“Goldfinger” is the title song from the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. Composed by John Barry and with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the song was performed by Shirley Bassey for the film’s opening and closing title sequences, as well as the soundtrack album release. The single release of the song gave Bassey her only Billboard Hot 100 top forty hit, peaking in the Top 10 at No. 8 and No. 2 for four weeks on the Adult Contemporary chart, and in the United Kingdom the single reached No. 21.
The song finished at No. 53 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema. In 2008, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley were asked to create the lyrics for the song. But when its composer John Barry played them the first three notes, Bricusse and Newley looked at each other and sang out: “. . . wider than a mile,” to the melody of “Moon River,” the popular theme song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Barry was not amused.
One source of inspiration was the song “Mack the Knife”, which director Guy Hamilton showed Barry, thinking it was a “gritty and rough” song that could be a good model for what the film required. Bricusse and Newley were not shown any film footage or script excerpts, but were advised of the fatal gilding suffered by the Jill Masterson character, played by Shirley Eaton. Bricusse would later recall that once he and Newley hit upon utilizing “the Midas touch” in the lyric, the pattern of the song became evident and the lyrics were completed within at most a couple of days.
The first recording of “Goldfinger” was made by Newley in a May 14, 1964 recording session, with Barry as conductor, which produced two completed takes. Barry would recall that Newley gave a “very creepy” performance which he, Barry considered “terrific”. Newley’s recording, however, was made purely as a demo for the film’s makers. According to Barry, Newley “didn’t want to sing it in the movie as they [Newley and Bricusse] thought the song was a bit weird”.
Shirley Bassey was Barry’s choice to record the song; he had been conductor on Bassey’s national tour in December 1963 and the two had also been romantically involved. Barry had played Bassey an instrumental track of the song before its lyrics were written; the singer would recall that hearing the track had given her “goose bumps”. She agreed to sing the song whatever the lyrics might eventually be. Bassey recorded the track on August 20, 1964 at London’s CTS Studios in Wembley: the track’s producer credit named Bassey’s regular producer George Martin, but the session was in fact overseen by Barry. Vic Flick, Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan are all said to have been at the sessions.
Page recalls attending the sessions, however the session musicians on the Bond films were separately relegated to the instrumental score versions of songs, while the main musicians (on Goldfinger: Vic Flick) were given the main film theme song to solely record, to be featured at the beginning of the film. Leaving Page as a background acoustic contributor to Flick on the instrumental version of the song.
The recording of “Goldfinger” lasted all night as Barry demanded repeated takes due to musicians’ or technical glitches, not any shortcomings in Bassey’s vocal. Bassey did initially have issues with the climactic final note which necessitated her slipping behind a studio partition between takes to remove her bra. Bassey would recall of the final note: “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.”
The iconic two-note phrase which is the basis for the song’s introduction was not in the original orchestration, but occurred to Barry during a tea-break, following an hour and a half of rehearsal. By the time the musicians returned, twenty minutes later, he had written the figure into the orchestration.
The hit single was released in mono, with the album stereo issues (on the film soundtrack, Golden Hits Of Shirley Bassey and subsequent releases) using an alternate mix in which the instrumental take is the same, but Bassey’s vocal is different; a shade less intense and with a shorter final note. Newley’s version was later released in 1992 to mark the 30th Anniversary of James Bond on film, in a compilation collector’s edition: The Best of Bond…James Bond.
Bassey’s title theme was almost taken out of the film because producer Harry Saltzman hated it, saying, “That’s the worst *** song I’ve ever heard in my *** life”. Saltzman would also dislike Bassey’s subsequent Bond theme, that for Diamonds Are Forever. However, there was not enough time for a replacement song to be written and recorded.
The release on vinyl of Bassey’s (mono) version, UA 790, sold more than a million copies in the United States (Guinness Book of Records), and it also reached No. 1 in Japan, No. 4 in Australia, and the Top 10 of many European countries including Austria (No. 7), Belgium (No. 9 on the Dutch charts), Germany (No. 8), Italy (No. 3), the Netherlands (No. 5), and Norway (No. 7). A No. 24 hit in France, Bassey’s “Goldfinger” was not one of Bassey’s biggest hits in her native UK, its No. 21 peak being far lower than that of the nine Top 10 hits she’d previously scored, but despite Bassey subsequently returning to the UK Top 10 three more times, “Goldfinger” would ultimately become her signature song in the UK as well as the rest of the world. In 2002 poll in which BBC Radio 2 solicited listeners’ favourite piece of popular music from the last fifty years performed by a British act, “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey ranked at No. 46.