John Barry: A Wordless Poet Dies

johnbarryOn January 30, 2011, iconic – and very prolific – composer John Barry passed away, after being in ill health for some time.  He was seventy-seven years old.  There is little doubt a great many will be saddened at the loss of one of film’s truly cherished friends.

Barry was an emotionally introspective and poetic composer whose haunting themes and pulsing atmospheric rhythms gained him far reaching notoriety.  He was also a five time Oscar winner (BORN FREE – both score and song; THE LION IN WINTER; OUT OF AFRICA; DANCES WITH WOLVES), a Grammy winner (DANCES WITH WOLVES), and two time BAFTA winner (The Lion in Winter and the Academy Fellowship).  In addition to his many other nominations he was nominated for 11 Golden Globe awards, taking home a win for OUT OF AFRICA. Though his work was far from limited to the genre, he contributed several excellent scores to science fiction, fantasy, and horror films – including, of course, several Bond films.

Born John Barry Prendergast in 1933, this son of a movie theater owner in York, England, would grow up to become a sentimental favorite composer of film and film music fans all over the world.

On a somewhat personal note, I was strongly affected by his work when I was very young; it was Barry who instilled within me a deep love for film music that has been with me most of my life.  My parents had a collection of record albums that included an interesting mix of musical genres and within that mix were two quite specific albums that captured my attention: GOLDFINGER and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, two very famous James Bond scores.  At the time I was too young to really know anything about James Bond, but once I discovered these two treasures I was altogether captivated.  I even wrote my own stories to some of my favorite TV shows at the time and recorded my little dramas onto cassette using these two albums as the ‘scores’ for what I considered my ‘radio dramas.’  For me there has always been an acute connection to Mr. Barry’s work.  And in this I know I am far from alone.

Barry would go on to score eleven of those Ian Fleming-based secret agent films and in so doing would cement a very solid position in the history of his profession.  Musician-composer Monty Norman did score the first Bond film, DR. NO; however, Barry arranged and performed the version of the 007 theme heard in the film, which arguably would become the most famous theme music in the history of cinema, as well as one of the most re-recorded.  (Some have speculated that Barry actually composed the theme — although the piece is credited to Norman. It certainly fits Barry’s style like a glove.)

In a 1996 interview with Film Score Monthly, Barry credited big band leader Stan Kenton with the inspiration for the Bond style.  “I think the genesis of the Bond sound was most certainly that Kentonesque sharp attack,” he said, pointing out Kenton’s brassy sound and notes that hit extreme highs and lows.

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS would be his final Bond installment in 1987, and in 2006 when asked by the The Sunday Express of London why he never scored another in the series he replied, “I gave up after (that).  I’d exhausted all my ideas, rung all the changes possible.  It was a formula that had run its course.  The best had been done as far as I was concerned.”

Though he is perhaps best known for the work he did on the Bond series, those scores are merely a fraction of his body of work.  He would eventually write the music for well over a hundred productions.  And in that there would be television, stage and radio – not to mention very personal efforts – that would beckon him to put pencil to music sheet.  For instance, in 2006 he would work with ten well-known tenors on an album titled HERE’S TO THE HEROES.  In that effort lyrics were written by lyricist and friend Don Black for Barry themes and a very pleasant, well-selling listening experience was the result.

barryJohn Barry was one of the most romantic film composers of his or any generation.  Even his action cues have a romantic, moody quality which beg multiple listenings.  And several films owe much of their critical and audience liking to his sweeping, moving style.  OUT OF AFRICA and DANCES WITH WOLVES are two clear examples.  These scores simply ascend with a lush beauty that instantly envelopes the viewer/listener and conjures something in the heart that refuses to be denied.

Many composers, especially modern ones, have a style that, although not bad, can be fairly easily interchanged.  Barry, however, was wholly himself.  No one has ever sounded quite like him.  And though he has on occasion been criticized for works which sound too similar, he consistently turned out material that continues to delight, stimulate and yet at the same time sooth the soul.   The imagination of audiences and listeners of his music will continue to bloom as time marches on.

We all have our inspirations in life and Kenton wasn’t the only influence on Barry’s.  In fact, it all inadvertently started with his father and those theater chains.  As a teen Barry operated the projectors in some of those movie houses and fell in love with cinema and especially its music.  He cites composers like Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold and Max Stern as some of those who worked their magic on him.

Once bitten by the bug Barry went on to study piano and composition, and then played trumpet in dance bands and later in a military band.  Eventually he formed his own successful band, The John Barry Seven, and wound up playing backup for a popular BBC program.  The band’s style was rather jazzy and sassy, which was just what the current crop of directors was looking for.  He began getting film engagements and with FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (the Bond producers didn’t forget his stylish DR. NO contribution) in 1963, and ZULU and GOLDFINGER (which pushed the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night off the top spot of the album charts and won Barry a gold disc) in 1964, he was off and running in cinema.  Eventually he would go on to score potent and very memorable works for films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY; THE LAST VALLEY; WALKABOUT; MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS; ROBIN AND MARIAN; KING KONG (from 1976); THE DEEP; HANOVER STREET; THE BLACK HOLE; RAISE THE TITANIC; FRANCIS; BODY HEAT; HIGH ROAD TO CHINA; Francis Ford Coppola’s THE COTTON CLUB (which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental); Oscar nominated CHAPLIN, and the list goes on and on.

