Five-time Oscar-winning composer, who was best-known for his dramatic scores on the James Bond films
Published 06/02/2011 | 05:00
JOHN Barry, who died on January 30 aged 77, was one of the most successful of all film composers. He won five Oscars for scores that included Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, but wrote his best-known and most enduring music for the James Bond films.
His involvement with the espionage series began with the very first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962. Barry had written only a few film scores, but was well-known in the music business as an arranger, notably of Adam Faith's pop records. At short notice, knowing little about the character and not even having seen the film, he was asked to provide Bond's theme music.
The result was credited as Barry's arrangement of a piece by Monty Norman, and controversy over credit for the James Bond theme has persisted ever since. Supporters of Norman, who wrote much of the soundtrack for Dr No, say that he was behind the music.
Barry went on to write the music for 11 Bond films, his scores often written in minor keys but built on strong bass lines and buttressed by a brass wall of sound -- screeching trumpets and strident trombones. Many of the tunes teetered uneasily on the edge of camp, the result of Barry's striving for a suitable match for the overblown action on the screen.
But in scores for such films as Thunderball (1965), Diamonds Are Forever (1972) and Goldfinger (1964) -- in which he found his perfect interpreter in Shirley Bassey -- he defied the inherent implausibility of the subject matter ("He loves only gold!") to create some of the most dramatic music ever written for cinema. Barry himself, however, was phlegmatic about the success of his formula; it was, he said: "Million-dollar Mickey Mouse music."
He was born John Barry Prendergast in York on November 3, 1933. His father owned a chain of eight cinemas in the north of England and John's first memory was of watching a Disney cartoon at the Rialto in York; later, as a teenager, he ran the films from the projection box.
His parents also organised concerts on Sunday evenings at the cinemas, and as a boy John met such musicians as Count Basie and Thomas Beecham. He began to study the piano at nine and the trumpet at 16. The latter became a favoured instrument in his film scores, his liking for bold-sounding brass stemming from youthful lessons with Bill Russo, who had played in Stan Kenton's group. He also took lessons in composition from Francis Jackson, erstwhile organist of York Minster.
He formed his own band in 1957, the John Barry Seven, which accompanied early rock'n'roll tours, opening for such acts as Tommy Steele and Adam Faith, whose arranger Barry soon became. It was he who was responsible for the distinctive pizzicato strings (albeit, like Faith's hiccuping delivery, borrowed from Buddy Holly) on Faith's early hits, such as What Do You Want If You Don't Want Money? (1959).
The success of their partnership led to Barry's first work as a film composer, when he was asked in 1959 to write the music for Beat Girl, starring Faith. The film was unexceptional, but Barry's soundtrack became the first to be released in Britain. The following year he wrote the theme music to the panel programme Juke Box Jury.
Barry's most fertile creative period was the mid-1960s. The success of his scores for the Bond films (that for Goldfinger displaced the Beatles' album A Hard Day's Night from the top of the American charts) led to commissions for numerous other spy films, such as The Ipcress File (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966), and later for the TV series The Persuaders.
The themes he wrote for these, however, tended to reflect the shabbier deeds of their heroes and made use of such unearthly sounding instruments as the cimbalom to suggest an atmosphere closer to Graham Greene than Ian Fleming.
Among Barry's other scores of this period were those for Zulu (1963), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and the two that brought him his first Oscars: The Lion in Winter (1968), with Peter O'Toole as the ailing King Henry II; and Born Free (1966), the syrupy theme -- sung by Matt Monro and co-written with Don Black -- which also gained him an Oscar for best song. Barry's other regular lyricists included Hal David, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.
In 1970, he moved to California and became a tax exile. Indeed, despite his success, he owed large sums to the taxman, and shortly afterwards his company was liquidated with debts of £365,000. Seven years later, Mr Justice Templeman accused him of deliberately emigrating to avoid paying the £134,000 due to the taxman, and it was not until the late 1980s that the situation was resolved and Barry was able to return to England.
Although he was still used for Bond films, Barry's tax problems coincided with a general dip in his fortunes, and his stock did not recover until he was asked to score a Bruce Lee film, Game of Death, in the late 1970s.
He did not want to take the job and named an astronomical figure for his services. The producer accepted, and thereafter Barry became one of the most sought-after, and richest, film composers in Hollywood. He also won two more Oscars, with the lush yet sophisticated scores for Out of Africa (1985) and Kevin Costner's revisionist Western, Dances With Wolves (1990).
Beyond the Bond genre he dabbled from time to time with films based on historical events, earning Oscar nominations for the music for both Mary Queen of Scots (1971) and Chaplin (1992). Among the memorable movie themes there were, perhaps inevitably, a few duds -- not least for Howard the Duck (1986), a comedy science-fiction tale in which an anthropomorphic duck from another planet visits Earth and attempts to rescue a struggling singer whom he then falls for. Barry's last Bond film was The Living Daylights (1987), creating a Top 10 hit for pop group a-ha.
Such was Barry's confidence by the 1990s that he was able to stand up to Barbra Streisand. She commissioned him to write the music for her directorial debut, Prince of Tides (1991), but when she began to interfere with his work, Barry resigned, telling her: "You don't buy a dog and do the barking yourself." When Streisand protested that she adored all his scores, he replied: "Yup. And I wrote them all without you."
Barry also wrote scores for the films Playing by Heart (1998) and Engima (2001), based on the novel about Bletchley Park by Robert Harris. In 2004, he collaborated with the lyricist Don Black on a musical version of Graham Greene's novel Brighton Rock.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998. He won a Bafta Fellowship Award in 2005 and a Max Steiner Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the city of Vienna, in 2009.
John Barry had a chequered marital history, marrying all four of his wives when they were teenagers, some when they were half his age. He married first, in 1958 (dissolved 1963), Barbara Pickard, with whom he had a daughter. He married secondly, in 1965 (dissolved 1969), the actress Jane Birkin; they had a daughter. He married thirdly, in 1969 (dissolved 1974), Jane Sidey. He is survived by his fourth wife, Laurie, whom he married in 1976, and by four children.