John Barry: A Retrospective on a Wordless Poet
On January 30, 2011, iconic and very prolific musician and composer John Barry passed away, having been in ill health for some time. He was seventy-seven years old at the time of his passing, but he was a creative force that lived a very full and productive life, as the mourning over his death has attested.
You may not immediately know him by name, but you certainly know his sound. He has written many famous and popular film scores and is known the world over for his iconic work on nearly a dozen James Bond pictures. He may not have written the ultra-famous Bond theme (as we’ll touch on more in a bit); however, his heavy stamp is all over its arrangement, which was his official task in its creation.
His influence didn’t end there though. A multitude of respected projects would be graced by his composer’s pen. He was an emotionally introspective and poetic composer whose haunting themes and pulsing atmospheric rhythms gained him far reaching notoriety. He was also a five-time Oscar winner (Born Free—both score and song; The Lion in Winter; Out of Africa; Dances with Wolves), a Grammy winner (Dances with Wolves), and two-time BAFTA winner (The Lion in Winter and the Academy Fellowship award). He was nominated for 11 Golden Globe awards, taking home a win for Out of Africa. His work was far from limited to a specific genre and he famously contributed many excellent scores to science fiction, fantasy, horror, drama, comedy, romance and action films—including, of course, several Bond pictures.
Born John Barry Prendergast in 1933, the son of a movie theater owner in York, England, he would be bitten by the film and music bug at an early age. Young Barry studied classical piano and, like many of his generation (and after), he developed a keen interest in jazz. Given how much he used the guitar in his compositions—especially earlier in his career—it’s interesting to note that the trumpet was his chosen instrument to play.
Barry studied under American jazz musician Bill Russo as well as composer Dr. Francis Jackson at York Minster and, after a three year stint in the military—having served in a band unit—he decided to strike out on his own. He formed a band, The John Barry Seven, and started a successful career in the pop and jazz genres. The band would, for approximately seven years, ironically, become one of the two or three busiest and most successful rock & roll bands in the UK. They worked as the backup group to large acts, including the likes of Paul Anka, who was quite popular in England at the time, were busy on BBC television shows and signed on with EMI’s Parlophone label. All the bouncing around between York, London and other parts of the British Isles took its toll though, and the band became less stable, with some members going and new ones coming. Guitarist Ken Richards would exit as just one of the band’s casualties and be replaced by Vic Flick, who would reach a much respected status in his own right (among other things, his would become that famous guitar riff in the James Bond theme).
At the very end of the 1950’s, the John Barry Seven had moved on to a television series called Drumbeat. It starred an up-and-comer named Adam Faith. Barry quickly became his arranger while the group became his backing band. It all must have been by the hand of providence because Adam Faith became a star and that is one of the main impulses that led to Barry becoming one of the biggest successes in early British rock & roll. The John Barry Seven was one of the two top backing bands in England. Only a group called The Shadows could claim more success than them. In fact, the group was so popular that they rather succinctly came to be known as JB7.
Soon John Barry and his band left Parlophone and signed with EMI’s more prestigious Columbia label. They maintained their working relationship with Faith, though, on both recordings and on tour. Providence continued playing its hand and in 1960 the John Barry Seven were attached to Adam Faith’s first feature film, Beat Girl, for which they created some rather spunky musical accompaniment.
Not long after this, composer Monty Norman was working on a little film project called Dr. No, the first movie in what was hoped would become a series of films about a secret agent named James Bond. Norman liked and identified with Barry’s style and recommended that he do the arranging—not the writing, mind you—on the theme for the film’s main character. What’s that they say about the rest being history? Barry took Norman’s theme and turned it into what has arguably become the most famous piece of film music on all of planet Earth.
It’s not too difficult to see why Barry was given the opportunity to head up the music on From Russia with Love, the second Bond outing. For it Barry once again worked magic and created an iconic score that helped elevate the Bond franchise to a vaulted level that it might not quite have otherwise met.
