It was with sadness that I heard at the beginning of the week that John Barry had died. Born John Barry Prendergast, he was one of the best known, most recognisable and most honoured of British film composers. He won 16 awards including Oscars on five occasions (two for Born Free, with further wins for The lion in winter, Out of Africa and Dances with wolves), a BAFTA and a BAFTA Fellowship, a Golden Globe and four Grammys, and was nominated a further 21 times.
It was perhaps inevitable that John Barry should have spent his life composing for the movies. Born in York in 1933, his father ran a chain of cinemas and his mother was a pianist. In spite of his background as a classical pianist Barry was always drawn to jazz, and was a successful jazz trumpeter. While on National Service he took a correspondence course in jazz composition, and started to write popular music. His movie debut was the score for the film Beat girl in 1960. The UL has three numbers from this at B1968.17-19.
Shortly after this he was asked to arrange the main theme for Dr. No, the first film in the James Bond series. Monty Norman had adapted the theme from an earlier work of his, but it was Barry who gave it its heart. A long series of Bond films then followed with many iconic songs including Diamonds are forever, Goldfinger and You only live twice – part of which was later re-used for Robbie Williams‘ first UK solo number one Millennium.
Don Black, then the manager of singer Matt Monro (Born free, From Russia with love), was drafted in to provide the lyrics for Thunderball. Barry and Black became friends and worked extensively together for the next 50 years. Surprisingly, in spite of his Bond success, none of Barry’s Bond hits were ever nominated for an Academy Award.
Barry’s day began early, getting up at 5.30 a.m. and working until noon. He would usually watch a film straight through with no soundtrack and would then start to work on ideas. It will be no surprise to those who enjoyed his film scores that the emotion at the heart of the script was of more importance to him than merely mirroring the action.
As a child he was heavily influenced by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood and by Max Steiner‘s score for The treasure of the Sierra Madre. Listening to these scores the influence is obvious, Barry was at his best when writing broad sweeping scores with lush strings and brass for such panoramic epics as Dances with wolves and Out of Africa. He was a proud recipient of the Max Steiner Award. His jazz background however meant that he was also adept at quirkier theme tunes such as those used for the Bond films and The Ipcress File. He could also be innovative, he was one of the first film composers to use synthesizers.
At the UL we have a number of anthologies of film music – such as The definitive John Barry collection, which features many of Barry’s best known film themes. You can also explore the wider world of John Barry through Spinneree (item no. 6 in M340.b.95.46), an early piano piece. Check through the secondary music card catalogues in the Anderson Room for more early Barry. John Barry also wrote a number of stage musicals, but these generally fared less well than his film work. Alice in Wonderland, a film musical, was however moderately successful, and we have a songbook for that at B1973.108. We also have two biographies of Barry : John Barry : a life in music and John Barry : a Sixties theme. Don’t miss Vanity Fair’s interview with Barry for a fascinating look at his life, and read Don Black’s tribute to his friend.
One of the major names in cinema music Barry provided not only a soundtrack for some great movies, his work has become an indelible part of the musical soundscape of the twentieth century.