Leslie Bricusse (1931-2021)
24th October 2021
The veteran writer, composer and lyricist has died at the age of 90
Writer, composer and lyricist, Leslie Bricusse, who co-wrote the lyrics to Shirley Bassey’s 'Goldfinger', Nancy Sinatra’s 'You Only Live Twice' as well as the superfluous 'Thunderball' track ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ has died at the age of 90. The double Oscar and Grammy winner passed away peacefully at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, on 19 October 2021.
Born on 29 January 1931 Bricusse was raised in Pinner, northwest London. Influenced by weekly trips to the local picture house he fell in love with the arts, “From early childhood, I have always been a collector – stamps, rare books, photographs, art…theatre and film memorabilia, all manner of junk and treasures.” However, his musical education began via “obligatory schoolboy piano lessons.”
During air raids in World War II, young Bricusse would entertain his classmates with his own imaginative stories. He wrote his first song in the army while completing his national service, encouraged by a fellow soldier playing the piano in the officer’s mess, “On a wild, possibly wine-induced impulse I volunteered — the only time in my entire army career I ever volunteered for anything — to try to put a lyric on it.”
In 1951 he attended Cambridge University to study modern and medieval languages. Bricusse became president of the Footlights Revue Club and founder of the musical Comedy Club. While at Cambridge he co-authored, directed and performed in his first two musical shows, ‘Out of the Blue’ and ‘Lady at the Wheel’ both of which made their way to the West End.
Bricusse was spotted by the Canadian born, British actress, singer and comedic performer, Beatrice Lillie. She hired him as her leading man, for the revue ‘An Evening with Beatrice Lillie at the Globe’. He appeared in her sketches, played the piano and wrote new material, staying with Lillie for more than 400 performances. In 1956, he wrote his first screenplay, ‘Charley Moon,’ a film about a small-time music hall performer, directed by future Bond director, Guy Hamilton. Starring Max Bygraves, it also featured an early appearance from Shirley Eaton. Bricusse also wrote the score, which secured him his first Ivor Novello award. Following this success, Bricusse discarded any aspirations to be a performer and focused on his career as a writer, composer and lyricist.
In 1959 he began a successful partnership with British actor-singer, Anthony Newley, a one-time child star, who he described as his platonic “soul mate.” They collaborated on two splashy and long-running 1960s stage musicals, the Tony-nominated ‘Stop the World — I Want to Get Off’ (1961) and ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd’ (1964). Their combined success led the way to Bricusse’s first Bond collaboration, ‘Goldfinger.’
In 1963, along with un-credited ‘Dr. No’ co-screenwriter, Wolf Mankowitz, Bricusse had written the Harry Secombe musical, ‘Pickwick’. Rather confidently, and inspired by their latest work, the pair opened their own private members establishment, The Pickwick Club, which, in the 1960s, became a star-studded hub for the London showbiz-set, “Every Friday I used to have a boys lunch which Tony Newley, John Barry, Terence Stamp and Michael Cane.” It was over one of these lunch sessions that John Barry recruited Bricusse and Newley to write ‘Goldfinger.’
Bricusse was already a fan of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming and told Ajay Chowdhury and I, when researching our book, ‘Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films', “I had every first edition beautifully sealed and bound. My father knew Ian Fleming because they both worked for Kemsley Newspapers. I remember once going to pick up my dad at Euston Station and he was with Ian Fleming and Graham Greene.” Bricusse was also friendly with Sean Connery. His wife, actress, Yvonne ‘Evie’ Romain, had appeared with Connery in ‘The Frightened City’ (1961) shortly before he filmed 'Dr. No'.
John Barry played the melody he had composed for ‘Goldfinger’ to Bricusse and Newley at his Cadogan Square flat, “After the first three notes, Newley and I both instinctively sang ‘Wider than a mile’, which went down a like a ton of hot lead.” Bricusse was of course referring to the song’s similarities to Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River.’ He told Chowdhury and I, “We loved the melody, took it home with us and went straight to work. I had read the book and I knew what it was about and I knew he was a wonderful villain. Once we got the phrase, ‘the midas touch’ it became easy to write.”
However, they were not prepared for the success that followed when ‘Goldfinger’ opened in September 1964. Bricusse and Newley had spent the summer of 1964 in Portofino, Italy working on new material, “Our attention was focused elsewhere…not only didn’t we see the movie, we didn’t even know that Shirley Bassey had recorded the song, until we returned to New York in October and received a call from United Artists Records to say that they had a couple of framed soundtrack gold records for us, waiting to be collected.” In 1989, along with Barry and Newley, Bricusse was awarded a writing credit on the song 'Licence To Kill' because it had borrowed the iconic opening horn line from ‘Goldfinger’.
It was no surprise that Broccoli, Saltzman and United Artists wanted to retain their hit-winning, songwriting team. Now solo, Bricusse once again joined forces with John Barry on a track for the next Bond movie, ‘Thunderball’ titled ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. In his autobiography, ‘The Music Man’ Bricusse recalled, “In John’s view and mine, it was the best of the three Bond songs on which we collaborated. The lyric and the music were tough and smart and sophisticated, and the song was about the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ Bond character…John made a marvellous recording of ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ with Dionne Warwick, and we were convinced we had a big hit. We sat back and waited for the film ‘Thunderball’ to be completed.” Shirley Bassey also recorded a version but the producers ultimately decided that they wanted a title track and asked John Barry to write an alternative song called ‘Thunderball.’ Bricusse was now unavailable working in Los Angles on ‘Doctor Doolittle’ (1967) and made way for lyricist, Don Black.
