Alan Winner: The Boy Who Loved Bassey

December 31, 2014 | By

Alan Winner: The Boy Who Loved Bassey“The Boy Who Loved Bassey,” the crisp, hour-long show Alan Winner performed (and co-wrote with Ben Cameron, who directed) at the Metropolitan Room (and earlier this year at the Laurie Beechman Theatre), was so much more than a tribute to a great singer who used to be. Alive and well at almost 78 (on January 8, 2015) and having just released a new album in November, Shirley Bassey is in broader voice than ever before, celebrating 60 years—especially aptly for her, a diamond anniversary—as a professional singer, and still performing on stage. Early in those six decades, Bassey introduced three James Bond movie songs, more than anyone else: “Diamonds are Forever” (John Barry, Don Black), “Moonraker” (Barry, Hal David), and “Goldfinger” (Barry, Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse). From then on, as Winner noted, she was largely “the queen of the covers,” reinterpreting songs made famous by others—and often outselling them; the Beatles’ “Something” (George Harrison) was a prime example. Along the way, she has sold some 350 million recordings worldwide. With a big assist from musical director Andy Roninson, Winner, well, covered a satisfying swath of the Bassey oeuvre.

Bravely beginning with the dance hit “History Repeating” (recorded in 1998 by the Propellerheads featuring Shirley Bassey, and written with Bassey in mind by the group’s Alex Gifford) paired with “What About Today” (David Shire), Winner established both his diva’s commanding presence and his own ability to replicate her distinctive vocal style and stage movements. To be sure, since this wasn’t a drag show, it took a few songs, but only a few, for this young man’s vocal encomium to be completely reconciled with a female legend of a certain age with her own indelible ways. At first, this gender dissonance sometimes sounded a tad more strident than merely forceful. What helped considerably to move the symbiosis along rapidly was Winner’s interspersing just enough spoken biography—Bassey’s and his own—to cement the connection between honorer and honoree. He, the boy from remote Lubbock, Texas, adoring his diva from afar at an early age, and going to study acting and singing in the UK for six years, and she, the poor black girl from Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales, with a long life of personal setbacks—which Winner did not ignore in his narrative—finally met. He said that her visit to his school in Wales, with him on the welcoming committee “hit me harder than the last twenty minutes of Steel Magnolias.”

After a few musts—including “Something,” two of the three Bond themes, and “Love Story (Where Do I Begin?)” (Francis Lai, Carl Sigman)—Winner really hit his full Bassey stride, by which time any audience disconnect about the genders of the two performers had virtually dissolved. With the song “Never, Never, Never” (Tony Renis, Alberto Testa, Norman Newell) coupled with “If You Go Away” (Jacques Brel, English lyrics by Rod McKuen), Winner now matched his idol’s inner passion as well as her external belt and distinctive hand motions, and he never thereafter let them go. “Apartment” (Rufus Wainwright) was a nice nod to the more recent Bassey songbook.

But like Shirley herself, Winner did not ignore the big finish. “I (Who Have Nothing)” (Carlo Donida, Mogol, Lieber & Stoller), “For All We Know” (Fred Karlin, Robb Royer, Jimmy Griffin), and “This is My Life” (Bruno Canfora, Antonio Amurri, Norman Newell) were among the songs in the final segment that led to the inevitable encore, “Goldfinger,” which had its own 50th anniversary this year. Some diamonds are indeed forever.

One minor quibble. Winner should stop constantly referring to his subject as Dame Shirley (which she did indeed become in 1999), especially when talking about her younger self—when she wasn’t a DBE—to an American audience. “Shirley,” “Bassey,” or even “Shirley Bassey” would do very nicely most of the time, and sound much less fan-boy, now that Winner is a boy no more, all grown up and quite the performer in his own right.

The Boy Who Loved Bassey
Metropolitan Room – December 18

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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