His work for a modestly budgeted fantasy film in 1980 called SOMEWHERE IN TIME helped place that film in cult classic status.  Starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, it didn’t garner much attention from audiences or critics upon its initial release, but its video release and airing on television gave it new life, with many thanks due to the beautiful melodies Barry wrote for it.  It is one of his most beloved works.  This is the type of almost spiritual elevation he could bring to a motion picture.

Director Sydney Pollack once said, “You can’t listen to his music without seeing movies in your head.”  It is hard to imagine a better compliment, or epitaph, than that for a film composer.

About the Author

John T. Stanhope

Born in the small northern California town of Oroville and raised on a farm, John grew up loving film and film music -- fantasy & science fiction have always been favorites, with the original Star Trek series and original Star Wars films being huge influences. He wound up going to film school at San Francisco State University, then transferred to and graduated from California State University, Northridge with a degree in film production. After graduation he worked in various aspects of the film industry for several years (his last stint was as Assistant Visual Effects Editor on the 1999 film version of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN) before moving to Colorado Springs, CO. He and his wife currently own a Coffee & Tea house called Pikes Perk (named after Colorado's famous Pikes Peak mountain) and John contributes film-related articles to the Colorado chapter of YourHub.com, the Colorado Springs newspaper insert for YourHub, Cinefantastiqueonline.com and Geek Monthly magazine. He also now posts tiny reviews of films (and other things that may strike his fancy) at Twitter.com/PocketReviews.

5 Responses to “ John Barry: A Wordless Poet Dies ”

  1. I have heard people try to give credit to Barry for the James Bond theme, but I know of know first-hand source to support this. Definitely, the final version owes a lot to Barry’s orchestration, and Monty Norman himself was apparently happy with Barry’s contribution.

    I also want to mention Barry’s excellent 1999 non-soundtrack album, THE BEYONDNESS OF THINGS, which should be on the collection of all his fans. The familiar themes and orchestrations are all there – big, bold, adventurous, and romantic. The only thing missing is the typical fast-paced “chase” music, a la the Bond films.

  2. You are most correct, Steve, THE BEYONDNESS OF THINGS is a beautifully lush and emotive non-score effort from Barry that should be highly recommended to music lovers. I should have exampled it along with HERE’S TO THE HEROES, but somehow neglected to do so.

    And you are quite right in relation to the 007 theme — many have attributed it to John Barry instead of Monty Norman. It has been reported that Barry once testified in court that the theme was his and this has helped fuel arguments over that very famous bit of music. However, later Barry’s attitude became more circumspect, giving extra support to Monty Norman’s claim that he wrote the theme and Barry did the arrangments for it (which, in the end, is probably most accurate).

    Whatever the ultimate genesis of theme, both men are firmly connected to film and music history because of it.

  3. Apparently, courts have twice upheld Norman’s claim that he wrote the Bond theme. I do believe a recording exists (on a 007 compilation CD somewhere) of Norman’s version without Barry’s contribution.

    I think what this comes down to is this: if Norman’s version had been released on its own and become famous, and then Barry had done his, everyone would accept Norman as the composer and Barry as the arranger.

    Think of Deep Purple’s version of “Hey, Joe” or Yes’s version of Paul Simon’s “America,” both of which include long instrumental passages not in the original. Had Yes released their version first, we might all be saying, “Paul Simon didn’t compose that great Steve Howe guitar solo.” Well, no – he didn’t, but he did compose the song itself, and Yes added their stuff later.

    Sometimes, there is a fine line separating “composition” from “arrangement.”

  4. Well, John, thank you for that touching and poignant and very accurate portrayal of one of Hollywood’s (and England’s) greatest film composers of our time. I appreciate your acknowledgement about how Barry’s style was unique and very much his own He never quite sounded like anyone else in his field, yet he was often imitated. Truly, only Barry sounded like Barry, though David Arnold has come very close with his take on 007 music.
    John Barry was probably the first film composer I ever took notice of and collected musically and I am glad to say that today I have almost every recording of his made available and I cherish them all. The 007 music is especially meaningful and thrilling and even groundbreaking, but another genre he he tackled so well was period or historical romance. Just listening to Mary, Queen of Scotts or Lion in Winter or the Last Valley, and I am transported back 400 years or to a different time in European history, He captured the cinematic ambiance of that time brilliantly and with such class. Today’s film composers and filmmakers should pay attention to these scores of Barry’s and others the sixties’ and seventies movies and learn to tone down the music scoring but all the while keep it musical and interesting. Great music will live forever and thus will John Barry.

    Randy Derchan

  5. I loved readinig this because I am also a huge Barry fan! I was sorry to see that he died, but I have loved his music for years. Then one day I got a CD with themes from many movies that he had written – “Midnight Coyboy”, “Hanover Street”,” Indecent Proposad” even “Zulu”. So many! It got to where I would look, if I liked a main theme in a movie, to see if it was one of his – and I was usually right. His music made me cry. I loved his diversity and the tenderness that came through his music! I for one will miss his added dimention to the movies.

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