Man with the golden touch who made the score the star of countless movies

IF you were to draw up a blueprint for a child who would one day become a great film music composer, you could hardly do better than look at the background of the boy who was to become John Barry, the creator of 90-odd film scores, a string of hit songs that summed up the soul of those movies and an artist whose unique talent would help claim a respect for film composition not previously known until he broke through from cool jazzy popular music into film writing in the 1960s.

John Barry Prendergast, born in York in 1933 to a classical pianist mother and a charismatic Irish father who owned a string of cinemas across the north, was practically weaned on Saturday afternoons at the Rialto watching Disney cartoons. Young John often watched a film with pen and notebook in hand, making notes of what worked and what didn't. When he was older he helped to run the films from the projection box.

His parents also organised concerts on Sunday evenings at the cinemas, and John was used to seeing such luminaries as Count Basie, Nat "King" Cole, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Thomas Beecham sitting on the drawing room sofa. He began to study the piano at nine and the trumpet at 16 – his later penchant for bold brass, particularly in Bond scores, taking early form under tuition from Bill Russo, who had played in Stan Kenton's group. He also took lessons in composition from Francis Jackson, organist of York Minster. Returning to his homeland after decades living in Long Island, New York a few years ago, John Barry received an honorary doctorate from York University and cast a backward glance to his school days at the Bar Convent, St Olave's and St Peter's, saying those years were "...happier in memory... I had a lot of good friends, but I was not an A-student". It just shows that genuine talent is not held back by a less-than-distinguished school record. Five Oscars and countless other accolades for his music bear glorious testament to that.

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Author of some of the most moving and memorable movie themes ever written, John Barry created music that distilled the heart and soul of a story and sent you home thrilled or heart-rent, your brain swollen with the sequences he'd put together.

You would not just whistle them or hum them for days; each time a few opening notes came to mind, they would instantly conjure up an almost overpowering image from the movie. Barry once told an interviewer: "I think it's wonderful when you can write instrumental music and break people's hearts with it". His best soaring themes – think Zulu, Born Free, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves – or the more melancholy Midnight Cowboy, or the mock-medieval Mary Queen of Scots – had the ability to crack you in two with a moving chord, swooping cadences, perfect runs of notes that stirred up the deepest feelings then made off with them.

Despite all the garlands, the glamorous life, four marriages (including one to uber-60s chick Jane Birkin) and the lifelong showbusiness friends such as Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, many who knew him said John Barry remained a Yorkshireman to the core and never lost his accent. Among friends he was as renowned for his elegance, charm and good humour as those lush strings, yearning melodies or the sexy, dangerous, brass arrangements used in 11 Bond movies, he saw his art as that of dramatist as much as musician, feeling the place of his music in an action movie like Bond was to follow the story, and in the case of a more contemplative drama to augment the story, adding a certain something to the tale that could barely be defined.

The loneliness of a soldier on the frontier between peoples, the vast domed sky of Out of Africa and the end of a couple's affair evoked by a swelling emotional theme following them in a two-seater aircraft... such scenes would be so much less without the music that expresses the characters' and feelings captures an unforgettable sense of place.

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Fetching up in London in 1958 after National Service, Barry started a very rock 'n' roll band, the John Barry Seven. Pop culture was embryonic, and the city was on the brink of becoming cooler than cool. A cauldron of music, fashion, film and art, London was exciting and hectic, and Barry became the modishly-clad lad-about-town. Friends were Adam Faith and other whey-faced singers, and Barry's breakthrough came when he wrote the score for Faith's early movie Beat Girl.

He'd studied jazz writing by correspondence while in the Army, but was still relatively inexperienced when he was asked to take the Bond theme for the first movie Dr No, (composed by Monty Norman) and write its orchestration. Pop went firmly on to the back burner, as Barry quickly became one of the hottest properties in film. His career spanned 50 years and more then 90 films plus work for TV.

He could compose a major film theme in minutes. Born Free: 12 minutes; Dances With Wolves: 10 minutes; the desolate harmonica theme of Midnight Cowboy: 20 minutes. For those who questioned how he came to earn millions from such "easy" work, Barry would quote Picasso: "When he (Picasso) was asked how a sketch he'd taken four minutes to draw could fetch so much, he explained that it had taken 40 years and four minutes".

Roger Marsh, Professor of Music at York University says no-one should underestimate how much effort and technical ability goes into orchestrating music for a two-hour film, however brilliant but simple its central theme might appear to be.

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"The difficult part is the orchestration, and most of John Barry's work uses a full symphony orchestra of 60-80 musicians often with additional parts for jazz instruments. His music, compared to classical compositions is no less serious in the quality of its invention and the brilliance of its orchestration. He was an important part of the increased stature and recognition given to film music in the last few decades. Great film music is often turned into a concert suite played by youth orchestras".

Yorkshire Post film critic Tony Earnshaw goes so far as to say that John Barry made film music as important as a leading actor. "He made it hip, and came at a time when the use of classical composers like Walton or Vaughan Williams for soundtracks was changing in favour of a more modern approach. A lot of bad films have been elevated to mediocre by good music, and mediocre ones have have been become good because the music lifted them. Sidney Pollack, the late director of Out of Africa, said great film music made you replay the film in your head. That's what Barry did, brilliantly".

Great film music pushes the narrative of a film forward and provides an emotional structure, says Duncan McGregor, film projection manager at the National Media Museum and expert on Barry and his music. "He wasn't associated with many bad films, but even a film like The Scarlet Letter, which wasn't that good, was improved hugely by his rich, romantic music. His other side produced the action-driven Bond scores with cues for car chases that always used the brass at full pitch and set the pulses racing. He called it 'million-dollar Mickey Mouse music'.

"One of the great things about Barry's music is also that he knew when to take the music out and let the characters and drama speak for themselves, as he did beautifully in The Lion In Winter and many other films.

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"Many Hollywood films today have wall-to-wall music, and those composers who are not prepared to do that would probably find themselves without the ability to work."

The John Barry back catalogue

Some of John Barry's most memorable film works


From Russia with Love (Barry's first complete score for a James Bond film)


Four in the Morning


The Ipcress File

Born Free (two Oscars, best score and best song)

You only Live Twice

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Diamonds are Forever

The Lion in Winter (Oscar, best score)


Midnight Cowboy

Mary Queen of Scots

The Man with the Golden Gun

Robin and Marian



The Cotton Club

Out of Africa (Oscar, best score)

A View to a Kill

The Living Daylights

Peggy Sue got Married

Dances with Wolves (Oscar, best score)



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