The film world lost one of its greatest composers with the death of John Barry, who died yesterday in New York at age 77. Barry, who had long lived in New York, is said to have died of a heart attack. But official details have not yet been released.
John Barry, born November 3, 1933, in York, England, composed the scores to dozens of films and TV shows over the past half century, a period known as film music’s “silver age,” but became best known as the man who underscored the best of James Bond’s film adventures. He was first invited in to fix Monty Norman’s music to Dr. No in 1962, crafting the famed James Bond theme (the authorship of which has always been in dispute), giving it an eternally cool edge with the addition of Vic Flick’s famed guitar.
Barry went on to score another 11 Bond films through 1987’s The Living Daylights, even suggesting replacements (George Martin, Bill Conti) when he was unable to score a Bond picture. It was Barry who suggested the Bond producers bring in composer/producer David Arnold (b. 1962), who has scored all five of the James Bond films since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies.
But John Barry’s music, which has influenced many film and pop music composers and is appreciated by many who don’t know or care much for film music, was well known and respected outside of the James Bond franchise, scores he once derisively referred to as “million dollar Mickey Mouse music.”
He garnered early hits from his themes to “Beat Girl,” “Born Free” and “Midnight Cowboy” and earned five well-deserved Academy Awards for the theme and score to Born Free (1965) and the scores for The Lion in Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985 – which also won a Golden Globe Award) and Dancing with Wolves (1990 – which also won a Grammy Award).
Barry’s Bond themes were also some of the series’ best-known songs, from the definitive “Goldfinger,” featuring Shirley Bassey, “Thunderball,” featuring Tom Jones, and “You Only Live Twice,” featuring Nancy Sinatra, to “We Have All The Time In The World,” featuring Louis Armstrong, “Diamonds are Forever,” again featuring Shirley Bassey, and “A View to a Kill,” featuring Duran Duran.
John Barry, who became Sir John Barry when he was awarded the O.B.E. in 1999, was instrumental in introducing me and many people of my generation to the concept of film music. Film and TV music was something that you weren’t meant to pay attention to and, early in my years, I certainly paid no attention to it.
My first Bond, Live and Let Die (1973) wasn’t a John Barry score and the music really didn’t have that much impact on me as a ten-year-old. But Bond did. I was sure to catch a Bond picture on TV whenever they aired at the time. The first two that did catch my attention and hold me riveted were Goldfinger (1964) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971), both for the stories and the action as well as the music, which was merely incredible.
Aside from two particularly dynamic themes, both sung by Shirley Bassey (who was hand-picked for the job by Barry for her ability to belt out a tune and hold a note), each had themes that mesmerized me. In Goldfinger, it was the all-too brief cue called “Into Miami,” that plays immediately after the main titles sequence as a glorious pan from a helicopter lets us know we’re in Miami. It had all the elegance of jazz, the decadence of the playful rich and the cool of Bond who knows his boss, M, doesn’t “book him into the best hotel in Miami Beach out of pure gratitude.”
The Diamonds are Forever theme I adored is a lounge-lizard instrumental version of the main theme that plays in Tiffany Case’s apartment when James Bond first enters as “Peter Franks.” Barry also recorded several albums for the Polydor label around this time that featured this particular sound, an homage of sorts to fellow Brit ex-pat George Shearing’s quintet, as well themes to this film and some of the composer’s British TV themes of the time. I should say, too, that I’m a big fan of Barry’s novelty theme “The Man with the Golden Gun,” belted out by Lulu in a perfectly serio-sarcastic style of the time,
What makes John Barry’s music extraordinarily unique is that he’s one of the first of the successful composers for film that came out of rock and roll. Some, like Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, have also made such successful transitions. But not like John Barry, who understood and was not afraid of catchy hooks, celebrated the amalgam of melody and rhythm and the unequivocal power of pure simplicity. Barry also harbored an enduring love of jazz and the creativity other musicians can bring to his own music.
This added something special and unique to his scores. He was especially adept at “layering” sounds. He often talked about how much of his music was based on layers of simple ideas. Minimal deconstruction reveals the truth of such investigation. But it’s hard to appreciate as the final constructions were always so appealing as a whole.
Barry was particularly adept at coming up with secondary themes that are as strong, if not stronger, than his main themes. His “007” theme, first heard on Thunderball, is one such theme – for which he scored many variations (i.e. “To Hell With Blofeld”) – and one he was most proud of (interestingly, even the “Thunderball” theme was initially a secondary theme as “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was intended as the title and main theme to the film, in a vocal version to be sung by Dionne Warwick).
My favorite John Barry score (and theme) is probably the brilliant The Ipcress File (1965), a soundtrack I am very happy to own on CD. After Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, I’d also say I highly treasure John Barry’s score to Petulia (1968), followed by such early scores for The Knack…And How To Get It (1965) and The Whisperers (1967).
I would also recommend Barry’s longer, near-classic works “Romance for Guitar and Orchestra” from Deadfall (1968 –the film features Barry himself conducting the 14-minute piece) and “Return to the Seas – 2033 A.D.,” the self-edited 24-minute suite of themes from Barry’s score album for The Deep (1977 – issued on CD in 2010 by Intrada, the most recent John Barry CD I purchased).
Many will favor Barry’s more winningly melodic material like Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves, but I have always favored “that Bond sound” Barry perfected and personified in the 1960s and one that his later artistic successes permitted him to return to on The Specialist (1994) and Mercury Rising (1998), both stunning examples of just how brilliant a film composer John Barry was – always in tune with the emotional action of any film and purely perfect in setting just the right tone for a story.
One of John Barry’s last soundtracks, the little-known Playing by Heart (1998 – a reunion of sorts with original Bond Sean Connery), was also one of his most touching and lovingly conceived. A moody and melodic tribute in a jazz context to the influence of Chet Baker, it is John Barry, himself “playing by heart” and someone who always connected with film in a very personal way.
While it is sad that John Barry, who was active up until the end (he had composed The Beyondness of Things and Eternal Echoes outside of film and continued composing for favored artists like Shirley Bassey on her 2009 disc Performance), will not be heard in film again, the music he provided to more than a few films will live forever, forever.
“He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch.”