8:00am

Fri February 4, 2011
Remembrances

Remembering James Bond Film Composer John Barry

Composer John Barry, who wrote the scores for 11 Bond films, as well as the theme songs for Goldfinger and Thunderball, died Sunday. He was 77.

Barry also scored about 100 films, winning Oscars for his music from The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves. In 1999, he joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a conversation about his career, and revealed that he didn't initially think too much about composing music for the Bond films.

"I didn't sit down and intellectualize about it, and I've never read a James Bond book," Barry said. "I'd only seen like a cartoon strip that they used to have in the Daily Mail in England. So I knew it was about a spy. I knew roughly what the essence was, but I never saw the movie. I just wrote the damn thing, you know."

In fact, Barry didn't even see a preview of the film before it appeared in theaters. His first encounter with his Bond musical score came during a screening of Dr. No at the Pavilion in Piccadilly in London.

"Every time [Sean Connery] says, 'I'm Bond — James Bond,' it laid [the music] in all over the damn place," he said. "And it worked. I mean, with film there's no middle ground, you know. It either works or it doesn't. There's no, 'Well, it works a little.' A good score is a score that really works 100 percent, where you just hit all the buttons."

One of Barry's best-known creations was the score and title-track music for the Bond film Goldfinger — big, brassy tunes that were reminiscent of Western anthems. Or, as Barry called it, "million-dollar Mickey Mouse music."

"But that was the fun of it," he said. "And as Fred Astaire said, "Give it size. Give it style. And give it class." And hopefully, that's what we did. We just made everything larger-than-life, and we made it a lot of fun. So everybody went in — they knew he was going to get the broad, he'd kill the villain, he'd be happy. And that was the formula. And we enjoyed it on that level."

John Barry was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986. He is survived by his wife Laurie and four children.


Interview Highlights

On Writing The Theme Song For 'Goldfinger'

"They said, 'Go away and write it.' So I never discussed it with the director or the producers. I discussed it with myself, and I thought, 'Well, what is this about? It's a song about a villain.' And then I started to reflect historically — there's no songs about villains. People don't sit down and write songs about villains. They write love songs. They write sad songs. They write torch songs.

"But songs about villains are very rare. And then I thought of Kurt Weill's 'Mack the Knife,' which is the definitive song about a villain. So then I got my head on right, and I thought that's the definitive song. He managed to bring off the most extraordinary song about a villain.

"Originally, it just started off with a chorus, 'De dum.' And there was no 'By ya ya ya ya.' That wasn't there then. And we had a break, they went up for their 10-minute tea break, and in the tea break I just found it. What we were playing, it was empty, so I sat down at the piano and I came up with 'Da ya na na da.' And did it on wah-wah trumpets."

On Writing The Theme Song For 'Thunderball'

"There's a kind of fascinating story behind that, because that is probably the worst title for a song you can imagine. ... It was such an abstract title. So they were shooting down in Nassau. And I flew down there, and on the way down I was reading a magazine, and it said that the Italians had a name for James Bond now, which was 'Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.' Which I thought was really terrific.

"So I thought, instead of using the word 'Thunderball,' why don't we write a song called 'Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.' Everybody fell in love with it. So I recorded it. I recorded it with Dionne Warwick. We recorded it with Shirley [Bassey].

"And then the powers-that-be at United Artists in New York, literally two weeks before the movie opened, phoned up and said, 'We need that Goldfinger thing. We need that title over the radio. And "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" isn't doing it. We need "Thunderball." ' So I wrote a theme that facilitated the word. And Don [Black] then wrote the lyric. He then called Tom Jones. ... I don't think anybody really analyzed what the hell he was singing about. And I still don't know what the song is about to this day. But we were given that problem, and we had to live with it."

On His Favorite Bond, Sean Connery

"The golden days with Sean, you can never, never never, get away from that. And when you look at it — because you get away from these things for so long, but when they finally flash up on the screen and you just see Sean just walking across a room, just the way — his attitude towards the women, towards the guns, towards the killing. ... And those terrible lines he had to say. I mean, he had to say some the worst lines ever written. And he brought them off. He brought off these — well, I guess he got the point, you know, when he shot that spear into the guy. I mean, they were terrible lines. And it's really extraordinarily for an actor to bring off a line that corny and make the audience go with it." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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