Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 3, 2011
John Barry loved movies and the movies loved him. The British born composer passed away on Sunday, January 31st at age 77 following a heart attack but he left a rich legacy of musical accomplishments behind. Barry was a giant in the industry and the obituaries and tributes that have followed his death have reflected his importance as an Oscar winning film composer who worked on award winning films like Born Free (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Out of Africa (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Chaplin (1992) as well as his contribution to the classic James Bond theme, which happens to be one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever recorded. John Barry’s work touched people and many of the heartfelt remembrances that I’ve read express a real connection to the man and his music. His soundtracks were often some of the first film scores that movie fans purchased and when a film was easily forgettable it was John Barry’s music that often stayed with viewers long after the credits rolled. Barry didn’t just make music, he made movie magic. The searing melodies, guitar driven rhythms, punchy horn sections and lush orchestration found in his scores have the ability to transport audiences to another place and time. Few artists can claim to have that kind of power but Barry’s musical wizardry is renowned. I thought it would be fun to take a look back at Barry’s impressive career and see how he progressed from a film projectionist’s son into an Oscar winning composer.
John Barry Prendergast was born on November 3, 1933 in York, England where he developed an interest in movies at a young age. His mother was a pianist and his father had worked as a film projectionist during the silent movie era. By the time that Barry was born his family was running a chain of successful film theaters.
“You could say I was brought up in film. My father owned eight theatres in Northern England and I remember him lifting me up on the back of the stalls when I was about three and a half years old and seeing this big black and white mouse on the screen, which was the early version of Mickey Mouse. Subconsciously I think I paid particular attention to the music from very early on.” – John Barry (Film Music by Mark Russell & James Edward Young)
Barry’s interest in music led him to take piano lessons in school and he also studied music with the organist and choirmaster at historic York Minister, one of the most celebrated cathedrals in England. Later on he took a music correspondence course from Joseph Schillinger, a Russian immigrant in New York who had taught George Gershwin, Glen Miller and Benny Goodman. Barry also enjoyed playing the trumpet and while watching classic films he was inspired by composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman. When he was a teenager Barry joined a dance band and at the same time he was also responsible for helping publicize his father’s theater chain. This unique interest in music and movies would accompany John Barry throughout his life.
At age 19 Barry joined the army but he didn’t let his military career derail his musical ambitions. He immediately became a member of the military band and during his service Barry started taking another music correspondence course with the legendary jazz musician William Russo. When John Barry left the army in the mid 1950s he was eager to start his own big jazz band and follow in the footsteps of popular British band leaders like John Dankworth, Ted Heath and Jack Parnell. Unfortunately the age of big bands was coming to an end and Jack Parnell suggested that young Barry form a smaller commercial group similar to the popular rock and roll acts coming out of America like Bill Haley and the Comets. Following Parnell’s suggestion John Barry formed The John Barry Seven with three local musicians and some of his army buddies. They were all jazz fans but they mimicked the style of Bill Haley and the Comets and quickly started to develop their own jazz influenced rock sound. The John Barry Seven recorded a string of successful hits and appeared on popular British music programs including Six-Five Special (1957-58), Oh Boy! (1958-59) and Drumbeat (1959).
The John Barry Seven
The John Barry Seven recorded and toured together from 1957–1965. During that time a host of talented musicians participated in the band’s success including fellow songwriter Les Reed who penned successful hits for Tom Jones (“It’s Not Unusual’), Herman’s Hermits (“There’s a Kind of Hush”) and The Drifters (“Hello Happiness”) just to name a few. The band’s guitarist Vic Flick backed pop artist Cliff Richard and recorded with George Martin & His Orchestra for The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night (1964) soundtrack. Drummer Bobby Graham became a premiere session musician and recorded with The Kinks, The Animals, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark while pianist Roy Young sat in with The Beatles during some of their gigs at The Star-Club in Germany and recorded with David Bowie. The bands importance in the development of British popular music is undeniable. The John Barry Seven added some serious swing to the sixties and their influence can still be felt today.
One of the musicians who worked regularly with The John Barry Seven was British pop sensation Adam Faith. John Barry co-wrote and recorded some of Adam Faith’s biggest hits at Abbey Road Studios including “What Do You Want?” and “Poor Me.” After they secured a recording contract with EMI Records, Adam Faith was offered a role in a teenager drama called Beat Girl (Edmond T. Gréville; 1960) and John Barry was asked to compose the film’s soundtrack. At the time most films were scored by classical composers and there were very few pop artists and jazz composers like John Barry working in the field. Barry’s score for Beat Girl was a fresh sounding blend of jazz, rock and popular music with an unforgettable beat. At the same time The John Barry Seven recorded their own version of Elmer Bernstein’s popular theme song for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and it became one of the group’s biggest hits. These experiences opened up a world of possibilities to John Barry and he jumped at the chance to work on more film scores.
