John Barry: Composer and songwriter who won five Oscars and scored 11 of the James Bond films
Tuesday 01 February 2011
Not only was John Barry Britain's most successful film composer, he also won more Academy Awards than anyone else from the UK. He won five Oscars as well as four Grammys, and his distinctive music was a key part of the James Bond films. His music for The Ipcress File (1965) was praised by its star, Michael Caine, who looked at his thin frame and remarked, "How does he do it? He looks as though he hasn't got a note of music in him."
John Barry Prendergast was born in York in November 1933. His father, Jack Xavier Prendergast (known as JX) owned eight cinemas in the north of England. From a young age, Barry was obsessed by films and as a child he would be acting out battle scenes with Dinky toys to a background of classical records. His mother, Doris, was a concert pianist and his music teacher, Miss Baird, would wrap him across the knuckles if he played wrong notes. In his teens he developed an interest in jazz and wanted to play the trumpet like Harry James.
Rather like the young boy in Cinema Paradiso, he was working as a projectionist at the York Rialto from the age of 14. He never objected to being in the family business as he got to see the latest films. His father also promoted concerts and he befriended many American musicians. Although Barry was only 15, the bandleader Stan Kenton played one of his arrangements on stage. John Dankworth played an early composition of his on the radio.
He played in a local jazz band, the Modernaires, but he was conscripted in 1952. He realised that if he agreed to an extension for an additional year, he could select his regiment, which he did, and he spent his time playing with military ensembles.
In 1957, he formed the John Barry Seven and they were soon appearing on BBC-TV's teenage show, 6.5 Special, which led to touring appearances throughout the UK and a contract with EMI's Parlophone label. He was, however, no vocalist; one reviewer said that he sounded like a 45rpm record being played at 33. While on a rock'n'roll tour, Barry met Vic Flick, a guitarist with the Bob Cort Skiffle Group. Flick realised that working with Barry would create far more opportunities, and with Les Reed on piano, the Seven became a formidable act.
In 1959, the John Barry Seven became the resident group on the BBC's new teenage show, Drumbeat. Barry's composition, "Bees Knees", which sounds like a prototype for James Bond, was the theme music. With his fringe and sunken cheekbones, Adam Faith was immensely telegenic and his record producer, John Burgess, asked Barry to arrange Johnny Worth's songs for him. Intrigued by the pizzicato strings on Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", he wrote similar arrangements for "What Do You Want" and "Poor Me", both No 1s. Faith told me, "Johnny Worth, John Barry and myself were such a team that when I got my silver disc for 'What Do You Want', I seriously thought about splitting it in three."
Barry worked on many of Faith's hits and he also arranged Lance Fortune's "Be Mine", Russ Conway's "Pepe" and Marty Wilde's "Lonely Avenue".
In 1960, the John Barry Seven's "Hit And Miss" replaced Tony Osborne's "Juke Box Fury" as the theme music for Juke Box Jury, a programme produced by Russell Turner. Osborne's son, Gary, recalled, "I'm pretty sure my mum was having a bit of a 'flirtation' with Russell Turner. When my dad twigged, there was a falling-out, which is why his original theme for Juke Box Jury was suddenly replaced by 'Hit And Miss', which cemented John Barry's reputation. On such trifles do events and careers turn."
The John Barry Seven's "Hit And Miss" was, indeed, a hit, and they had several more chart entries, notably chasing the Ventures up the charts with a cover version of "Walk – Don't Run". Barry tired of touring and he hired Alan Bown, who looked like him, to front the band on engagements.
Adam Faith was keen to become a movie star, giving Barry the opportunity to work in films. His first film was Beat Girl (1960) and one of Faith's songs, "Made You", written by Barry and Trevor Peacock was banned by the BBC for its sexual innuendo. He wrote a dramatic score for Never Let Go (1960) starring Faith with Peter Sellers.
When the music of Gilbert and Sullivan came out of copyright in 1962, Michael Winner recruited Barry to transform The Mikado into The Cool Mikado, a staggeringly bad film starring Stubby Kaye and Frankie Howerd with a staggeringly bad score. With compositions like "Tit Willow Twist", Barry learnt from his mistakes.
