She doesn’t have the range: the trouble with Shirley Bassey

You probably heard the news back then, oh boy. At the tail end of a tumultuous 2020, Shirley Bassey went out with a bang. Or should that be a kiss kiss, bang bang.

But hold on a mo, because Shirl’s still very much in the land of the living. It’s just that she garnered a gushing few column inches when what has been billed as her final work — I Owe It All To You, a “grand finale” album as a thank you to her fans — debuted at an impressive fifth place and set a chart record for the singer as the first female artist ever to claim a UK Top 40 album in seven consecutive decades. It’s enough to make her pop a cork and be a thoroughly decent human. Well, one can wish.

Now, 84, Shirley Bassey, or Dame Shirley Bassey as she is happy to remind everyone (à la Joan Collins — ooh, almost royalty) was born in Cardiff on 8 January 1937, ten years to the day before that other Dame from London made his way into the world, David Bowie.

There ain't nothing like the Dames

Dame Shirl has over the years become a darling of the British media with few ever daring to say a bad word against her, even though on occasion someone really should have. Well, okay, here goes. Shirley Bassey is undoubtedly an icon, a great performer and a legendary songstress. However, if you disliked her when you and her were younger, does that mean you have to show her respect simply because she’s still going strong and bagged a gong from The Queen?

In a word, no.

There are no two ways about it: Shirley Bassey is the voice of the Bond themes. The singer who will forever be top dog when anyone ever connects the world of 007 to the world of music. But this pampered, spoilt champagne-obsessed star is also a “massive cow” who is regularly unkind to those around her, and barks orders at anyone and everyone unfortunate enough to be attending to her numerous needs. Such as trolley dollies, for instance.

Guess what: sitting in first class doesn’t always make you a nice person. Who knew?

Two dames and a dead rabbit

Users of an airline staff forum site called PPRuNe asked cabin crew from around the world what their experiences with celebrities was like, but because this is the internet and people are only human, they of course didn’t hold back when listing their worst encounters.

Now obviously all of this could be taken with a pinch of salt because any joe soap could login in and write any old nonsense about a celeb on a plane but because PPRuNe isn’t exactly Buzzfeed, I’m inclined to believe that most of the accounts are legit, especially when compared to various other assessments of said stars from a variety of sources on the ground.

For instance, Beyoncé was “sooo lovely!”, Halle Berry, star of Die Another Day and a couple of good films, “absolutely delightful”, while Barbara Windsor could be a tad unpredictable (“depends what mood she’s in”).

In royal class, there were three that stood out:

The Queen: “Goodness, she has a warm bottom if her seat was anything to go by.” Prince Philip was “hilarious! I loved him.” While surprising absolutely no one, Prince Andrew is just a “buffoon.”

Special ire was reserved for Joan Collins, who always “demands seat 1A and is cold and haughty. Up close she looks really really weird too.”

In the high maintenance stakes, Sinéad O’Connor was “barking mad”, Michael Jackson “completely insane” and Madonna “a bit precious; we had to go through her PA to speak to her.”

Surprising no one, the late great Nina Simone certainly lived up to her fearsome reputation too: “There was someone who was a handful.”

Cabin crew to manual: “Quick, shut the bloody door!"

It gets worse. 

Elton John was an “absolute misery. Think he was upset it was an all girl crew from LA to London”, Jon Bon Jovi is often “ignorant and nasty, with high heels on to make him look taller.” ‘Sir’ Bob Geldof? Oh, he’s a “rude, vile piece of humanity. He just grunted answers, no eye contact, no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and insisted on being met by special services — a real man of the people!!!”

Ouch. Someone’s going to need some aloe for that burn. Looks like money and fame doesn’t buy manners after all. And the less said about Naomi Campbell the better.

You may or not to be surprised to learn that there’s a girl from Splott on the landscape: Shirley Bassey came in almost at the very top… of an avalanche of complaints about her bad temper and “demanding” nature. There was only one person that upset crew more and that was the Cilla Black. By all accounts as hideously ugly on the inside as she was on the outside.

Unlike Cilla, a ‘singer’ who ended up hosting downmarket television shows, at least DSB has the musical talent to back up her monstrous ego.

Where have all the dollies gone? Probably home

Though not a songwriter, thanks to her great pair of lungs she has at least put her interpretational imprint on some of the great classics of our time.

Though it must have been frustrating for Shirl that her biggest pair of hits were No.1s before the ground zero that ushered in The Beatles and thus, are barely remembered except by the most avid aficionados. It doesn’t help that they’re seldom performed in her concerts either. Look them up, they’re called As I Love You and the double A-side Reach For The Stars/Climb Every Mountain, UK chart-toppers in 1958 and 1961 respectively. 

