian father and English mother in Cardiff, Wales. As a kid, she sang with one of her brothers and later on in local bars and clubs while working at a factory. By the mid-‘50s, Bassey began performing in various theater revues around the UK. Her performances attracted the attention of many including Johnny Franz, a record producer at Phillips Records, who caught one of Basset’s performances on TV and offered her a deal with the label.
Soon enough, Bassey was racking up hits with her first big hit being her take on the calypso standard “The Banana Boat Song” which peaked at #8 on the UK charts. She’d keep up her UK hit streak through the early ‘60s with 1958’s “As I Love You” and 1961’s double A-side “Reach For The Stars” b/w “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” being her two #1s over there. It was during this time when Bassey started landing major gigs in America which included appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and performing for President John F. Kennedy at the White House. But her style of loud-voiced orchestral pop and show tunes hadn’t translated to chart success in America where none of her early songs touched the Hot 100. It would take a major cross-cultural phenomenon to break her in America.
During one of Bassey’s tours, her tour conductor and famed composer John Barry approached her on singing the theme song he had written for the third film in the James Bond franchise Goldfinger. The words weren’t written yet so Barry played Bassey the music and was immediately floored by it accepting the offer even though there weren’t any lyrics yet. By the time of “Goldfinger,” Barry had become the composer for the 007 franchise even helping to arrange the famous “James Bond Theme” that plays in almost every movie starting with the first movie Dr. No from 1962. But the idea of getting a big singer to perform the theme for a Bond movie wasn’t a thing until Shirley Bassey.
Helping John Barry write “Goldfinger” was a team of British songwriters Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. The two of them had worked on a 1961 musical titled Stop The World-I Want to Get Off with both men having other successes in theater, film, and pop music. Newley and Bricusse for instance had just won a Song of the Year Grammy in 1963 for one of their songs from Stop The World, “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” which many artists recorded including Sammy Davis Jr. who took his take to #17 on the Hot 100. Barry, Newley, and Bricusse were tasked with writing a song about the titular villain of Goldfinger. Barry in particular was inspired by “Mack The Knife,” the musical standard about a serial stabber that Bobby Darin took to #1 in 1959 after the film’s director Guy Hamilton brought it to him with the lyrics written shortly after.
The recording session for “Goldfinger” was a big affair with Beatles producer George Martin at the helm and Bassey singing with some of the UK’s top session players including a young Jimmy Page on guitar though you certainly can’t tell him apart here. Barry held everyone through the night in recording to make sure everything was as perfect as possible including Bassey who kept having issues with the big note at the end until taking off her bra allowed her to fully hold out her note. The end result didn’t impress the film’s producer Harry Saltzman who thought it was the worst thing he had ever heard but there wasn’t time to create a new song so “Goldfinger” stood.
Even if you’re like me and have never seen Goldfinger the movie, you’re most definitely familiar with “Goldfinger” the song. Right away the song makes itself known with the orchestra crashing in with a memorable brass riff that is in many ways just as much of a hook as Bassey singing the title is. For this type of song, Bassey is the type of singer you want. She makes her presence known right away from her first note. A lesser singer would have gotten drowned out by the orchestration but Bassey brings an old-school theater poise to her delivery hitting all the big notes while closely enunciating every syllable before holding out on that last note as the orchestra swells behind her to the end.
Lyrically, “Goldfinger” is basically just summing up the title character, a classic trope for soundtrack songs. Bassey sings of this man with the Midas touch but quickly warns you not to enter his web of sin. Goldfinger might entice you with a heart of gold but in reality, has a cold heart who will kill you with his kiss. All he really loves is gold. The lyrics are a pretty simple description but they get the point across with Bassey and the players selling this warning while also sounding like a tense and fun piece of ‘60s soundtrack orchestral pop. There’s also a part where the music gets into a little upbeat swing with the classic ascending/descending James Bond progression that I like. I’m usually not a sucker for this kind of old-school orchestral sweep but it’s hard to deny “Goldfinger” and see why it remains beloved to this day.
After failing to chart in America for her entire career up to this point, “Goldfinger” is what put Shirley Bassey on the US pop charts which certainly didn’t hurt in being attached to a big hit film. Goldfinger was released in America right before Christmas 1964 and was an immediate hit grossing $51 million nationwide becoming one of the top-grossing films of 1964. In many ways, “Goldfinger” didn’t stand out too much from what was popular in the early months of 1965 when it hit its #8 peak considering this type of bombastic orchestral pop had been dominating alongside the Motown and British Invasion styles popular as hits by the Righteous Brothers and Petula Clark showed.
Nearly 60 years on, “Goldfinger” is the song that’s stood as Shirley Bassey’s biggest contribution to the world though in her home country the song weirdly peaked at #21. Bassey has continued to perform her biggest song wherever including at a well-received 2013 Oscars performance marking the Bond franchise’s 50th anniversary and on her 2014 album Hello Like Before where she re-recorded “Goldfinger” to correct two notes she felt were wrong on the original version. But that wasn’t the last Bond theme she would have a hand in as we will see going forward.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shirley Bassey performing “Goldfinger” on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show:
(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ live instrumental version of “Goldfinger” that appeared on the band’s 1997 live album set The Live Anthology:
(Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ highest-charting single, the 1981 Stevie Nicks collab “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” peaked at #3. It’s an 8. Tom Petty’s highest-charing single as a solo artist, 1989’s “Free Fallin’,” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1999 episode of The Simpsons where Homer sings a song “Max Power” set to the melody of “Goldfinger:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1999 Frasier episode where the cast sings “Goldfinger” at a bar:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the largely faithful and soulful version of “Goldfinger” that Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings recorded for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street:
And here’s the Wolf of Wall Street scene where Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie dance to the version of “Goldfinger” at their wedding with Jones & The Dap-Kings making an appearance: