Landing a James Bond theme as a singer is a major coup. Throughout the 50-plus years that Eon Productions have been releasing 007 films, the spy franchise is still one of the most popular and profitable in the world. When your song comes belting out of the speakers during the opening credits of a Bond film, you are guaranteed to be meeting the ears of millions of listeners around the world.
That being said, a Bond theme is a relatively rigid idiom. These days, Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ and Billie Eilish’s ‘No Time To Die’ have put the focus squarely on moody ballads as the formula for a Bond theme, but back in the franchise’s earliest days, it was about having a strong belter as a central soundtrack number. Dr. No and From Russia with Love didn’t really have Bond Themes as we traditionally know them, but Goldfinger sure as hell did.
Shirley Bassey’s all-time classic orchestral pop powerhouse of a title song left quite the impression on movie-going audiences, so when production began for the follow-up film Thunderball, it seemed only natural to go back to the well again. Bassey dutifully returned to sing the title track, and at this point, the song was a different number entitled ‘Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. But when Maurice Binder redesigned his opening credits, a longer song was needed.
Bassey was no longer available to record an extended version of the track, so Dionne Warwick was brought in to re-record the song. Bassey sued to get Warwick’s version removed from the movie, but neither track would be used when Eon told composer John Barry that they wanted the film’s title in the opening theme. Barry and lyricist Don Black scrambled to throw a new song together and sent out a contact for someone who could record the new track quickly. That person turned out to be legendary crooner Tom Jones.
With ‘Thunderball’ intentionally written to replicate Bassey’s brassy vocal style on ‘Goldfinger’, Jones was asked to hit a major sustained high note at the song’s conclusion. He didn’t know how it would turn out, so he simply reared back and gave it all he had. “I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning,” Jones would later recall. Jones might have fainted during the recording, but that’s probably just a myth. What’s true is that ‘Thunderball’ nearly sent Jones to the hospital.
Strangely enough, all of this scrambling and artist switching to get ‘Thunderball’ recorded doesn’t just end at Jones. When the call was sent out for artists who wanted to record the theme, country troubadour Johnny Cash, of all people, responded with a song he wrote himself. The track details Bond’s character and would have been the first and only country song played during a James Bond film. Sadly, Eon decided that Cash’s style didn’t fit, depriving us of possibly seeing Sean Connery in a cowboy hat and spurs.