Likewise, as fun as they are, for every Big Spender or Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, Shirley Bassey will always be remembered as the voice of Bond. Even some of her more contemporary material has traded on the classic 007 tradition.

Take The Rhythm Divine for instance, a 1987 single with Swiss electronic duo Yello saw Shirl splitting more than a few octaves (see, she does have the range), and with the AssociatesBilly Mackenzie bringing up the rear it’s one of the great James Bond themes that never was. 

Under the stewardship of David Arnold and Don Black, 2009’s No Good About Goodbye came even closer. Full of Bond theme touchstones and Burt Bacharachian lyrical nods, rumours persist that the track originated as a potential theme song for the previous year’s Quantum Of Solace movie, which Arnold soundtracked. It’s certainly a zillion and one times better than the official dirge from Jack White and Alicia Keys, who don’t even sound like they’re singing the same song.

Two down, two to go, because if we’re picking Bassey’s finest four non-Bonds then how’s about this pair?

History Repeating, a collaboration with dance duo Propellerheads, was a wondrous sixties-style big-beat anthem with lyrics satirising the Emperor’s New Clothes hype of the then brand new New Labour government… and, in my view, the single of 1997, and would go on to televisual ubiquity as the theme for Channel 4’s original So Graham Norton show.

While I have a soft spot for 2000’s reswizzle job Diamonds Are Forever: The Remix Album, The Performance is certainly her most cohesive collection, this century at last. Produced by David Arnold who, like Bassey is responsible for some of the most impressive James Bond themes, it’s an understated and timeless affair which befits her grandiose status together with a healthy dollop of artistic endeavour. Its closer, the Tennant/Lowe penned The Performance Of My Life is a fragile, show-stopping torch song which apparently reduced Shirl to tears while recording it, and even drops hints to future divas: 

“A brave face, stiff upper lip will do the trick/ The mask is flung, the face is mine, it seems fine…” 

The track continues the Pet Shop Boys’ impressive track record of writing for female icons, following their work with Dusty Springfield, Liza Minnelli and Tina Turner — the latter on Wildest Dreams, the album that spawned GoldenEye. And talking of Bond themes…

Of course, there are two songs — three at a push — which scream 007 louder than almost anything else in musical Bondage. Let’s be honest, they’re the reason you’re here and they’re almost certainly the reason I am too. That‘s why I was at the Electric Proms watching this very performance.

And it all started way back in 1964.

As lovely as Matt Monro’s From Russia With Love was, Goldfinger was arguably the first true James Bond theme as we know it today, and remains the archetypal one. Where do I begin with a song that almost every culturally literate person in the Western world has etched into their minds like the lines on their hands? The brassy call and response that triggers the track seems as natural a place to start as any, that two-note phrase blasting the song into our spinal cords even before Shirley can solder the wound shut. By the time her voice kicks in, instantly becoming as integral to the franchise as the Walther PPK or Sean Connery’s hedge maze of chest hair, celebrated orchestrator John Barry has already gilded the 007 movies with a frivolous sense of danger; silly in the extreme but definitely worth taking seriously.

Written by Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Joan Collins’ then new hubby Anthony Newley, the song was penned without the lyricists having read the script or seen any footage, but still does a pretty great job at capturing the devilishness of the film’s titular villain (Gert Fröbe has never seemed so sexy, probably because he wasn’t). And though the song’s a cracker, and invented the signature Bond theme sound in large part, so much of that is down to Shirley’s delivery. Formerly romantically entangled with Barry, she brings an enormously sultry, yet almost regretful, feel to the track: someone who was swept off their feet entirely by Goldfinger, just got out with her life, but isn’t entirely sure she won’t get back. It’s the standard to which all subsequent themes were held to. 

The Welsh windbag couldn’t have known the extent to which her performance would resonate in pop culture, but with admirable tenacity she holds that committed final note for so long that she virtually collapsed in the studio, though it sealed her career and will reverberate with us forever. Altogether now. He loves… go-oooold! GO-OOOLD! 

A little observation about that voice though. It may sound blasphemous but technically, Shirley Bassey isn’t the greatest female vocalist to sing a Bond theme.

Let me explain.

I’ve described, surmised and analysed this over and over and I came to the same conclusion almost every time. The greatest Bond pipes gong, unquestionably, goes to the powerhouse that is Gladys Knight, who has maintained her incredible vocal prowess and soulful timbre over such a long period of time, and whose range and ability is so immense she may as well have called her band Gladys Knight & Her Pipes and be done with it.

There’s no doubt that Shirley Bassey is a tremendous performer, full of chutzpah and great fun in concert. It was when Granny came to Glastonbury in 2007 that she became known as DSB. She waded through the mud in a frou-frou dress and diamanté initialled boots, and won over a new rock’n’roll generation. Though, to be fair, there would have been few there who hadn’t heard of her.

