john barry
‘Just like his music, John Barry was an elegant man.’

 ‘The Simplicity Of a Perfect Theme’

Always cutting a dashing figure, John Barry helped put James Bond on the map, and then revolutionized film music.

November 3, 1933-January 30, 2011

Born Free. The Lion in Winter. Out of Africa. Dances With Wolves. Twelve of 15 James Bond films, including Goldfinger. Mary, Queen of Scots. Chaplin. Midnight Cowboy. The Cotton Club. Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years. Robin and Marian.

What all these movies, and many more, had in common was music composed and conducted by John Barry, a giant of film composing who won five Academy Awards for his work (two for Born Free, one each for The Lion In Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves), four Grammy Awards, and in many estimations revolutionized film music through his deep understanding of contemporary as well as classical music and finding common ground between the two in his scores. He will forever be identified with the James Bond franchise, and the theme he is credited with but did not write, but Barry’s fans--film pros and audiences alike--treasure the lyricism and emotional subtlety of other works, whether it was the winsome, spare, harmonica-based theme for Midnight Cowboy, the jazzy organ driving the soundtrack for Richard Lester’s pre-Hard Day’s Night romp, The Knack (And How To Get It), and the sheer loveliness and fatalistic mood his music brought to the late-life study of England’s most famous outlaw and the love of his life in Robin and Marian, another Richard Lester film.

Born in York, England, 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 and began leading what became a popular U.K. jazz-pop group, the John Barry Seven. He began arranging music during his two years of national service with the army, and on being asked to score his first movie in 1959 found he had a natural talent. John Barry died of a heart attack on January 30 at his home in Oyster Bay, NY. He is survived by Laurie, his wife of 33 years; four children; and five grandchildren.

The John Barry Seven, ‘Bee’s Knees’

Upon news of Barry’s death, tributes poured in from all over. In the first days after his death, numerous stories surfaced about the controversy over Barry’s appropriation of the James Bond theme from composer Monty Norman, whose credits included Expresso Bongo and Irma La Douce and who was commissioned to write a theme for the first James Bond film, Dr. No. When Norman’s songs failed to satisfy the producers, Barry, known primarily as a pop star in the U.K. as leader of the John Barry Seven, was brought in to craft a new theme. On balance, the now-instantly-identifiable twangy guitar played by the Barry group’s Vic Flick (real name) that defines the sound of the theme would seem to be a natural Barry touch--it had first surfaced in 1959 in Barry’s first movie theme song, for the British teen exploitation film, Beat Girl--but in a court proceeding Norman was awarded £30,000 in libel damages from the London Sunday Times for an article claiming Norman had wrongly taken credit for composing the Bond theme. Neither side ever gave in: Barry posted his account of the Sunday Times case at his John Barry Resource website (since taken down), Norman continues to collect the royalties he was contractually due and to defend himself against charges his most famous composition is not his. At his website homepage a notice is posted:

Monty has had to go to Court three times to defend his composition. Once because a monthly magazine wrote that he had bought the James Bond Theme from a Jamaican for $100! And twice because a weekly musical paper and a Sunday newspaper respectively said that John Barry wrote the James Bond Theme.

Monty won all three actions. The last libel case ended in the High Court on March 19 2001. The jury returned a unanimous verdict in Monty's favour. Monty was completely vindicated. The world knew once and for all, despite previous myths, innuendoes and Chinese whispers: what Monty and most of the profession had always known: Monty Norman composed the James Bond Theme.

The Sunday Times paid damages and costs.

John Barry’s first film theme, for Beat Girl (1959). Check out the twangy guitar.

A day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the legal proceeding in the “James Bond Theme” lawsuit is online.

Soon the fuss over the James Bond theme subsided and more writers, some who knew Barry, weighed in with their appraisals of his achievements and legacy, allowing for a more balanced tribute to an authentic film music trailblazer. A sampling:

John Barry: An Appreciation by Jon Burlingame at Film News Archive:

John Barry was one of a kind. He invented a new style of action-adventure music for the movies—that much is certain--but he was equally adept at quiet dramas, historical epics and contemporary thrillers. And what's more, he could write music appropriate to all of these kinds of movies and still sound like nobody else.

Barry's death marks the passing of an era. Yes, some of our musical icons from the 1960s, '70s and '80s are still around, still writing, still conducting... but the loss of John Barry is keenly felt simply because there was no one quite like him.

The famous and fought-over James Bond Theme from Dr. No (1962)

He had the good fortune to musically launch the James Bond franchise because the twangy, guitar-driven, jazz-rock sound of the John Barry Seven was considered a commercially viable choice for the Bond theme. The result was a fresh approach for all of the 007 movies: bold and brassy, what he called "million-dollar Mickey Mouse music," not in any derogatory fashion but rather describing a lively, fun, pop-orchestral style that was perfect for the exploits of a globetrotting, larger-than-life British spy. Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever—their brash title songs and powerful scores were unlike anything we'd ever heard in the cinema.

"He revolutionized film music," lyricist Don Black said. "John Barry is the reason I wanted to write film music," composer David Arnold wrote. "Barry was the master of encapsulating the spirit of an entire motion picture with the simplicity of a perfect theme," his longtime agent Richard Kraft said shortly after Barry's passing.


