John Barry (1933-2011) - the original Bond Maestro

John Barry: Out of Africa - film score album cover 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".

John Barry: Goldfinger - soundtrack album cover 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.

John Barry 40 years soundtrack collection CD cover 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 initially a little jarring to note that he also did "Howard the Duck", but this score is certainly worth a listen away from the film.

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. There is at least one archive video (if you can find it on youtube) which shows him singing with the original line-up of his band.

Music by John Barry - book cover 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. You can find various interviews with the composer on YouTube. Now 11 years after his death a major new book has been released called "Music By John Barry". The hefty 500-page tome was written by Jon Burlingame, Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker who between them had already amassed a lot of information about the composer, providing detailed CD jacket notes for many album releases, but further research has produced a lot of substantially new material. Burlingame we have mentioned before as the author of The Music of James Bond and the latest book follows the same pattern of having dedicated chapters per film. But there the similarity ends with the latest book's sole focus on Barry across the breadth of his work. I've not finished reading the book, but it is engrossing for all film music fans and lavishly illustrated with photos from Barry's wide-ranging career. It can be found on

Films by John Barry:

  • Zulu - the music is sparsely employed yet epic and dramatic, the original soundtrack album featured tracks called "Zulu Stamps" (which would not sound out of place on an "Austin Powers" movie) some of which were based on thematic material from the film soundtrack
  • John Barry: Dances with Wolves - film score album cover
  • From Russia with Love - Barry's first complete score for a James Bond film
  • The Chase - lots of jazz numbers and a Southern US vibe
  • Goldfinger - where all the elements of the Bond sound come together
  • Four in the Morning - a character-based film with Judi Dench, the music has a recurring theme full of pathos on "cor anglais" and some additional more dramatic material
  • Thunderball
  • The Knack - with Michael Crawford and Ray Brooks
  • King Rat
  • The Ipcress File - the whole soundtrack could be called "Jazz Variations on an original theme", the main theme stated on the Hungarian Cimbalon and many inventive variations with different instrument combinations with an improvisatory feel
  • Born Free - two Oscars for Best Music and Best Song. The film's story and name has been used by the Born Free Foundation, an animal welfare charity, and made an appearance in the recent animation "Madagascar".
  • You only Live Twice
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service - one of the best Bond scores
  • Diamonds are Forever
  • High Road to China
  • Deadfall - Barry appears in this film in an extended sequence, conducting a work he had written for guitar and orchestra while Michael Caine commits a robbery - you can view this scene on youtube (part 1 of 2 parts)
  • John Barry: The Lion in Winter - film score album cover
  • The Lion in Winter - Oscar for Best Music, Barry uses voices in this historical drama
  • The Deep
  • Walkabout
  • Hanover Street
  • The Last Valley
  • Midnight Cowboy - incidental music, music supervision and adaptation giving the film its own unique atmosphere which is simultaneously involving yet detached and voyeuristic
  • Monte Walsh
  • Mary Queen of Scots - Oscar nomination
  • The Man with the Golden Gun
  • King Kong (1976 remake)
  • Robin and Marian
  • Body Heat - a sultry theme with flutes and sax
  • The Legend of the Lone Ranger
  • The Black Hole
  • Moonraker - great space-age scoring
  • Raise the Titanic
  • Somewhere in Time - romantic music from Barry and also from Rachmaninoff
  • Octopussy
  • The Cotton Club - the soundtrack is full of stomping Duke Ellington tunes along with Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and a couple of tracks by Barry in similar style
  • Jagged Edge
  • Morons from Outer Space (song)
  • Out of Africa - back to Africa for another oscar, with a grand sweeping yet up-lifting romantic theme - the score includes a song by Barry
  • A View to a Kill
  • The Golden Child - this Eddie Murphy film was scored by Michel Colombier but the soundtrack featured a couple of tracks by John Barry
  • Masquerade (1988)
  • The Living Daylights
  • Peggy Sue got Married
  • Indecent Proposal - including the song "In all the Right Places" with lyrics and sung by Lisa Stansfield
  • Howard the Duck - with both Sylvester Levay and Dennis Dreith receiving credits for Additional Music, and Tom Boyd as Oboe soloist
  • Dances with Wolves - and another well-deserved oscar
  • Chaplin
  • Mercury Rising
  • Enigma - romantic spy drama based around events decoding messages enciphered using the enigma machine, though the film doesn't mention the mathematician Alan Turing

TV work by John Barry:

  • The Persuaders - theme tune for this Tony Curtis and Roger Moore pairing
  • Vendetta
  • Wildtrack - this wildlife TV show used as its theme the track "Florida Fantasy" from Midnight Cowboy

John Barry - Recommendations:

Cult Fiction sheet music cover 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 or The piano sheet music is also very good and available from 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.