Bassey is the also only artist I’ve ever witnessed that was happy to pose for pictures while she’s singing!

And yes, she has a powerful weapon: Bassey the belter has such a remarkable depth, resonance and strength to her voice it can reduce buildings to rubble.

Don’t get me wrong, if she’s forced to demonstrate restraint by a firm producer that won’t cave in to her tantrums she can accomplish gentle ballads as well. She proved that on The Performance album. Listen to the subtle sorrow of Richard Hawley’s After The Rain and you’ll know what I mean. Over a recurring piano arpeggiation, she sounds less icon and more girl-next-door. Hawley’s lyrics of regret and loss are paired with an intimate arrangement that is more about growing than showing off her lung capacity.

Even so, despite the characterful and dramatic way she inhabits songs, her voice has never moved me in an emotional way an Aretha or a Dusty or a Gladys can. That’s probably because her range is not as great as you’d imagine. She’s a combo alto/mezzo pitched vocalist with a thick vibrato going into an earthy bottom, said the actress to the bishop (actually one of Shirl’s favourite phrases, believe it or not). Her singing also has a slight doppler effect, increasing and decreasing in volume mid-song for no apparent reason, sometimes sounding like an ambulance siren repeatedly passing you by. Bassey’s big or small airhorn technique hardly ever employs a middle resister to speak of. Consequently, a lot of musical subtlety is lost, and she often comes across as something of a “ham singer,” and a bit, dare I say it, lowbrow.

Lest we forget, the early Bond films were made on limited budgets, and home grown Bassey and singing bus conductor Monro were cheaper to hire than the big spending required to bag the American dream singers coveted by 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. They were a pair of middle of the road-loving jazz fans who really wanted Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Essentially, Bassey is the kitsch, cheesy chicken in a basket version of Judy. An aural KFC for the K-Tel generation. The Joan Collins of the Bond dynasty, not the Elizabeth Taylor. 

To hammer home the point, many of Bassey’s later albums have been released by budget labels, including two extraordinarily bad covers collections of 007 themes going by the titles The Bond Collection and Bassey Sings Bond, and where, aiming to reemphasise that she’s “the voice of Bond” she destroyed everything from A View To A Kill to From Russia With Love seemingly on a budget of 50 pence. Between them.

If that sounds bitchy then remember who we’re talking about here. The diva to end all divas. Difficult to many and as temperamental as hell. Does the phrase “She doesn’t have the range” mean anything? We’ll get to that in a bit, but first we’ve taken the Tardis back to 1971, and Shirl’s second released Bond theme, even if it wasn’t the second recorded.

Believing Thunderball was too generic, too vague a title for the follow up to Goldfinger, in 1965 John Barry and lyricist Don Black conjured up a song called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is what Italian audiences had been calling 007 (or Japanese fans or the press depending on the account one reads). He recorded the song with both Dionne Warwick (smoky) and Shirley Bassey (shrill), but two weeks before opening, the film studio United Artists insisted on a song titled after the movie, which, admittedly, had worked so well for Goldfinger. So Barry and Black hurriedly wrote a new song with a new giant voiced vocalist, Tom Jones, who is from the Welsh valleys like Bassey. 

The legal dispute which followed – Miss Bassey played the difficult diva (a role for life, you might say) and moved to sue Eon Productions for breach of contract over the decision to use Warwick’s recording at the end of the film – led to both versions of Bang Bang being canned and left locked in the Danjaq vault until a James Bond 30th anniversary album in 1992.

Six years after that messy falling out, the tigress from Tiger Bay was brought in from the cold to voice another John Barry/Don Black-penned number, and a song perhaps better known to the youth of today than even Goldfinger, thanks to some sampling by Kanye West (on 2005’s Diamonds From Sierra Leone, which apparently displeased the diva no end).

An innuendo-laced love letter to utterly rampant materialism, the iridescent Diamonds Are Forever doesn’t quite top the (g)older song as Bassey’s finest entry in the franchise, but it comes damn close. Bond creator Ian Fleming took the title for his 1956 book from the slogan “A diamond is forever,” which had been a successful marketing campaign by the De Beers mining company to equate the coveted gem stones with love and romance.

With a chorus as big as Bassey’s vocals, and one of the best bridges of the series, it’s only kept from being the greatest ever Bond theme by being so much in the Goldfinger mould. Nevertheless, Black regards Diamonds Are Forever as his favourite Bond set of lyrics, explaining that

“I’ve always thought a Bond song should be provocative and sensual. There’s something about the song that seduces you into it.”