Following the release of Beat Girl, Barry composed the soundtrack for an interesting crime drama called Never Let Go (John Guillermin; 1960). The film features Peter Sellers in one of his earliest roles along with Richard Todd, Carol White and Elizabeth Sellars (no relation to Peter). I recently had the chance to watch the film for the first time and I was really impressed by John Barry’s score. You can hear Barry developing his style in Beat Girl but in Never Let Go he sounds like a bolder and more confident artist. The music doesn’t just accompany what’s on screen. It propels the action and drama forward. Together these two early scores showcase John Barry’s remarkable talent and it’s not a surprise that he caught the attention of other film producers.
“John Barry came into our lives when we were making Dr No. We had someone else doing the music and although the score was alright, we didn’t have anything exciting for the title music. I think it was someone at Chappell (Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.) that said you must listen to him. He had a little band called The John Barry Seven [sic] and he came in and wrote this Bond theme.” – Director Terence Young (1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them by Toby Creswell)
He was next asked to work on the James Bond film Dr. No (1962). The producers had originally hired composer Monty Norman but John Barry was brought on board to help jazz things up and orchestrate the theme. There’s been a lot of controversy over the years about the authorship of the Bond theme but there’s no mistaking John Barry’s contribution. From Vic Flick’s thrilling electric guitar riffs to John Barry’s distinct horn arrangements, the unmistakable sound of The John Barry Seven is what makes the Bond theme so unforgettable. It’s a heady mix of exotic rhythms, extravagant orchestration, driving beats and a burlesque-style swing that knocks you off your feet the first time you hear it. More Bond films would follow and they provided Barry with the opportunity to combine his love of jazz and popular music. He wrote one hit title song after another for the Bond franchise and developed a reputation as one of coolest cats in Britain.
During the sixties John Barry partied with hip young actors like Michael Caine and Terrance Stamp. He also married the beautiful actress Jane Birkin in 1965. That same year the two worked on Richard Lester’s cutting-edge comedy The Knack… and How to Get It (1965) together. Barry wrote the film’s terrific score and Birkin had a small part as one of Ray Brooks’s many girlfriends. The couple had a daughter in 1967 but they divorced the following year. Afterward Birkin went to France where she hooked up with another great composer, the notorious Serge Gainsbourg. John Barry’s unique place in popular culture as a talented musician and a genuine tastemaker is just one of the things that makes him so special.
Barry’s success with the Bond franchise led to work on other espionage films such as The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie; 1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson; 1966). The composer also cultivated an important working relationship with director and writer Bryan Forbes. Together they worked on numerous films together including The L-Shaped Room (1962), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), King Rat (1965), The Wrong Box (1966), The Whisperers (1967), Deadfall (1968) and Chaplin (1992). Although John Barry’s association with Forbes is often overlooked, it was extremely important in his development as a composer. Barry’s soundtracks for the director were often more moody and complex than his work on the James Bond films and Forbes gave Barry the freedom to explore new ground while building a discography of first rate recordings that have rarely been matched.
John Barry won his first Oscar for the beautiful and touching score he composed for Born Free (James Hill; 1966). Along with his numerous James Bond scores, Barry’s title song for Born Free (sung by Matt Monro with lyrics by Don Black) got regular play in my home when I was growing up and it introduced me to the softer side of John Barry’s signature sound. Some might find the song dated and too sentimental today but I can’t hear it without getting choked-up. The Born Free films helped me develop a deep appreciation for wildlife when I was a child and I’m internally grateful for that. Was Born Free one of the best scores that Barry composed in the ’60s? That’s debatable but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences obviously thought it was. Two of my favorite John Barry scores from the ’60s were composed for Joseph Losey’s Boom (1968) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). While listening to these soundtracks you can get a real sense of John Barry’s artistry. Whatever you may think about the films, there’s no denying that these are amazing scores that defy easy categorization. I was honored to have the opportunity to contribute to Harkit Record’s CD release of Boom a few years ago but that doesn’t color my appreciation of the film’s score. The soundtracks for Boom and Petulia can stand on their own as testaments to Barry’s boundless abilities.
As the ‘60s made way for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s Barry’s contributions to the world of film scores only continued to grow. His talent never diminished and even though he occasionally repeated himself (who can listen to his Oscar winning score for Out of Africa (1986) without being reminded of his haunting score for Somewhere in Time (1980)?), it wasn’t without merit. Most of the awards and accolades that John Barry received were offered to him later in life but I personally find his early career incredibly rich and fascinating. John Barry was an amazing talent and I’m grateful that he left us with a treasury of amazing film scores to enjoy for decades to come. I’ll leave you with one of his most romantic and unforgettable creations.
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