Barry Mason: Prolific songwriter best known for ‘Delilah’ and ‘The Last Waltz’

His lyrics to Les Reed’s melodies brought hits for Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and others

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 06 May 2021 16:46
<p>Mason outside a house he bought from George Harrison</p>

Mason outside a house he bought from George Harrison

Barry Mason, who has died aged 85, was a songwriter behind some of the most recognisable pop ballads of the 1960s.

The most dramatic was Tom Jones’s 1968 hit “Delilah”, where Mason’s lyrics combined with the melody of his longest-running collaborator, Les Reed, to tell the story of a man killing his lover in revenge for her infidelity.

“I was inspired by ‘Jezebel’, the old Frankie Laine hit,” he said of a 1951 song first recorded by the American singer before record charts were established. “I used to love ‘story songs’ when I was a kid.”

In another interview, Mason said he based the song on a Welsh girl called Delia with whom he had a fling in Blackpool while on holiday when he was 15, only for her to tell him before returning home that she had a boyfriend. “I was sick with jealousy,” he added.

But Sylvan, his girlfriend – and, later, wife – who claimed to have written the lyrics with him, contradicted this story. Reed, she said, suggested a modern Samson and Delilah tale, but she and Mason switched to the storyline of the 1954 film Carmen Jones, where Harry Belafonte – seething with passion, jealousy and rage – strangles his adulterous lover.

“Delilah” reached No 2 in Britain, charted across the globe, won Mason and Reed an Ivor Novello award for the year’s best song – and became a Welsh rugby fans’s anthem.

Dozens of acts have since covered it, none more theatrically than The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who took it back into the UK Top 10 in 1975. Their tongue-in-cheek version featured dramatic pauses and a staccato keyboard arrangement.

An even bigger hit for Mason and Reed was “The Last Waltz”, which took Engelbert Humperdinck all the way to No 1 in 1967 – for five weeks in Britain and nine in Australia. It also made the US Top 30 and became a staple closing number at dances.

Humperdinck had hits with other Mason-Reed songs when the pair wrote “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize” for a British short film of the same name in 1968 and “Winter World of Love”, a No 1 in the US the following year.

“I’m Coming Home” was another success for Jones in 1967, peaking at No 2 in the UK, and Des O’Connor topped the charts with “I Pretend”, in 1968.

The writers worked to a routine, meeting on Sundays at the Surrey house of Reed, who played around with tunes on his grand piano. The two would come up with ideas and Mason wrote the lyrics there or at home.

Their formula of providing material for middle-of-the-road balladeers appeared to go against the grain at a time when many young music fans were gyrating to rock’n’roll and screaming to the sounds of The Beatles and other 1960s bands.

They did write Top 10 hits for two beat groups, The Fortunes’ “Here It Comes Again” (1965) and the Dave Clark Five’s “Everybody Knows” (1967), but the latter was a long way from the sound that had inspired foot stomping from the band’s dance-hall audiences years earlier.

By the end of the 1960s, Reed was developing wider interests as a producer, musical arranger and orchestra conductor, and set up his own record label.

The pair then wrote only a handful of new songs together. “Girl of Mine”, recorded as an album track by Humperdinck in 1972, was given more of a country feel by Elvis Presley on his LP Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake the following year.

Mason had already started working with other tunesmiths. With varying degrees of success, his singles included Des O’Connor’s “One, Two, Three O’Leary” with Michael Carr (No 4, 1968); Cilla Black’s “Where Is Tomorrow” with Umberto Bindi (No 39, 1968); and Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” with Tony Macaulay (No 1, 1970). With Roger Greenaway, he wrote The Drifters’s “There Goes My First Love” (No 3, 1975) and Tom Jones’s “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow”, which just made the top 40 in 1977.

John Barry Mason was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1935 to Phyllis (née Hart), a stock car driver and sister of international speedway rider Oliver Hart, and Cecil Mason, a journalist.

When he was six, the family moved to his maternal grandfather’s farm in the nearby village of Coppull and Mason went to boarding school in Prestatyn, Flintshire, before attending Baines Grammar School, Poulton-le-Fylde.

After the death of his father in 1944, Mason’s mother ran a Blackpool hotel. Five years later, she married an American GI and moved to Ohio.

Following national service in the royal marines, Mason moved to the United States and studied English literature and American history at Ohio State University.

Then, with ideas of performing, he dropped out and hitchhiked along Route 66 to Hollywood. “I spent three years trying and failing dismally to become a singer or actor there,” he recalled.

Returning to Britain, he headed for London, where he met a neighbour, singer Tommy Bruce. He agreed to manage him and finance a demo recording of the Fats Waller-Andy Razaf song “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, which was then released as a single and reached No 3 in 1960.

Mason’s first stab at writing came when he teamed Bruce up with the Bruisers, a Birmingham band, and wrote “My Little Girl”, the B-side of a single.

He then penned “Don’t Cry”, with Peter Green – the Bruisers’ vocalist – which appeared as another B-side, to Bruce and the band’s 1963 minor hit “Blue Girl”. The pair wrote The Merseybeats’s Top 20 single “Don’t Turn Around” the following year and Green (also known as Peter Lee Stirling) went on to find some success as a singer under the name Daniel Boone.

Mason even teamed up with Jimmy Page to co-write with the future Led Zeppelin star his first solo single, “She Just Satisfies”, in 1965.

Meanwhile, a music publisher introduced him to Reed, who was looking for a lyricist and had already been working with Tom Jones – as a musical arranger on his recordings and writer, with the star’s manager, Gordon Mills, of the No 1 single “It’s Not Unusual”.

The first Mason-Reed hit was The Fortunes single “Here It Comes Again”, which reached No 4 in 1965.

Their only outright failure was “Who’s Doctor Who?”, a novelty song recorded in 1968 by Frazer Hines, who starred in the sci-fi programme as the Time Lord’s companion Jamie McCrimmon.

The duo also composed a football song, “Leeds Leeds Leeds”, aka “Marching on Together”, released on the B-side of the club’s 1972 hit single “Leeds United”. It continued to be played at their ground before the start of games and was re-released as an A-side in 2010, briefly returning to the Top 10.

Mason later wrote lyrics for Barbra Streisand’s 1988 album track “Why Let It Go”; two David Hasselhoff LPs, Looking for Freedom (1989) and Crazy for You (1990); and child star Declan Galbraith’s 2002 Top 30 hit “Tell Me Why”.

He was made MBE in 2020.

Mason’s three marriages, to Patricia Ellis (1961), Sylvan (née Suilven) Whittingham (1972) and Elizabeth Clifton (1982), ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Vanessa Martin, and his children: Aimi, from his second marriage, and Maggie and Tyler, from the third.

Barry Mason, songwriter, born 12 July 1935, died 16 April 2021