Tight, warmly layered, and sharper than Sean Connery’s ageing physique in the film, the track’s big time sensuality and playful double entendre almost had it shelved when Black and Barry presented it to Eon. Arch fuddy duddy Harry Saltzman considered the song to be objectionably sexual, presumably blushing at how the line that diamonds can “stimulate and tease me” suggested that women were capable of feeling any pleasure that wasn’t provided by a fella. The other man Cubby Broccoli had to talk him into approving it, but then Italians nearly always do it better.

In the studio, Barry encouraged Bassey to imagine she was singing about a man’s trouser weapon, which explains why she could deliver such lines as “Diamonds are forever, hold one up and then caress it. Touch it, stroke it and undress it…” with the desired effect. Black told The Sunday Times in 2008 “But he never said that to me when I was writing it. I was writing about a diamond!”

Whatever the metaphor, with a surprising flash of feminism our Shirl rails against the impermanence of a good lover, as even those with stamina for miles can’t last as long as a good rock on your finger. “Men are mere mortals who aren’t worth going to your grave for,” she belts. Let that be a lesson for all of us the world over.

Like the proverbial bad penny, Bassey would return for a third title song with 1979’s Moonraker, and even her weakest contribution ranks among the series’ most memorable tracks. 

Stepping in for a frustrated Johnny Mathis mere weeks before the film was due for release, the Cardiff chanteuse reminded the world that she was one of the only Earthlings who could croon a nonsense word like “Moonraker” and make it sound downright glorious, while marking an unprecedented third time singing a Bond theme. And while everyone remembers the career-defining Bassey songs, their performance in the UK charts were surprisingly less than 24 karat: Goldfinger peaked at No.21, Diamonds Are Forever at No.38, and Moonraker did not even make the top 75. 

Listen, you try taking a mess of typically distressed MI5 man to the rescue lyrics (“Where are you? When will we meet? Take my unfinished life and make it complete”) and imbuing them with sense of life or death. Not so easy, is it? Still, there’s a fine Stephen Sondheim smiling-through-tears quality and pacing to this, even if it happened to accompany one of the more preposterous 007 films as the franchise attempted to capitalise on Star Wars and the international space race: he’s got a rocket and you’re going on it. It was perhaps an unfair association for the song, but a Bond-in-space movie? No wonder Kate Bush turned it down. 

So, to that phrase that has now entered common parlance. It all goes back to 1995 and the title tune to GoldenEye. One of the biggest, brassiest voices in music, the inspirational Tina Turner, belted that one out. The girl from Nutbush injects so much personality into it that you can’t fault her vocal performance. Well, you can if you’re a bitchy diva like Shirley Bassey (there is that note, thank you, sweetie). She doesn’t have the range, according to the Monaco monster.

In the context of music criticism, “the range” is, at its most basic and obvious meaning, vocal range: one of the fundamental skills for a vocalist which can be measured by the number of octaves that one can sing in. 

Now something of a huge internet meme that went viral in 2016, the most infamous and ironic use of the one-liner can be found in a spoof sketch from the BBC’s early 2000s comedy show Rock Profile; a forerunner to Little Britain, where parallel universe versions of Shirl and Tom Jones (played by Matt Lucas and David Walliams) are depicted being interviewed by television presenter Jamie Theakston, about Bond themes mainly.

Shirl is portrayed as impossibly grand and imperious, repeatedly uttering “She doesn’t have the range” to cattily dismiss a variety of her fellow iconic Bond singers during the course of the interview, with the inference being that she should have been allowed to sing them all.

“What do you think of the more recent efforts?, says Theakston. “Goldeneye?,” asks the shady lady.

“I love Tina, but she doesn’t have the range. I’m sorry, Tina. I love you. You know I adore you. But you don’t have the range!” 

Jamie enquires meekly about more Bond themes, as he was particularly fond of Garbage’s The World Is Not Enough. But does Bassey? 

“She doesn’t have the range!” 

“Sheryl Crow?”

“She doesn’t have the range!”

“Gladys Knight?”

“She doesn’t have the range!”

“Paul McCartney?”

“She doesn’t have the range.”

And so on and so forth. Saucer of milk for Miss Bassey, please. 

So let me get right to the point. Where I’m going with this is that the parody was actually based on a real life scene in Divas Are Forever, the BBC’s documentary from 1998 that Lucas and Walliams had watched, and one where the stinging star of the show Dame Shirley Bassey (ooh, almost royalty now) allowed herself to be filmed at a champagne fuelled dinner party in Monte Carlo talking about attending the GoldenEye premiere in London (“James Bond invited me himself”)… then going in for the kill, lambasting Tina Turner for that one note near the end of the song.

Perhaps Shirl deserves the last word — and given her asbestos lung capacity, she’s kind of earned it.

“It was so awful, that note when she does GoldenAiii! She didn’t have the range for it!”

There really ain’t nothing like a Dame eh? 

Steve Pafford

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