In 1963, Barry joined the independent Ember label and was involved with many projects including arranging for the duo, Chad and Jeremy, who had several US hits. With Leslie Bricusse, Barry wrote "Christine", a controversial single for Miss X (actually Lionel Blair's sister, Joyce). Because of its connection to the Profumo affair, the BBC banned it but it still made the charts. While at Ember, Barry composed the music for the TV documentary, Elizabeth Taylor In London (1963) as well the films Four In The Morning and Zulu, both 1964.
During the Swinging Sixties he was married to his second wife, Jane Birkin, who appeared in a film he scored, The Knack...And How To Get It (1965). She said: "Newsweek wrote about John Barry and his E-type Jaguar and his E-type wife, which is exactly what I was." Birkin left Barry and went to France, where she married Serge Gainsbourg.
When the first James Bond film, Dr No, was made in 1962, Barry was asked to arrange Monty Norman's music. This included The James Bond Theme itself and, in later years, Barry felt aggrieved, despite all his honours, that his name was not with Norman's as joint composer. This eventually came to court, where Norman's sole authorship was acknowledged. In 2008, Vic Flick told me that neither of them had sought to credit his contribution, although it is Flick's guitar that everyone remembers.
The jazzy James Bond Theme set the musical tone for the series and Barry was to score 11 of the films. When Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley were asked to write lyrics for the title song of Goldfinger (1964), Barry played them his music and, much to his chagrin, they sang "Moon River" to the opening notes. Goldfinger became a career song for Shirley Bassey, and Barry and Bricusse also wrote the title song for You Only Live Twice (1967) for Nancy Sinatra. He also co-wrote the titles songs for A View To A Kill (1985) and The Living Daylights (1987) with Duran Duran and a-ha respectively.
Barry's work on the Bond films never won him an Academy Award; his five Oscars came from Born Free (1966: best score and also best song, co-written with Don Black and sung to perfection by Matt Monro), The Lion In Winter (1968, best score), Out Of Africa (1985, best score) and Dances With Wolves (1990, best score). He was awarded an OBE in 1999 and a Bafta fellowship in 2005.
Barry's TV themes include those for The Persuaders (1971) and Orson Welles' Great Mysteries (1973). His stage musicals include Passion Flower Hotel (1965, written with Trevor Peacock), Billy (1974, based on Billy Liar, with Don Black) and, most recently, Brighton Rock, also with Don Black, in 2004. A collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner was not as memorable as it should have been as they chose the wrong subject for their musical, Lolita, My Love (1971).
There is so much to commend in Barry's film music, but his most adventurous assignment was to write a concerto to accompany the robbery in Deadfall (1968), which starred Eric Portman, Michael Caine and Nanette Newman and was directed by Bryan Forbes. Barry is seen conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the film and it is exceptional music. In later years, he worked on long orchestral pieces and in 1999, wrote and recorded the highly acclaimed CD The Beyondness Of Things (1998) which topped the UK classical charts. It was followed by Eternal Echoes (2001). Barry conducted his own compositions but in later years he found it demanding and might only conduct three or four items during the evening.
The beautiful jazz-influenced The Beyondness Of Things had been influenced by Barry thinking about his autobiography and realising that he would rather write tone poems. Although he never wrote his own story, he has been well served by Geoff Leonard, Pete Walker and Gareth Bramley who wrote John Barry – The Man With The Midas Touch (2008). Barry's most recent work was writing songs with his old friend Don Black for Shirley Bassey's album, The Performance (2009).
John Barry Prendergast (John Barry), film composer: born York 3 November 1933; OBE 1999; married 1959 Barbara Pickard (divorced 1963; one child), 1965 Jane Birkin (divorced 1968; one child), 1969 Jane Sidey (divorced 1971), 1978 Lauren (four children); one other child, and one child with Ulla Larsson: died New York 30 January 2011.
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