From the original Monty Norman theme from Dr. No to Billie Eilish’s for No Time to Die, each of the original musical openers of the 25 James Bond films has been anticipated and, invariably a hit, though some more than others. The man who set the Bond standard and maintained it for 30 years, from 1962 to 1987 and in 11 Bond films was the late English composer and conductor John Barry. He composed, arranged, and performed the 007 theme songs and scores and, most famous of all, the “James Bond Theme,” introduced in Dr. No. But it’s the best and most successful Bond film of all, 1964’s Goldfinger, that really set the bar. Belted out by the great Shirley Bassey—the only vocalist to sing more than one and, actually, sang three Bond themes—her powerful voice embodied the heart of Bond, the adrenalin-rush, heart-stopping opening scenes, fast sportscars, steamy sex scenes, and magnificent and exotic places. A James Bond theme has one purpose: to lure the audience into the unique World of 007. The majority were recorded (and some also written by) women. Here are some of the most popular. What’s yours?
No Time To Die – Billie Eilesh
Written with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, Billie Eilish introduced the latest Bond theme song 18 months before the movie was finally released last week because of delays in filming caused by COVID. Nonetheless, it was an immediate success, winning the 2020 Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media. At 18, Billie is the youngest person to ever write and record a 007 theme song. Moody, dark, it’s a departure from the standard Bond blood-pumping genre—but its moodiness jives with Daniel Craig’s final foray in the role.
Skyfall – Adele
Adele recorded the theme for Skyfall after the huge success of her second album, 21. There was never a doubt the meteoric British singer/songwriter would be the one to take on Skyfall. The track instantly soared to No. 1 on the charts in 11 different countries and became one of the best-selling singles of all time, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song (only two Bond themes have), the Brit Award for British Single of the Year, the Critic’s Choice Movie Award for Best Song, the Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and the Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media—the first time in 007 history to coup all of music’s major awards.
Quantum of Solace – Alicia Keys
White Stripes frontman Jack White wrote the theme for Quantum of Solace, sung by R&B superstar Alicia Keys. One of the most creative recording artists today, this theme song fell flat. Even Keys’ sultry voice couldn’t make up for the cliched lyrics and dissonant harmonies. Alicia Keys fans were forgiving and hey, anything goes for a diehard Bond fan
Die Another Day – Madonna
Madonna’s theme song signaled Pierce Brosnan’s final turn as 007. A departure from the traditional style of Bond theme songs, it performed well on the charts but got a lukewarm reception from the critics and is, perhaps, one of the least memorable Bond themes—disappointing, from one of the biggest pop stars of all time. Nonetheless, its fat, badass guitar riffs played off Madonna’s commanding, hard-hitting voice are inspiring.
Tomorrow Never Dies – Cheryl Crow
Even though the song received Golden Globe and Grammy nominations, Crow, one of America’s most diverse singer/songwriters, didn’t pack enough punch in this 1997 Bond theme song. One reviewer described her as “sounding like she just smoked a pack of cigarettes (and) the song goes down like a dirty martini. Sheryl sips and sips before tipping her glass toward the title.” Nonetheless, this Bond theme is among the ten most popular.
Goldeneye – Tina Turner
Tina Turner – “Goldeneye” – (1995)Tina Tuner could win an Emmy with her mouth taped shut. The eponymous theme song for Goldeneye was written by U2 stars Bono and The Edge and Tina belts this out only as Tina can do. Recorded on her Wildest Dreams album, I was privileged to see her perform at Radio City Music Hall, where the stage set was one, magnificent golden eye. Even the world’s most spectacular stage couldn’t hold in her power. What a way for Pierce Brosnan to be introduced in his first role as the iconic James Bond.
License to Kill – Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight, one of the great ladies of R&B, actually stepped in to record the theme song for License to Kill, which was originally slated for Eric Clapton. Her smooth-as-velvet, powerhouse voice packed a thrill in the longest Bond theme to ever be recorded—almost six minutes. With its familiar Bond theme as the song’s opener, Gladys’ throaty, dynamic, undulating voice, and compelling lyrics, and pumping rhythm make this one of Bond’s least-remembered themes but it’s recorded by one of pop music’s most celebrated singers—and as usual, Gladys doesn’t disappoint.
The World is Not Enough – Shirley Manson of ‘Garbage’
Classic Bond, Garbage’s lead singer, Shirley Manson, is edgy, thrilling, wistful, and well-crafted—everything you’d expect of a 007 theme song that’s reminiscent of Shirley Bassey’s sweeping vocals in her three Bond theme songs. Some critics said she didn’t come up to Bassey’s standard and that’s unfair. Fact is, she continued her predecessor’s immortal Bond musical legacy—and that says a lot.
The Spy Who Loved Me – Carly Simon
One thing’s for sure: no one could have done it better than Carly Simon when she sang the power ballad, Nobody Does It Better, the theme for The Spy Who Loved Me with the late Roger Moore as Bond. Simon’s rich, sultry, emotion-laden tones in this, the first Bond theme not to be named after the title of the movies, was a big hit—and rightfully earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Composed by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, it’s been an enduring Bond classic for, incredibly, 45 years. Nobody Does It Better was accompanied by Maurice Binder’s trademark Bond title sequence, one of the best ever created.
You Only Live Twice – Nancy Sinatra
Nancy Sinatra – “You Only LIve Twice” 1967John Barry took a risk with You Only Live Twice, the first-ever to take on a melancholic, pensive tone, but it paid off brilliantly. This is one of the very best 007 theme songs ever. Originally, Frank Sinatra was approached but he suggested his daughter, Nancy, instead— and boy, did she deliver, pushing her voice harder and further than any song of her career. A ballad in the day of Pop Rock, the story goes that Nancy was so nervous she almost ran out of the studio. The deliciously haunting opening string cadence that rises gradually to a terrific staccato climax evokes musical notes of the film’s Japan locations.
Bond’s #1 Diva
Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger – Shirley Bassey
The theme song for Goldfinger set the standard for Bond theme songs and no one could hit it out of the ballpark like the great Shirley Bassey. With the lush opening bars of the trumpet-strident instrumentals to the climactic end chords, she would subsequently sing the themes for Thunderball and Moonraker—the only singer to perform more than one musical opener for a Bond film. Composed by John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the song is No. 53 in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Songs” top tunes in American cinema. In 2008, the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Interestingly, Bricusse and Newley were shown no film footage ahead of composing. All they were told was that the Jill Masterson character, played by British Actress, Shirley Eaton, would meet a fatal end—covered in gold. Based on just that, they came up with “the Midas touch” lyric and spun gold into the most notable Bond song of all. The iconic two-note intro was actually conceived by John Barry during a tea break. Goldfinger would become Bassey’s signature song and even a half-century later, still ranks 46 in BBC Radio 2 solicited listeners’ favorite popular songs.