‘Goldfinger,’ music composed and conducted by John Barry, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley. Jimmy Page played guitar on the session, George Martin produced. (1964)

‘Tributes to John Barry, the man with the Midas touch for movie music,’by Rob Hastings, The Independent:

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 than 30 years later.


Theme from From Russia With Love--the lone Bond film without a song playing over the title credits.(1963)

Geoffrey Macnab: John Barry was every bit as vital as a star director, The Independent:

Soundtrack composers take great pleasure in startling their audiences by working against the grain. They'll choose unusual instruments and turn genre conventions on their head. John Barry--one of the greatest movie composers--did this regularly. It's a measure of his genius that the effect was never jarring and that his scores defined the movies every bit as much as the direction or performances.

Take The Ipcress File (1965), in which Michael Caine played the crumpled spy Harry Palmer. For this score, Barry opted to use a cimbalon. The effect was every bit as mesmerizing as the Anton Karas zither on the Harry Lime theme in The Third Man.

The Ipcress File score, with its echoing brass, was lilting but deceptive. There was a hint of mystery and menace about it. The setting may have been Sixties London but that wasn't where the music seemed to come from. Barry may have played rock 'n' roll and his band might have backed Adam Faith but that didn't lead him to make glib swinging Sixties references.

For another thriller, The Quiller Memorandum, he chose a barrel organ. He was a pioneer of the Moog synthesizer too, using it both on On Her Majesty's Secret Service and for his score for TV's The Persuaders.

John Barry, The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

His lovely harmonica theme for Midnight Cowboy added pathos and a sense of yearning to a film set in a very sleazy and downbeat milieu. At the same time, he was capable of writing martial scores, full of pomp and ceremony, as he did for Zulu, or rousing arrangements, reminiscent of the old Hollywood scores he so admired (for example, for Born Free or Out Of Africa.)

Without John Barry, would the James Bond series ever have become the worldwide phenomenon that it did? Barry's music played as important a part in defining the Bond brand as the gadgets or stunts. It was also a point of continuity. Whatever digressions the series made, whatever its occasional false steps, the Barry music gave the Bond films both dynamism and gravitas.


John Barry, Theme from Midnight Cowboy (1969)

And this excerpt from a personal take penned by Barry’s long-time lyricist, Don Black, published in the Daily Mail Online:

John had a way of connecting emotionally with a story—an understanding that resulted in the most beautiful and appropriate music—a skill that was in many ways at odds with his brusque Yorkshire roots.

He was passionate about his work. I remember in the Sixties when we were at John's apartment in London with Bond producer Harry Saltzman.

He told us he didn’t like the tune for Diamonds Are Forever and the lyrics were too sexy.

John exploded, told Saltzman he didn’t know anything about song writing and threw him out. I thought we were finished, but luckily Bond producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli loved it.

On another occasion, John stood up to Barbra Streisand, which is not something many people have done.

She asked him to work with her on the film Prince Of Tides and when he sent her a score she told him it was the best she’d ever heard.

He was pleased, so when she rang the next day to see if he could try something different, he agreed. Again, she praised it.

But when she rang again, asking for another attempt, he refused point blank, telling her working with her had been a thoroughly joyless experience.

That was the end of his work with Streisand—but with more than 90 movie scores to his credit he could afford to let that one go.

Luckily for him, other women were more enamored with him.

John Barry with his girlfriend Jane Birkin in Barry’s Jaguar e-type

He had three short marriages, including a three-year union with the actress Jane Birkin, before marrying the love of his life, Laurie, in 1978.

It was while on National Service as a bandsman in Cyprus and Egypt that he began composing. He took a correspondence course with a jazz composer and started arranging music for his band, The John Barry Seven.

While he will be remembered for his orchestral melodies, he actually got his first taste of fame on the pop scene. In the late Fifties, he composed the theme tune to the hugely successful TV music show Juke Box Jury, before becoming a regular guest on another music show, Drumbeat. His movie debut was Adam Faith’s first film, Beat Girl, in 1960: John composed, arranged and conducted the score.

But the breakthrough that was to make his name came when the producers of Dr. No asked him to rearrange a theme tune by British composer Monty Norman. The result was the iconic James Bond theme tune.

The scores for the second Bond film From Russia With Love and war film Zulu followed, so when in 1964 John asked if I’d like to write the lyrics to Thunderball, it was a golden opportunity.

I had been working in London as an office boy and then music promoter, before becoming manager for singer Matt Monro.

John told me he had always loved the lyrics to a song I had written for Monro called “Walk Away,” and asked if I would like to work with him.

Born Free, title song by John Barry (music) and Don Black (lyrics). The great Matt Monro sings it. Winner, Academy Award, 1966, Best Original Score

It was the start of what can only be described as a half-century romance.

Working with John was a joy, because he didn’t present you with a rough idea, but a finished product.

You knew by the time you got hold of the music he would have agonized over it, rewritten it and honed it until it was perfect.

He would watch an entire film without sound before beginning to work his magic.

He got up early, around 5:30 a.m., and would work solidly until noon. John wasn’t a great pianist, but he would compose at the piano and then have it played back to him so he could critique it.

He loved American and British politics, and anything to do with Churchill or Nabokov. Another habit was shopping in bespoke men’s stores where you had to ring a bell and be admitted personally.

Just like his music, John Barry was an elegant man.

Out of Africa, opening sequence and main theme (by John Barry). 1985.s

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