John Barry: Tribute to the man with a golden talent

Hand-tinted black and white photo of John Barry in the 1950s. Photographer Will Acton
Hand-tinted black and white photo of John Barry in the 1950s. Photographer Will Acton
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The genius of a York composer was revealed through stunning film music that stays in the mind. The city celebrates its famous son tomorrow night close to where he began his amazing journey in music. John Woodcock reports

York is so compact, such an oversize village, that if you live there people, places and events with no apparent connection tend to merge at some point.

For all its changes, there’s a steadfast continuity. This kind of thing: I abandoned trainspotting after seeing a loin-stirring film in what’s now a bingo hall still owned by the family of a man whose music touches the world. Tomorrow night his exceptional career is being celebrated close to where he played some of his first chords in public.

It was an outsider who made these associations happen; Jack Xavier Prendergast, a charismatic Irishman who bobbed into York from Cork.

He was a projectionist during the silent movie era and ended up owning a chain of cinemas. They included the Clifton, where in my innocent mid-teens there was no better sex education than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. And the Rialto in Fishergate, where Prendergast’s son dropped his surname and went on stage as John Barry.

On Sunday May 19, 1957, his father billed him and his group, The John Barry Seven, as “Britain’s Freshest Beat”, and “the boys with rhythm with ’em”. They were “back by popular demand” and tickets to see them and supporting acts, the Delta Skiffle Group and Johnny Newcombe’s Wabash Four, cost 2/6 and 3/6 for the stalls and 2/6 and 5/- in the circle.

Barry’s drummer in those days was Ken Golder from Scarborough, and he’ll be among the 1,400 sell-out audience at tomorrow’s concert paying tribute to his former colleague dominating that 54-year-old poster. He progressed from gigs to pop records to Hollywood and luscious film scores that included 11 James Bond soundtracks and won him five Academy Awards.

Also there will be Dr Francis Jackson, former organist at York Minster, now in his 95th year and an influential figure in John Barry’s early understanding of music.

It was further helped by the family business. As a boy in his father’s picture houses he made notes during screenings, such was his keenness to learn how a composer connected with a movie’s script.

The rest of us were grateful to Jack Prendergast for not only the films but because he booked some of the biggest stars of the day for live shows at the Rialto.

An aunt of mine whose personal preference was Mario Lanza and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Co realised it was futile to swim against the tide and took me there to see Tommy Steele when Singing the Blues was all the rage.

The Rialto also raised the curtain on, among many, Louis Armstrong, the Count Basie Orchestra, Cliff Richard, the Everly Brothers and Helen Shapiro. She was due to top the bill but her visit coincided with the meteoric rise of a support group and at the last minute she switched places with The Beatles.

Other than his son, Prendergast helped numerous local musicians, like Steve Cassidy. It helps to explain why, in one of those circular associations typical of York, Cassidy is one of the main figures behind tomorrow’s show.

Through his contact with the family, in 1963 his recording of Ecstasy, part written by Marty Wilde, was produced by John Barry at a studio in London. It didn’t make the Top Ten, “though it was a hit in Greece strangely enough,” recalls the singer, who was then aged 19 and striving to become another York lad to make the big-time.

Barry had already achieved it, his distinctive sounds helping to launch Adam Faith, and providing the theme tune for Juke Box Jury, the BBC TV show that was an early mainstream acknowledgement of the growing pop culture. Until then youngsters like me usually discovered new releases by listening to Radio Luxembourg, often under the bedclothes, or through the headphones at Mackenzie’s record shop where you spent your pocket money and dreamt about the blonde assistant.

It’s all remembered fondly by Steve Cassidy who, when he isn’t performing under his stage name, reverts to being Norman Fowler, the retired head teacher of a primary school that – this being York – is almost across the road from the Rialto.

“John Barry was a really cool character with a deep, unforgettable voice. When I made my recording with him he epitomized the Swinging Sixties. He lived just off the King’s Road in Chelsea and went around with the likes of Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and Joan Collins.

“At the same time he never forgot his roots. His father had helped launch his career and John in turn helped and encouraged me, and he also kept in touch with mates from his National Service days.”

Cassidy is equally glad to have known Barry’s father. “Jack was an original, an eccentric some might say, a showman and a gentleman noted for taking snuff and dressing distinctively. He put York on the map as far as music was concerned.”

York’s tribute to John Barry is being held four days before what would have been the composer’s 78th birthday. The idea emerged within days of his death last January at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, and has the support of his sister June in old York. Cassidy began putting a show together with the help of Graham Bradbury, a local “fixer” of renown when it comes to organising reunions, sportsmen’s dinners and York’s annual community carol service.

They were at the Royal Albert Hall in June for the John Barry Memorial Concert which starred Shirley Bassey and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

In their version there are no showbusiness giants taking part, and they can provide none of the celebrities who appeared in London. They believe that’s as it should be. The organisers want this to be a specific York homage to one of its greatest sons who was an Honorary Freeman of the city. It’s a chance for mainly local people to applaud him – a few of Barry’s Swedish fans have managed to get tickets – and some have also shared their anecdotes and childhood memories of him in the pages of the concert programme.

So instead of Bassey and the Royal Philharmonic on stage at the recently reopened York Barbican – round the corner, naturally, from where Barry’s group played on that May night in ’57 – there will be York Railway Institute Band, York Guildhall Orchestra, Cassidy’s band, and singers Jo Pears and Johnny De Little, also known as Brian King when he made shock absorbers at a factory off the A19 in the early ’60s.

Cassidy is no stranger to honouring the biggest names. He wrote the song which welcomed Pope John Paul II to York in 1982, and in saluting Barry he’s penned The Music Man which will be performed among numerous Barry classics: 007 themes and his music for films such as Dances with Wolves, Zulu, Born Free, Midnight Cowboy and Out of Africa. They’re even reviving Ecstasy, not one of the great man’s best-known arrangements but a memory cherished by a 60s wannabe pop idol before he became schoolmaster Norman Fowler.

He’s also something of a talent-spotter. Appearing with his band will be a harmonica player Cassidy heard busking on a York street.

Graham Bradbury has his own reasons for helping to organise the event. “I never met John Barry but I feel I know him. He touched millions of us. You lay claim to someone who provided a musical background for different times of your life.

“I hear one of his melodies and straight away I’m back in the 60s, or at the pictures. Or I think of him knocking around our town as a kid, and how he and his dad and the Rialto provided so many great memories.”

York’s tribute to John Barry is at York Barbican tomorrow night (October 30) at 7pm. Proceeds are being shared by charities chosen by the city’s Lord Mayor. For further details email gram.bradbury@virgin.net