With everyone being so happy with Barry’s work on From Russia with Love and its huge box-office and critical success, there was little question as to who would be scoring the next Bond outing. Goldfinger would be the third in the series (which has thus far seen 22 screen adaptations with a 23rd on the way) and to this day it is still considered one of the very best Bond films of all time, not to mention a true classic in the annals of cinema history. Once again, a solid portion of the film’s success and endearment was due in no small part to John Barry. Just as the film as a whole is considered quintessential Bond, so too is Barry’s powerfully emotive score. Very few would question its status as not only one of the very best scores in the series, but also as one of the best and most evocative films scores of all time. The title song as sung—or rather gloriously belted out—by the great Shirley Bassey was a runaway hit, as was the soundtrack itself (it even pushed the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night off the top of the album charts and won Barry a gold disc). If there was any doubt that Barry was the perfect person for the job, it was wiped forever clear after this.
Intriguingly, however, not long after Barry completed his work on Goldfinger he received communication from producer Harry Saltzman. “I got a phone call from Harry,” cited Barry in a 2006 article in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper. “He never used to come down to the recording sessions, and he says (of the title song): ’John, that is the worst f***ing song I ever heard in my life. We open in three weeks’ time, otherwise I’d take that f***ing song out of the picture. I’d take it out! Out!’”
Now, to be fair, Saltzman was not a producer prone to such colossal miscalls, but this was certainly one that lay at his feet. Still, when all was said and done, little questioning of Barry’s choices would occur again in relation to the scoring of a James Bond picture. He would go on to score eleven of those Ian Fleming-based secret agent films and, as indicated, in so doing would cement a solid position in the history of his profession.
To return to Dr. No and musician-composer Monty Norman for a moment, it is true (though some still like to sentimentally argue that it isn’t) that Norman did write the main theme for Dr. No (along with the rest of the score). However, it was Barry’s arrangement and performance of that version for the 007 cue which would become one of the most re-recorded pieces of music in history. Ultimately, Monty Norman landed as little more than a footnote in Bond history. Musically speaking, it became all Barry’s and he would grow into a sentimental favorite composer of film and film music fans all over the globe.
In a 1996 interview with Film Score Monthly, Barry credited big band leader Stan Kenton with the inspiration for the Bond style. “I think the genesis of the Bond sound was most certainly that Kentonesque sharp attack,” he said, pointing out Kenton’s brassy sound and notes that hit extreme highs and lows. Though that was not an actual claim of creating the theme itself, it’s close enough to cause confusion, and probably so by intent. For Norman’s part, the whole Bond theme genesis has been a real thorn in his side which he has felt compelled to pull at over the years. He has gone to court over it at least three times (twice against publications and in one instance involving Barry himself) and has been victorious each time. The theme, and the royalties from it, are his, but the fame, adulation and rare level of success are John Barry’s.
The Bond theme actually goes back to an East Asian-set stage musical Norman was working on in the 1950s that never saw the light of day. One quick listen shows from whence the genesis of the Bond piece comes. A valuable lesson here might be to never throw out your work. You never know when the right time for it might come along . . . or when you might need it to defend something else you do.
Norman has had a hard time getting his points to stick, but he does (somewhat understandably) get his digs where he can, as evidenced by the following:
At any rate, fate made its call and Barry was its main beneficiary. The Living Daylights, in 1987, would be his final Bond film. When asked in 2006 by The Sunday Express of London why he never scored another in the series he replied, “I gave up after (that). I’d exhausted all my ideas, rung all the changes possible. It was a formula that had run its course. The best had been done as far as I was concerned.”
Though Barry is perhaps best known for the work he did on the Bond series, those scores are merely a fraction of his body of work. He would eventually write the music for well over a hundred productions. In that there would be television, stage and radio—not to mention very personal efforts—that would beckon him to put pencil to music sheet. In 2006 he would work with ten well-known tenors on an album titled Here’s to the Heroes. This featured a number of past Barry themes with lyrics provided by his friend, Don Black. A very pleasant, top-selling listening experience was the result. Barry observed, “I’ve always loved writing for singers and to have 10 voices to write for was fantastic. They have all different kinds of techniques going—falsettos, the whole range of voice production—so it’s like a band of musical instruments. They’re extraordinary.”
Earlier, in 1998, Barry produced a personal work titled The Beyondness of Things. It is one of his most lovely and perhaps loving works, full of the romance and drama that the composer has been so famous for. One of its inspirations seems to have been the feelings he would sense while traveling back and forth between Northern England and Long Island, New York. In the CD’s liner notes he wrote: “Both these visions, past and present—‘The Old Country’ and ‘The New World’—harbour so many dreams, memories and reflections beyond the norm: The Beyondness of Things.” A typically romantic and longing sentiment from a poet who worked without words.