Bricusse was reunited with Barry for a third and final Bond song, ‘You Only Live Twice’. This time the lyricist turned to Fleming for inspiration, “I already knew the novel. Fleming played games on words. The phrase is ‘you only live once’ so he thought, ‘I'll go a better way, you only live twice’. What is the second life, if you live twice? I had to create the second life. I made it dreams.” By 1967 Bricusse was spending much of his time in California. He wrote ‘You Only Live Twice’ while staying with Kirk Douglas in Palm Springs, “I sat in this beautiful Marc Chagall study and wrote the song. I was the houseguest of Spartacus writing for James Bond.”
Bricusse told journalist, Jon Burlingame, author of ‘The Music of James Bond’, that he had worked on lyrics, for a potential song titled, 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', “It really was the title of the song, it wasn’t just a line like ‘the spy who loved me’ [in Nobody Does it Better]. I wrote a song based on the idea of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. One of the things that appeals to me in bizarre titles is making them work.” It is unknown if Bricusse’s lyrics were to accompany Barry’s instrumental featured in the final film or an earlier attempt at a song that was later discarded.
The mid-1960s saw a resurgence of grand-scale musicals and Bricusse wrote the screenplay and songbook for ‘Doctor Doolittle’ (1967) starring Rex Harrison. At a cost of $17 million, it was a notorious flop but it delivered Bricusse his first Oscar for the song, ‘Talk to the Animals.’ 30 years later, the songwriter successfully produced a stage version, which ran in the UK for three years. In 1971, Bricusse once again collaborated with Anthony Newley on the soundtrack for Mel Stuart’s ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ based on Roald Dahl’s best-selling novel. It produced such favourites as ‘Candy Man’ and ‘Pure Imagination’ and was also later adapted for the stage. In 2013, it was successfully re-imagined for the stage a second time, by Bond director, Sam Mendes but only retaining one of Bricusse’s songs. Many reviews highlighted the inclusion of ‘Pure Imagination’ was still the highlight of the show.
Bricusse also worked successfully with Hollywood composer, John Williams, beginning with the 1969 musical, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips,’ starring Peter O’Toole. He later wrote lyrics for the Williams-composed ‘Can You Read My Mind?’ which, Lois Lane speak-sings to Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel in ‘Superman’ (1978). Their yuletide carol, ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ for the family classic ‘Home Alone’ (1990) and ‘When You’re Alone’ for the Steven Spielberg Peter Pan epic, ‘Hook’ (1991) earned them Academy Award nominations. He also provided lyrics for William’s song ‘Christmas At Hogwarts’ which featured in the first Harry Potter film.
In addition to songwriting, Bricusse wrote the screenplay and Oscar-nominated score for ‘Scrooge’ a 1970 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ He worked with Henry Mancini on the musical film ‘Victor/Victoria’ (1982), which starred Julie Andrews. It delivered him a second Oscar and the film was transformed into a successful Broadway production.
Although Bricusse never wrote another Bond song he continued to have strong ties to the world of 007. For more than fifty years he enjoyed close friendships with Sean Connery and Roger Moore. He first met Moore when his wife, Evie, appeared in a 1963 episode of ‘The Saint’. In 1973, Moore wrote in his James Bond Diary, published to coincide with the release of 'Live And Let Die' that Broccoli was considering Bricusse to pen a title song for his 007 debut. That task ultimately went to Paul McCartney. The lyricist tweaked his Oscar-winning song, ‘Talk To The Animals’ for Roger Moore who memorably performed it on a 1979 episode of ‘The Muppet Show’. In the mid-1980s Bricusse wrote the screenplay ‘Train of Events’ for Moore and another close friend, Michael Caine. Directed by Michael Winner and heavily re-written by others it became the ill-fated, ‘Bullseye!’ (1990). Bricusse later said of the movie, “It’s a miracle anybody’s career survived that film. It was ghastly. It was probably the worst film ever made.” He also knew Cubby and Dana Broccoli and spent Christmas with them in Beverly Hills on several occasions.
Although his most successful work was in the 1960s and 1970s he never stopped working and wrote more than 1,000 songs. In a career spanning six decades, Bricusse was nominated for a total of 10 Academy Awards, nine Grammys, four Tonys and eight Ivor Novello Awards. Analysing his craft he once observed, “Songs are like women or cats — fascinating, elusive, seductive, irresistible, infuriating, moody, demanding and contradictory creatures. The writer pursues them like some phantom fantasy — fascinated, intrigued and desperate to find out what they’re really like. They should be approached with caution and respect — especially at night. The more promising and beautiful they appear, the harder they may be to catch.”
To James Bond fans, Leslie Bricusse will always be remembered for writing two of the series’ best title songs. The first, ‘Goldfinger’ set the benchmark for all that followed. Asked about their continued popularity he reflected, “Of course it is wonderful. But it is an amazing compliment to Fleming’s work.”
Leslie Bricusse is survived by his wife Evie and son, Adam.
Thanks to Ajay Chowdhury.
The lower three photos are from 'Pure Imagination!: A Sorta-Biography' by Leslie Bricusse.