John Barry (born in York in 1933 as John Barry Prendergast) will forever be associated with those magnificent and exciting Bond Scores, but has an enormous reputation for delivering the musical goods in any number of film genres. In a way he was almost predestined to be a film composer, since his mother was a classical pianist and his father owned a number of theatres and cinemas in Lancashire and Yorkshire. As a young boy he would help his father in the cinema, no doubt watching a large number of movies, and developed a fascination for film music whose composition became his ambition. He also had the opportunity to meet many of the Classical and Jazz artists who came to perform in the theatre. While doing his National Service he joined the army band playing trumpet and learned how to arrange jazz. On leaving he formed his owned band "The John Barry Seven" with which he initially sang before the group moved into instrumental music. Following regular appearances on the BBC TV series "Drumbeat" the band became very successful with these (as the Shadows were to be later), and had a string of hits including "Black Stockings".
At this time Barry met Adam Faith and suggested that he sing regularly on the programme. Faith went on to become very successful as a pop star singing numbers like "What do you want?" (this was in the days of Elvis Presley and the young Cliff Richard) while Barry wrote or arranged his songs. The relationship was to continue when Adam Faith starred in some movies like "Beat Girl" and having the same agent it was natural that John Barry be asked to compose the soundtracks to those movies. And "Beat Girl" in fact was the first soundtrack to be released on an LP in the UK. This then started his career as a film composer, but it was another event which became the turning point beyond which there was no looking back. Having been asked to arrange Monty Norman's theme for a new movie called "Dr. No" he established the unique soundscape of James Bond with the help of the John Barry Seven, and the rest is history.
Nevertheless there was some elements of the Bond film style which were not yet quite right with that first film, but these elements soon fell into place with Barry as the resident composer for the series. Those elements included the big title song which was thereafter to accompany the super-spy on his adventures, and John Barry asked the singer Shirley Bassey to record the theme for Goldfinger, but equally important was the confident, exciting brassy sound of the incidental music with its references to both the main theme and the theme song.
Don't let the Bond associations lead you to conclude that all Barry's music is loud and bombastic. Far from it, the Bond scores are representative of his work only in so far as they illustrate Barry's unique talent for setting exactly the right mood. Time and time again Barry demonstrates that his insight and hard work can hit on just the right tone to convey the musical heart of a movie. More than other film composers, Barry's music has a readily identifiable style. Harmonically, Barry's music is primarily straightforward major and minor, with occasional use of chromaticism and unusual scales for effect and colour. His style is partly on the small scale with "mannerisms" that re-appear in several scores such as the repeated phrases with little or no melodic change but sometimes building to a climax with increasingly intense accompaniment, his use of brass chords or even simply the way he will quiesce on a single chord. But mostly his style comes on the large scale, with broad sweeping lyrical themes and a deftly chosen accompaniment and orchestration, pulling on a wide range of influences from Classical to Popular, Jazz and Big Band sounds. These have also combined to give Barry a worthy sideline in song-writing with several examples (and not only the Bond songs) reaching the charts.
Amongst his best scores are the expansive scores for "Born Free" and Dances with Wolves depicting majestic Savannahs or prairies respectively, the more claustrophobic themes for Midnight Cowboy and "The Ipcress File", the big love themes for Out of Africa and "Somewhere in Time", the jazz influenced "Body Heat" and of course "The Cotton Club" named after that hotbed of early Jazz development, and the historical dramas "The Lion in Winter", "Robin and Marian" and "Mary Queen of Scots". With such an illustrious career it is a little jarring to note that he also did "Howard the Duck"!
In more recent years, Barry has released albums of his own music: "Moviola" starting with an unused theme for the film of that title, "The Beyondness of Things" and "Eternal Echoes". These albums might be described as soundtracks without the intrusion of film visuals. Needless to say, John Barry's position as the sound of James Bond is still recognisable despite its modernisation under the helm of the current Bond tunesmith David Arnold. At the age of 71 in February 2005, Barry received the BAFTA Fellowship Award in recognition of his services to film music.
John Barry was not a great singer, but he did sing in the early days of the John Barry Seven. The archive video above shows him singing with the original line-up of his band.
We were saddened to hear of the death John Barry on 31st January 2011 at the age of 77. He is a true legend who has made a tremendous impact with his music. Here is the composer speaking with a young Jonathan Ross on his TV chat show.
We recommend and review the 4-CD album called John Barry, the Collection which gives excellent coverage of his 40 years of film music. For a complete soundtrack experience, try Midnight Cowboy or "Dances with Wolves" available on CD from amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. The piano sheet music is also very good and available from sheetmusicplus.com. Another good collection of piano sheet music is "Cult Fiction" which has two pieces by John Barry - "The Ipcress File" and "The Persuaders". Also included are pieces by Laurie Johnson, Roy Budd, Angelo Badalamenti, Ennio Morricone and many other composers for cult movies. This is available from The Music Room.