In point of fact, John Barry was one of the most romantic film composers of his or any generation. Even his action cues have a romantic, moody quality which begs multiple listenings. And several films owe much of their critical and audience acclaim to his sweeping, melodic, moving style. Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves are two clear examples. These scores simply ascend with a lush beauty that instantly envelopes the viewer-listener and conjures something in the heart that refuses to be denied. Barry himself gives insight to this elegant strength within his work, as confided to The New York Times in 2000: “I like to score the inner feelings of a character—get into their shoes in an imaginative way and take the audience there and enlighten them in a poetic rather than realistic way.”
Many composers, especially modern ones, have a style that, although not bad, can be fairly easily interchanged. Barry, however, was wholly himself. No one has ever sounded quite like him. And though he has on occasion been criticized for works which sound too similar, he consistently turned out material that continues to delight, stimulate and yet at the same time sooth the soul. The imagination of audiences and listeners of his music will no doubt continue to bloom as time marches ahead.
We all have our inspirations in life and Kenton certainly wasn’t the only influence on Barry. In fact, it all inadvertently started with his father and those theater chains. As a teen Barry operated the projectors in some of those movie houses and fell in love with cinema and especially its music. He references composers like Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold and Max Steiner as some of those who worked their influential magic on him.
By the time 1963 came along Barry was off and running in cinema. In addition to the projects already mentioned here he would eventually go on to score potent and very memorable works for films like Zulu, Midnight Cowboy; The Last Valley; Walkabout; Mary, Queen of Scots; Robin and Marian; King Kong (1976); The Deep; Hanover Street; The Black Hole; Raise the Titanic; Francis; Body Heat; High Road to China; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental); Oscar nominated Chaplin, and the list goes on and on.
However, Barry was not always the right choice for a film project and when he didn’t fit it really showed. Take for instance George Lucas’ Howard the Duck. His slower, intensive, moody and rhythmic style was not at all well suited for a flat-footed lethargic, over-stuffed film that needed all the help it could get with pacing and on just about every other level. The film was a miserable flop and Barry could do nothing to help it with his personal style. Indeed, it became a hindrance in its own right.
His work for a modestly budgeted fantasy film in 1980 called Somewhere in Time, though, helped place that film in cult classic status. Starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, it didn’t garner much attention from audiences or critics upon its initial release, but its video release and airing on television gave it new life, with many thanks due to the beautiful melodies Barry wrote for it. It is perhaps one of his most beloved works. This is the type of almost spiritual elevation he could bring to a motion picture.
Of his own beliefs concerning the approach to film music he has said, “As a composer, you’ve got to see a scene and fall in love with it, laugh when you should do, cry when you should do. The music is what you use, but the main thing is to have the ear and the eye to map it out dramatically. And that comes a lot from being sat in my father’s theatre and watching movies when I didn’t even know what I was watching for.”
Director Sydney Pollack once said, “You can’t listen to his music without seeing movies in your head.” It is hard to imagine a better compliment, or epitaph, than that for a film composer.
Awards for John Barry’s work
- BMI: Film Music Award for The Specialist (1994)
- BMI: Film Music Award for Indecent Proposal (1993)
- Oscar: Best Music for Chaplin (1992)
- Oscar: Best Music for Dances with Wolves (1990)
- Grammy: Best Instrumental Composition for A Motion Picture for Dances with Wolves (1990)
- BMI: Film Music Award for Dances with Wolves (1990)
- BMI: Film Music Award for The Living Daylights (1987)
- Oscar: Best Music for Out of Africa (1985)
- Golden Globe: Best Original Score for Out of Africa (1985)
- BMI: Film Music Award for Out of Africa (1985)
- London Critics: Special Achievement Award for Out of Africa (1985)
- Saturn Award: Best Music for Somewhere In Time (1980)
- Oscar: Best Music for The Lion in Winter (1968)
- BAFTA: Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music for The Lion In Winter (1968)
- Oscar: Best Music for Born Free (1966)
- Oscar Best Original Song for Born Free (1966) with Don Black
A commemorative biography titled John Barry—The Man with the Midas Touch, celebrating the man and his work, was published in 2008.