Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to welcome back on stage a member of British pop royalty. Dame Shirley, of Bassey, claiming her rightful place atop the UK charts…
Reach for the Stars / Climb Ev’ry Mountain, by Shirley Bassey (her 2nd and final #1)
1 week, from 21st – 28th September 1961
Except, despite being singer of huge repute, a diva with a seven-decade long career in the upper echelons of British popular culture, the singles charts never were Shirley Bassey’s natural stomping ground. This is only her second number one – and it’s her last! She’s had five weeks in total at the top of the listings, and only ever had twelve top ten hits in her whole career… Compare that to the titans of the UK Singles Charts – Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, Madonna – and that ain’t nothing.
But perhaps it’s not so surprising when, amid the teeny-bopper pop and the rock ‘n’ roll that was shaping the sound of the early sixties, she was releasing discs like this. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that this record got to #1 at all… The first song, ‘Reach for the Stars’, sounds out of place the second the soaring intro kicks in.
I reach for the stars, When I reach for your love, For so far above me, You always will be… It’s a song about adoring someone, about loving them completely… When you come to my arms, In that moment divine, All the stars in the sky, Are mine… It’s not a song about longing, or about a love unrequited. It’s a song about being utterly besotted with someone. (A song that might terrify you slightly if it were about you…)
The lyrics are all about stars and clouds, and the sky, and Dame Shirley sings it as if making sure that she’ll be heard up there in the firmament. The last chorus and verse are absolutely belted out, while the way she packs around four different notes into that last sky-y-y is spine-tingling, as is the way she drags the final all mine…! out to within an inch of its life. In terms of pure singing technique, this is one of the very best-sung chart-toppers so far.
You might, then, expect the flip-side of this disc to be a subtler affair – yin and yang, and all that. But nope. That’s not how this Dame plays. On ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, she cranks the operatics up even further… Climb ev’ry mountain, Search high and low, Follow ev’ry bye-way, Ev’ry path you know… (on a song that’s already pretty old-fashioned, that Victorian apostrophe in ‘ev’ry’ is just the icing on the cake)… She’s following rainbows, fording streams, doing all these things in search of her dream. It’s a motivational number, lyrically very simple, about never giving up.
Before writing this, I wasn’t familiar with either of these songs – but I had strong suspicions from the first listen that ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ was a piece of musical theatre (the David Whitfield-esque backing singers are a dead giveaway). But I was astounded to learn that this song wasn’t just from any old two-bit musical – it’s from the bloody ‘Sound of Music’! How did that pass me by? Admittedly I’ve managed to go through thirty-three years on this earth without ever seeing said movie, but I’ve picked up a lot through pop-culture osmosis – the Von Trapps, nuns and Nazis, ‘The Hills are Alive..’ ‘Doe, a Deer…’, the one about the flowers… ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, though…? No idea. You learn something new every day.
This song ends with a bang every bit as big as ‘Reach for the Stars’. Perhaps too big a bang. While on the former song Bassey stayed the right side of bombastic; here she over-eggs the pudding. The recording crackles as she launches into the final Till you find your dream…, the equipment clearly unable to cope with Shirley’s lung-power. The woman could sing, and still can. Aged eighty-one, she still regularly appears at Royal Variety performances, at the Queen’s garden parties and on her own TV specials – 2011’s ‘Shirley’ for example (no surname required, clearly). As we leave her here, in September 1961, her most famous songs still lie ahead – ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Big Spender’ and so on – while her biggest hits have come and gone – this and ‘As I Love You’ almost forgotten in 2019.
It’s slightly sad to wave such a premature goodbye to Dame Shirley. But this disc is a real outlier in the charts of ’61 and, as I wrote at the start, perhaps offers an insight as to why she never really set the singles charts alight. These are two superbly sung and gorgeously orchestrated ballads, but they aren’t indicative of the general trends in popular music at this time. They do, however, add the eclectic mix of chart-toppers that we’ve enjoyed in 1961 –long may that continue.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that this double ‘A’-side lives on in a much more recent song… S Club 7’s smash-hit from 2000, ‘Reach’, which incorporates the titles of both these songs into its chorus; but whose bubble-gum pop cheesiness couldn’t be further from Dame Shirley’s ear-drum shattering balladry. Anyway, I’m happy I got to link to an S Club song several decades earlier than I thought I would (what an utter guilty pleasure that one is…) Onwards!