John Barry, 1933-2011

I heard this morning the sad news that one of my favorite musicians – one who influenced my listening probably as much as anyone ever did – had passed on.

John Barry, composer of soundtracks for eleven of the James Bond movies and so many more films over the years, crossed over yesterday, January 30, in New York at the age of seventy-seven.

It was my fascination with James Bond in 1964 that led me to Barry’s work and then to my long-time interest in soundtracks. Those of my age or older will recall that Bondmania had about a three or four year run. It began, from what I recall, in the early 1960s with – among other things – the admission by then-President John F. Kennedy that he enjoyed Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond, secret agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Add the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962, with Sean Connery as Bond and Ursula Andress rising from the sea as Honeychile Rider, the first of the Bond girls on the screen, and the secret agent – blessed with gorgeous women, superb driving skills, an increasingly elaborate set of weapons and gadgets, and just the right double entendre at the right time – became an American sensation.

Barry didn’t score Dr. No – Monty Norman did – but Barry picked up the series with the second film, From Russia With Love, and when the third Bond film, Goldfinger, came out in 1964, the increasing fascination around me pulled me in. I turned eleven in 1964 and was too young, my parents judged, to see the movies or read Fleming’s books. But I could listen to the music. So I got the soundtrack to Goldfinger from our record club, and I sat by the stereo in the living room, listening and trying to create images and storylines that would match the sounds I heard, kind of the reverse of what Barry was doing as he created music to match the images and story of the film.

Of all the tracks on that first soundtrack, the instrumental version of the main theme remains my favorite:

By the time the fourth Bond film, Thunderball, came out in 1965, my parents had granted me permission to read Fleming’s books, and I went to see the new movie with my pal and fellow 007 enthusiast Brad. We followed that up with a double-feature of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, re-released as the nation’s attention to 007 increased. Somewhere along the line, we also saw a re-release of Goldfinger, allowing me finally to match the music with the scenes in the movie. And, of course, I bought the soundtrack to Thunderball, which included a new version of the “007” theme, first written for From Russia With Love.

Bondmania faded for the nation and for me, and although I saw some of the ensuing movies, many of which Barry scored, I bought no more Bond soundtracks after that. I did pick up Barry’s work for the film Born Free, and for many years, I noted when his name was in the credits of films I saw. But rock music and its relatives began to take more and more of my attention and my cash, and I bought few soundtracks by anyone for a few years. My early interest in Barry’s work had, however, cultivated the habit of paying close attention to the soundtrack any time I went to the movies, and during the 1980s I began to collect soundtracks again.

Fast forward a few years: During my graduate school days, I saw the film Somewhere In Time and noted that Barry had written the lush, romantic soundtrack for it, with pianist Roger Williams joining in for a turn at the main theme. I bought the LP and have since found myself watching the movie anytime I run into it on the cable channels. I mean, time travel, the luminous Jane Seymour and John Barry’s music – what more could one want?

The list of Barry’s work at All-Music Guide is amazingly long, with the earliest dated score being his work for Beat Girl in 1960 and the most recent being his score for The Dove in 2009. He earned Grammy awards for his work on Midnight Cowboy, The Cotton Club, Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves and won five Academy Awards, earning Oscars for his scores for Born Free, The Lion In Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves and for the song “Born Free.”

As I write and think, I come to the conclusion that Barry probably had as much influence on me and my music listening as did anyone. Since the advent of the Internet, I’ve found my way to more and more of his soundtracks, work I enjoy hearing that I did not always know about when the films came out. Combine that with the attention I still pay to soundtracks and scores as I watch movies, and the effect of Barry’s work on me is huge.

I dabbled with writing some movie-type music when I was in college, at about the same time I dabbled in writing some short films. Not much came of either, except first, an awareness of the power of precise language in a script, and second – and more to the point here – a greater awareness of the difficulty of matching the mood of a scene with music. John Barry was a master at that latter task, and he deserves the lasting gratitude of anyone who loves movies or music.

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