Barry John Obituary, Death – John Barry, who has died aged 77 following a heart attack, will always be associated with the golden age of but though much of his most famous music was written to accompany the outlandish adventures of 007, his work covered a huge variety of moods and styles. Barry wrote epic, sweeping film scores for Zulu (1964), Born Free (1966) and Out of Africa (1985), introduced blues and jazz themes into The Chase (1966) and The Cotton Club (1984), and conceived the shivery, sinister music for The Ipcress File (1965). He even became something of a pop star in his own right.
He was borny Prendergast in York, where his father ran a chain of cinemas. His mother was a talented musician, but had abandoned the attempt to establish herself as a concert pianist. “My father had seven or eight cinemas, so I was brought up in the cinema,” he recalled. “I remember my dad carrying me through the foyer of the Rialto in York and pushing the swing doors open at a matinee. I was looking at this big black-and-white mouse on the screen, and he’d taken me to see a Mickey Mouse cartoon.”
Barry cherished an early ambition to join the family business and become a projectionist, but the combination of film and music made a deep impression on him. He began taking piano lessons with Francis Jackson, master of the music at York Minster, and studied with the jazz arranger Bill Russo, who had worked with Stan Kenton’s orchestra. His father was a jazz fan, and would present concerts by such stars as Kenton and Count Basie.
After national service with the army, Barry formed his own jazz combo, the John Barry Seven, and scored a string of pop hits during the late 50s and early 60s, including Hit and Miss (the theme from TV’s Juke Box Jury), Walk Don’t Run and Black Stockings.
Barry thrived on the feverish wave of creativity that made London the world’s most fascinating city at the time. He socialised with Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, collaborated with the pop stars Adam Faith and Nina & Frederik, and guaranteed himself the attention of gossip columnists by marrying the actress Jane Birkin. In 1960 he was asked to write music for the Peter Sellers/Richard Todd vehicle Never Let Go and then for the Faith comedy Beat Girl.
In 1962, he was signed up to work on the first Bond film, Dr No, although only as back-up to the composer Monty Norman, for a fee of £250. The official story is that Barry merely arranged Norman’s famous James Bond Theme, and when Barry claimed in a Sunday Times interview many years later that he had written it himself, Norman successfully sued for libel and was awarded £30,000 in damages.
Subsequently there was no such ambiguity, as Barry’s scores for From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) became popular the world over. Such was the potency of the Bond mystique that Barry’s soundtrack album for Goldfinger knocked the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night off the top of the American charts in 1964, and earned the composer his first gold disc. He scored 10 consecutive Bond films and decided he had had enough after The Living Daylights (1987) because “all the good books had been done”.
In 1969, he scored John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, one of the first movies to use a selection of pop songs on the soundtrack. It was a technique that would be copied by countless imitators. “That movie is still shown at the cinema school at UCLA as the epitome of how songs should be used in the movies,” Barry said in 1997. “We only bought in a couple of songs, Everybody’s Talkin’, sung by Harry Nilsson, and a John Lennon song, and for the rest we got young songwriters to score the scenes with songs. The songs work because they were written for the movie.”
However, Barry always gave credit to the great classically influenced Hollywood film composers, such as Bernard Herrmann or Max Steiner, and echoes of their work would frequently bubble up in his own. Barry’s music was used on the soundtracks of many other films – The Knack (1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968), Murphy’s War (1971), The Day of the Locust (1975), Raise the Titanic (1980), Body Heat (1981), Jagged Edge (1985), Chaplin (1992), Dances With Wolves (1990) and Indecent Proposal (1993) – and he was a natural choice to write the theme for the Roger Moore/Tony Curtis TV series, The Persuaders!
He won five Oscars, including two for Born Free and one each for The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves. He also won Bafta’s Anthony Asquith award for The Lion in Winter, and a Grammy for Dances With Wolves. In 1998 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Barry had never needed a career boost, but during the 1990s he found himself being feted by a younger generation of artists, including David Arnold, who had stepped into the role of James Bond’s personal composer for Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Arnold masterminded the Shaken and Stirred album in homage to Barry’s Bond music, and commented that “for me the success of the Bond series was 50% Sean Connery and 50% John Barry”. Barry was delighted by Arnold’s enthusiasm. “I think Shaken and Stirred is terrific. David Arnold has kept all the essence of the originals, and he’s cast it beautifully with all the different performers. It has a real freshness and rhythmic impetus, which sounds very now.”
A throat cancer scare in 1989 slowed Barry’s work rate, but his ambition remained undimmed. In 1998 he released The Beyondness of Things, a “tone poem” unconnected to any film and which he presented as a concert piece. “It’s amazing to work without film or without a director or producer,” commented Barry, who was appointed OBE in 1999. “I love doing films, but it’s been refreshing to work with such total freedom.”
It was rumoured that Beyondness … had been derived from his rejected score for The Horse Whisperer, and a certain sameness of mood could be discerned creeping into his compositions. Perhaps recognising the need for fresh stimulus, he signed up to collaborate with the lyricist Don Black and director Michael Attenborough on a stage musical version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which had a short run in London in 2004. “I don’t mind people going on about my past as long as I’ve still got a future,” said Barry, “and I’ve got plenty of things coming up.”
In 2006, Barry was executive producer on the album Here’s to the Heroes by the Australian group the Ten Tenors. It featured several songs he had written with Black. The duo also wrote a new song, Our Time Is Now, for their first for her since Diamonds Are Forever. Barry, who had lived in Oyster Bay, New York state, since 1980, is survived by his fourth wife Laurie, their son Jonpatrick, and three daughters, Susie, Sian and Kate.
I wrote to John Barry in 1997 telling him I had been commissioned to write his biography. I heard nothing for months but then, just at the point when I had almost given up hope of a reply, I got a message on my answerphone saying, “This is John Barry. I’m in London working at Abbey Road studios. Why don’t you come in and we can meet?” He immediately put me at ease with a dry, self-deprecating humour and extraordinary personal charm. A few days later we had the first of many epic lunches at his favourite London restaurant, Rules, in Covent Garden.
It contained two songs by Elephants Memory, who worked with Lennon, but none written by him. Barry had a ruptured oesophagus in the late 80s, rather than a throat cancer scare. The film Beat Girl is not a comedy, although Halliwell’s film guide describes it as risible melodrama. This obituary was further amended on 24 February 2015. Earlier versions said that Barry was born Jonathan, rather than John, Barry Prendergast.