The Way of the Word

31. January 2011

RIP John Barry

Born John Barry Pendergast, November 3, 1933, died January 30, 2011, of a sudden heart attack, at the age of 77.

John Barry’s father was a classical pianist who also onwed a chain of movie theaters.. Originally a classical pianist himself, he continued to learn the trumpet and developed an interest in composing and arranging. During his time in the British Army, he learned the how-to with the help of a corresponence course. In 1957, he abandoned his original career path of arranging music for big bands and formed the John Barry Seven. The band remained in business until 1965, and had several hits. During this time, he arranged music for several performers of the BBC show Drumbeat. Including Adam Faith. When Faith made his first movie, Beat Girl, in 1960, he hired John Barry to write the music. It became the first movie soundtrack to be released as an LP in the UK.

His work first for EMI records and then for Ember Records caught the attention of a movie producer who was in the process of producing “a little spy movie,” and who was unhappy with a theme delivered by the original composer, Monty Norman. They hired John Barry to revise the theme.

John Barry went on to contribute to altogether 12 of the James Bond movies. One thing led to another, John Barry kept getting more and more calls from movie producers, and he went on to become (one of) the greatest movie composers in the history of cinema. (The “one of” is to appease the fans of other film composers — for me, Barry was the greatest.) Barry’s distinctive style concentrated on strings and brass, but he was also an innovator. He was one of the first to use synthesizers in a film score, and he made extensive use of contemporary rock and pop music. He usually didn’t just provide the theme music, but wrote the entire soundtrack score, thereby very much improving and enhancing frequently already impressive movies.

You couldn’t go wrong with a John Barry score.

Some other examples of his work are the music to the movies Zulu (1964), Born Free (1966, two Oscars for the music), The Lion in Winter (1968, Oscar and BAFTA awarded), Midnight Cowboy (1969, Grammy Award winner), Star Crash (1978), Somewhere in Time (1980), Out of Africa (1985, Oscar winner), Dances With Wolves (1990, Oscar winner), Enigma (2001). His other work includes five musicals, the best known among them probably being Passion Flower Hotel (1965) and Billy (1974).

An illness suffered in 1988 rendered him unable to work for two years, and left him vulnerable to pneumonia.

He won five Oscars out of seven nominations. He was the proud owner of four Grammy Awards, two BAFTA Awards and several Golden Globe nominations.

You know the saying that “they don’t make them like this anymore?” That might as well refer to John Barry. Forget all the rest (although, yes, there are good movie composers working in the business now), John Barry was the best there was at what he did. Hands down.

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1 Comment »

  1. A good thing that we still have that music.

    A very good thing.

    Comment by Dwight Williams — 26. February 2011 @ 21:05


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