John Barry and the 'scores' he never settled
Which comes first -- the music or the lyrics? That question is always asked of songwriters, and their standard answer is that it's impossible to say because songwriting is such a collaborative effort, reports the NY Post
But with the great John Barry, who died this week at 77, the music always came first.
"The thought of writing with anyone else in the same room made him cringe," says lyricist Don Black, Barry's close friend of 50 years.
Their hits included "Thunderball," "Diamonds Are Forever," "The Man With the Golden Gun" and "Born Free."
"John was a bit of a recluse," Black says. "He liked working alone. He didn't believe you could just toss out heartfelt music or lyrics across the room.
"When he finally played a song for you, you felt it was an unveiling. He'd wrestled with it himself for so long, it was beyond criticism. And then he expected you to go off and struggle with the lyrics just as he had struggled with the music. You know, staring out of windows and wandering around parks. That sort of thing."
Barry was very particular about the lyrics.
"He didn't like anything pretentious," says Black. "He wanted simple words that hugged the contours of his melody. With the Bond songs, he thought they should be seductive, provocative and have a whiff of the boudoir about them."
In addition to 11 "Bond" themes, including "Goldfinger," "From Russia With Love" and "Moonraker," Barry also wrote the Oscar-winning scores for "Born Free," "The Lion in Winter," "Out of Africa" and "Dances With Wolves."
He wrote five stage musicals as well, but only one -- "Billy," based on the novel "Billy Liar" -- was a hit in London.
"That show was very much his idea," says Black, who wrote the lyrics. "John was from Yorkshire, just like the title character, and he brought out in his music the grittiness of the north of England.
"He liked writing for the theater, but he wasn't a theater fan. He would never go and see anything. He was not a theater animal. His dad owned cinemas all over the north of England, and it was film that really turned him on."
"Lolita," a musical Barry wrote with Alan Jay Lerner in 1971, was such a bomb, it closed out of town in Boston.
But working on it wasn't a complete waste of time. Lerner lived in Oyster Bay, LI, and when Barry went to visit him, he fell in love with the setting. An outstanding tax bill made it impossible for him to go back to England, so he bought an estate in Oyster Bay in 1980 and never left.
He'll be buried there this weekend.
Although Barry lived in America for many years, "there was nothing American about him," says Black. "He was the only guy in New York who never went to a deli. I used to say to him, 'John, I'd love to see you with a pickle in your hand.'
"We'd go to a fancy restaurant, and he'd order fish and chips and say, 'And don't forget the vinegar.' He remained a blunt-spoken Yorkshireman."
His bluntness sometimes led to clashes with powerful Hollywood directors and producers.
When Barbra Streisand tried to meddle with his music for "The Prince of Tides," her directorial debut, Barry snapped: "You don't buy a dog and do the barking yourself."
She told him she loved all his scores. He replied: "Yup. And I wrote them all without you." And quit the movie.
Harry Saltzman, who co-produced the early "Bond" movies, criticized the melody for "Diamonds Are Forever."
"What the f - - - do you know about songwriting?" Barry yelled -- and threw him out of his apartment.
"Most film composers are thrilled to get the gig," says Black. "But John had no trouble telling a director, 'You've ruined the bloody film.' I used to fret that we'd lose the assignment. But he didn't care. He always told me, 'Don, remember that a little arrogance from a writer is not a bad thing.' "
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