Plaque at the Pavilion Hotel, Main Street, Fulford, York YO10 4PJ
John Barry Prendergast was born in York 1933 and died in New York in 2011. He was one of the best known film music composers of the late twentieth century composing James Bond film scores and winning Academy awards for Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves.
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. John watched films regularly from about the age of seven; films and music were his great loves. As a child he used recordings of Sibelius and Ravel as soundtracks to imaginary battles enacted with Dinky toys. He worked as a projectionist at the York Rialto cinema from the age of 14.
John was educated first at the Bar Convent Roman Catholic Primary School and then, from the age of 11, at St Peter’s School, York as a day pupil. He chafed under harsh school discipline, his resentment compounded by an authoritarian, emotionally distant, father who was often absent at work. He responded more positively to lessons with Francis Jackson, organist emeritus at York Minster, who taught him piano, basic harmony and counterpoint. As a teenager he discovered jazz, playing the trumpet and taking a correspondence course for jazz arrangers. He was only 15 years old when Stan Kenton played one of his arrangements on stage and John (Johnny) 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, a spin-off from the hit television series. He lacked a good singing voice but the group soon embraced instrumentals, several of which were hits: Walk Don’t Run and Hit and Miss, 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. The group became regulars with Adam Faith on the Saturday BBC teatime show, Drumbeat. Faith’s involvement in films such as Beat Girl and Never Let Go (with Peter Sellers) gave Barry the connection which steered him away from pop singles and into film scores. His arrangements offered a mix of pop and jazz which appealed to film-makers. A trip to the USA in 1961 gave him practical insights into the latest recording techniques.
James Bond theme
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 composition and orchestration were 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 Beatle’s 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 1960s 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’s scores mixed classical, jazz and pop elements. His love of Mahler (he was said to have played Mahler’s Ninth Symphony most days in the 1960s) resulted in soaring lyrical string melodies supported by unexpected harmonic choices as in ‘The Girl With the Sun in Her Hair’ (1968) used for a TV shampoo commercial but released as a single. Jazz gave his music swing, syncopation and the bite of expressive dissonance. His scores featured non-orchestral instruments such as electric guitar and bass, cimbalom, clavoline, harmonica – notably for Midnight Cowbow (1969), and Moog synthesizer (theme from The Persuaders, 1971). When the occasion allowed he experimented. The Lion in Winter (1968) was a choral score and Deadfall (1968) featured a concerto-style ‘Romance for Guitar and Orchestra’ drawing on the example of Rodrigo (Barry is seen conducting in the film). He branched out into stage musicals with Passion Flower Hotel (1965, with Trevor Peacock), Lolita, My Love (1971, with Alan Jay Lerner), Billy (1974, with Don Black) based on the novel Billy Liar, and Brighton Rock (2004, again with Black).
Barry was married four times and divorced three times: in 1958 to Barbara Pickard, one daughter; in 1963 he had another daughter from a brief relationship with his Swedish au pair; in 1965 to actress Jane Mallory Birkin, one daughter; in 1969 to Jane Elizabeth Sidley; in 1978 to Laurie, with whom he had one son. In the early 1970s he had severe financial problems which took 10 years to resolve during which time he became a tax exile in Majorca and California, moving to Oyster Bay, New York with Laurie. In 1988 he was seriously ill, had major surgery for a ruptured oesophagus and was on the critical list for months.
Barry was one of the most successful film composers of the late twentieth century with over 120 scores for cinema and television to his credit along with songs, instrumentals and musicals. He 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.
Rikky Rooksby, ‘Barry, John (1933-2011)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, Jan 2015, online edition, May 2015, accessed 4 May 2016)
Eddi Fiegel, John Barry: A Sixties Theme (London, 1998)
Adam Sweeting, Obituary, (Guardian, 31 January, 2011).
© Pat Hill