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Tributes to John Barry, the man with the Midas touch for movie music

The skill of a great film composer is to marry moving images with sound in such a way that they seem organically linked. Yesterday the superlative John Barry united film and music one last time, as figures from both circles offered tributes to his career on the news of his death at 77.

Mr Barry, who died of a heart attack in his adopted home city of New York, played a vital part in establishing the James Bond films in the public imagination. There was far more to his career than the spy movie franchise, however. He won a total of five Oscars for his work on Dances With Wolves, Out Of Africa, The Lion In Winter and Born Free, for which he won two.

Many of his most famous and evocative scores were written in the 1960s during the age of Beatlemania, a phenomenon of which James Bond clearly disapproved. Sean Connery, playing Bond in Goldfinger, states: "There are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs."

Yet prior to his film-scoring career, Mr Barry had considerable success with his own pop group, the John Barry Seven, which he formed in 1957. And while his first passion was classical music – his idol was Gustav Mahler – together with lyricists such as Don Black and Leslie Bricusse he composed grand orchestral melodies that were still catchy enough to create some of the decade's most memorable pop songs. Thunderball remains one of the most popular numbers in Tom Jones' repertoire, while You Only Live Twice – featuring Nancy Sinatra – proved so timeless that it was sampled prominently in Robbie Williams' number one single Millennium more then 30 years later.

Yesterday Tim Rice paid tribute to this versatility, saying: "He made these great rock 'n' roll records and then you heard these symphonic works as well."

Born in York in 1933, Barry was the son of a former concert pianist and the owner of a small chain of cinemas. His youth was therefore steeped in piano music and the movies, before he discovered jazz in his teens and took up the trumpet. He began arranging music during his two years of national service with the army, and on being asked to score his first movie in 1960 found he had a natural talent.

Don Black, who wrote the lyrics for Born Free, told The Independent that the death of the man he considered one of his best friends for the past 50 years came as a shock. "He was a bit fragile the last year – he was never very robust anyway – but he wasn't ill," he said.

Black fondly remembers the John Barry of his youth, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Bond man-about-town and over long lunches tended to consume more alcohol than food.

"In his hell-raising days he used to drink too much and I used to end up taking him home, though that hadn't happened for the last 30 years. He used to have lots of beautiful women and fancy cars and all of that. He was a handsome, eligible bachelor, very vibrant and very attractive with that Yorkshire accent. I don't know who you'd liken him to – the George Clooney of his day, I suppose."

But Black said the four-times married Barry remained true to his roots. "He never changed, he was still the boy from Yorkshire all the way through. There was nothing New York about him, even though he'd lived there for 40 years. He'd never been to a deli or had a pickle or had a big sandwich – he was still a lad who liked fish and chips with vinegar on the side."

Black worked on many songs with Barry. "He would go away and say, 'Come in Wednesday and I'll be ready with that tune'. By then he had been through every kind of emotion in writing it and it had been vetted to an inch of its life. So when he said, 'Here it is', it was more like an unveiling."

David Arnold, who succeeded Barry as the main Bond composer in recent years, told the BBC: "It's impossible to separate James Bond from John Barry's music. They went hand in hand. He was able to show you the menace, the sexiness, the aggression and the emotion.

"Everything that is cool and fabulous about James Bond is in the music. You could be stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 in a Ford Fiesta, but if you're playing a John Barry score you're in an Aston Martin. It was just an extraordinary, transfigurative thing he did."

John Barry 1933-2011

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

"He was able to catch the mood of a scene or a whole film by the genius of orchestration with fairly conventional instruments. Film seemed to bring out the very best in him." - Sir Tim Rice

Out of Africa (1985)

"When he played you a melody it was like an unveiling. You didn't question it because you knew he had been up all night working on it." - Don Black (lyricist)

Goldfinger (1964)

"I think James Bond would have been far less cool without John Barry holding his hand." - Current Bond composer David Arnold

Born Free (1966)

"He wrote some of the most memorable and beautiful scores we could ever wish to hear." - Michael Crawford