For the longest time, I had never even heard of this song, in any of its incarnations. I was led to it by a newspaper feature I try never to miss: The Financial Times’ “The Life of a Song” column in its weekend edition, which, several months ago, told of the tune’s prosaic genesis—the theme of a 1950s Western starring Anthony Quinn.
Johnny Mathis’ 1957 version did little to make listeners think of “Wild is the Wind” as much more than rather soporific film music. It was Nina Simone’s 1964 cover, complete with thunderous piano and lengthened to an electrifying seven minutes at Carnegie Hall, that turned the song inside out. It was this latter version that fired the imagination of David Bowie and lured him to follow its lead.
The British rocker first tried his hand at the Dimitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington song on his 1976 LP, Station to Station. It had, he told Rolling Stone interviewer (and future filmmaker) Cameron Crowe, “a good European feel.” But its appreciation by an unlikely visitor to his recording session, Frank Sinatra, surely didn’t hurt its final inclusion on the album.
Thirty years later, Bowie was still at it, in this YouTube clip. His rendition of the song’s life-on-the-line lyrics (“With your kiss my life begins”) gains even more in poignancy when it’s recalled that he performed it last at a private AIDS benefit in New York in November 2006—hauntingly, his final public performance. It was so appropriate: In this impassioned rendition, he holds nothing back.