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In Defense Of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Never Never Never’

Or why in the past, the young acted old and today the old act young

At the recent concert of Arthur Manuntag at Emilio Mina’s Italian restaurant Caruso on Nicanor Garcia Street in Makati, I joined the table of Rustan’s Group of Companies chairman Nedy Tantoco. At my table were Emilio’s wife Evelyn Mina, Greggy Araneta, Ping Valencia, Tony Leviste, Gen. Benjie Defensor, brother of the late Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and his wife Margarette, and Patrick Jacinto.

I was prepared to enjoy a repertoire of standards from my father’s time, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as thoroughly as every course of my four-course meal, particularly the platter of cold cuts for starters and my grilled lapu lapu that Emilio personally drizzled with olive oil.

Arthur Manuntag (center) and the band

Arthur Manuntag (center) and the band

By the time dessert was served, a hearty tiramisu, I was blown over by Manuntag’s irreverent humor, vocal power, and ability to hold the audience’s attention. The highlight of the evening’s program, at least to my amateurish ear, was his performance of “A Wonderful World,” mimicking with jaw-dropping accuracy the voices of music legends and favorites, dead or living, from Frank Sinatra to Matt Monroe to Tony Bennett to Ray Charles Jr. to James Ingram to Michael Bolton, although, before ending the song in the voice of Bolton, just to spice up the number further, he threw in  a sampling of Shirley Bassey’s “Never Never Never” in Shirley Bassey’s deep, honeyed voice, sexy but not salacious, bold but not vulgar—and big and magnificent.

And how spicy it was, so hot I had smoke coming out of my ears. Manuntag’s impersonation had such an impact on me that when I got home from the dinner concert, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed watching Shirley Bassey on YouTube performing “Never Never Never” live in a haze of sequins and boas all over the world, in Berlin, in Sydney, in Tokyo, at the Royal Albert Hall.

Now that’s a diva I haven’t thought of in a long time. She’s now 79, still very much a diva, enjoying her life alone in semi-exile between Monaco and London and, yes, Rihanna and Taylor Swift notwithstanding, I’ll say we don’t make them like we used to anymore or, if we do, they don’t last very long, not in this age of obsolescence, where our idols, like our smartphones, like our intelligent TVs, no longer last longer than a season or until the next one, bigger, brighter, comes along. Madonna is obviously of a different mold, though she is of my time, not quite young, not yet so old, still cavorting in a tanga at 57, and that’s why she’s lasted 30 years and counting, leaving all her contemporaries behind.

DINNER DATE From left: Evangeline Mina, Emilio Mina, and Nedy Tantoco

DINNER DATE From left: Evangeline Mina, Emilio Mina, and Nedy Tantoco

Shirley Bassey, like practically every artist behind every song in Manuntag’s repertoire at the dinner concert, was before my time, but I’m no stranger to Shirley Bassey’s “Never Never Never” or many of her other songs like “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “I Am What I Am,” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” I’m not exactly a fan of standards, either, but I grew up in an era when my parents’ music ruled the airwaves, not only on the radio, but also from the speakers that blared the musical choices of my elders on the turntable.

Come to think of it, before “Video Killed the Radio Star,” before MTV and Channel V, mass media belonged to the previous generation, so that, growing up, though there were a couple of radio stations dedicated to the preferences of the youth, I heard the rest play music from eras as far back as Edith Piaf’s. Classic was every day back then, not just on Fridays, for instance, which is how radio stations nowadays limit airplay of songs from decades past. The rest of the week now is for music new and newer (or old remade to sound new and newer).

As a result, it’s not strange that some kids today might not have heard of Elvis Presley or even The Beatles, let alone Cole Porter. And what about Beethoven or Haydn or Schubert? It’s true! Just a few years ago, I heard a famous DJ say on air that she had no idea who or what Destiny’s Child was, the girl band that produced current A-lister in pop music Beyoncé. And Destiny’s Child was only from the ’90s. That’s not too far back, especially for a professional DJ, a music professional or expert even, a radio personality!

I used to think that it was because, unlike in my time, ignorance was no longer a cause of shame. After all, nowadays you can hold a concert without even half the ability to carry a tune. You can be a diva without the magic and magnificence of Shirley Bassey. I mean divas are not necessarily divine anymore—they just have an attitude (problem).

Back to Manuntag’s concert, he called former beauty queen and socialite Ping Valencia onto the stage from our table and extemporaneously, she sang “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” like a purring cat. Now that was sexy, though she was all dressed and covered in a black lace jacket. We don’t really make them like we used to.

Which gives me an idea: I miss those days I was young and I sought the company of people decades older than me. I saw in them not old age but wisdom and experience and expertise and mastery, a life well-lived.

But the radio stations belonged to them then, so did the newspapers and the magazines and the TV shows and the conversations at the dinner table. It was why, it just occurred to me now, the young acted old then. We emulated the old.

But we’ve turned the tables around. Our obsession with youth has robbed age of its many virtues. It has taken over our radio stations, our newspapers and magazines, our TV shows, and our conversations at the dinner table.

No wonder the old now act young. They emulate the young.

What a waste, all those centuries before us! It took a Manuntag concert for me to realize that and discover what a gem Shirley Bassey was.

Make that “is.”