John Barrys music is loved around the world and with scoring a total of eleven James Bond films, he shaped the sound of 007 like no other. Mixing classical, pop and jazz elements, Barry was one of the most successful film composers of the later twentieth century with over 120 scores for cinema and television and five Academy Awards to his name. The city of York now honours his legacy with a memorial plaque
John was born on 3 November 1933 in Holgate Nursing Home, York, the youngest of three children of John (Jack Xavier) Prendergast, cinema proprietor, and his wife, Doris, neé Wilkinson. The family lived at 167 Hull Road, York later moving to the beautiful, Georgian, Fulford House, living a comfortable life with a full-time nanny for the three children. His mother was a concert pianist and his father ran eight independent cinemas in the north of England.
As a teenager he discovered jazz, playing the trumpet and taking a correspondence course for jazz arrangers. He was only fifteen when Stan Kenton played one of his arrangements on stage and John Dankworth played an early piece by him on the radio. He played jazz in a York jazz band, the Modernaires, from 1951 before two year’s national service in Cyprus and Egypt. During that time he played with and arranged for various army ensembles and studied composition with the jazz composer and arranger, Bill Russo, via a postal course.
In 1957 (by now calling himself John Barry) he formed the John Barry Seven, a group modelled on the Ventures with Vic Flick on guitar. He sang two numbers in the film The 6-5 Special (1958), a spin-off from the hit television series. As he lacked a good singing voice the group soon embraced instrumentals, several of which were hits: Walk Don’t Run(1960) and Hit and Miss (1960), the theme of BBC TV’s Juke Box Jury, dominated by twangy guitar and Barry’s pizzicato strings, used memorably on Adam Faith’s hit, What Do You Want.
Barry’s career turned a corner when he was hired by producer Harry Saltzman and Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli to work on the soundtrack for the first James Bond film, Dr No, (1962). His remuneration was a flat fee of £250 and possible involvement in other Bond releases. The authorship of the original James Bond theme, arranged for Duane Eddy-style electric guitar and played by Vic Flick, was later the subject of much controversy.
Saltzman and Broccoli wanted an identifying theme that could feature in more than one Bond film. It was credited to Monty Norman, though Barry contested this. In 1997 Norman sued The Sunday Times for libel in publishing Barry’s claim that it was he who composed it; Norman argued that Barry had only orchestrated it. In 2001 the High court found for Norman though Barry still claimed as late as 2006 that it was his work.
‘The James Bond Theme’ was meanwhile recorded as a single by the John Barry Seven and in September 1962 entered the British Top Forty for a three-month run. The original theme was reused in each Bond film but Barry wrote an additional ‘007 theme’ to weave into soundtracks.
Barry’s composing and orchestration was decisive in creating a musical style which distilled the world of Bond for film audiences, fusing romantic string melodies with explosive outbursts of brass. He credited Erich Korngold, Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann as influences and also Stan Kenton’s Big Band.
‘I think the genesis of the Bond sound was most certainly that Kentonesque sharp attack’, he told Film Score Monthly in 1996. From Russia with Love (1963) featured a theme song by Lionel Bart with Barry providing the rest of the score and for Goldfinger (1964) he wrote the music for the title song. The soundtrack topped the album charts in the UK and the USA knocking the Beatles Hard Day’s Night off the number one position. Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Moonraker (1979), Octopussy (1983), A View To A Kill (1985) and The Living Daylights (1987), meant that Barry scored a total of eleven Bond films.
The international success of the Bond films raised Barry’s profile as a composer and it grew further with his scores for Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965), The Knack (1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and the BBC series Vendetta (1966-8). By the mid 1960’s he was composing three or four scores a year and belonged to that group of talented, well-paid, Bohemian young people who created ‘Swinging London’ driving an E-type Jaguar and with a flat in Cadogan Square frequented by actors such as Michael Caine and Terence Stamp.
Barry won Academy Awards for best music and best song for Born Free (1966), and for the scores to The Lion in Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985) and Dances with Wolves (1990). He won four Grammys, a Bafta for The Lion in Winter, and a Golden Globe for Out of Africa. He had many other Academy award and Golden Globe nominations but never for any of the Bond scores.
He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1998, made an OBE in 1999, received an honorary degree from York University in 2001, made an honorary freeman of the city of York in 2002 and won a BAFTA fellowship in 2005. He found success as a composer in his own right with
two solo albums, The Beyondness of Things (1998) which topped the UK classical charts, and Eternal Echoes (2001), which encouraged him to undertake more public performances as a conductor.
He died of a heart attack in New York on 30 January 2011 survived by his wife, Laurie, and his four children. His career was celebrated by a benefit concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 June 2011 for the new John Barry scholarship for film composition at the Royal College of Music established by his family.
The unveiling of the memorial plaque in his hometown York will take place on
Tuesday 20 June 2017 at 12:30 PM
at The York Pavilion Hotel, Fulford, YO10 4PJ
Source: York Civic Trust