Don collects his 1966 Academy Award for Born Free from Dean Martin
As soon as he heard it, Harry said: “I don’t like the tune and the words are filthy!” John’s famously short fuse kicked in and he said: “Well, what the f*** do you know about songs?” Thankfully, the other Bond producer, Cubby Broccoli, loved it and so did our preferred singer Shirley Bassey. But it was touch and go for a while and I was relieved when Diamonds are Forever – my second 007 collaboration with John – ended up in the picture.
Years later, when I met the film director Steven Spielberg at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s New York apartment on the 60th floor of Trump Tower, he blurted out: “You’re not THE Don Black who wrote my favourite James Bond theme?” I was shocked he had even heard of me, but he told me the marriage of Maurice Binder’s title sequence and the lyrics to Diamonds Are Forever was “perfect”.
The only subject I was any good at in school was English. I would have been OK at comedy but they didn’t teach that in Cassland Road School in Hackney, east London. I was glued to the BBC’s light programme in those days and knew most of the routines of Frankie Howerd, Derek Roy, Al Read and the rest.
Later on, I was fixated on American comics like Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Alan King and Don Rickles. I was always impressed by the great one-liner funny men.
But as far back as I can remember I have been in love with songs. When most kids of my age were collecting stamps or comic books, I would be scribbling down a line or two from a song I heard on the BBC. One of life’s greatest pleasures is listening to a beautifully crafted song.
I had a fantastically happy childhood, growing up in a council flat in Shore Place, south Hackney. I know memories are selective, but I can’t think of one bad one. Being the youngest of five, I was spoiled a lot. Betsy, my mother hated to wake me up to go to school. She would say, “He’s having such a lovely sleep.”
She loved music and would often be heard singing songs with a gypsy flavour like Besame Mucho, Jealousy, and Jezebel. She was born in the Ukraine in a town called Mariapole and my father came from Kiev. They met in Sunderland, and while my dad Morris had a strange accent, a quarter Geordie, three-quarters Kiev, my mother had a soothing comforting Sunderland lilt.
With his best pal Matt Monro
We all liked to perform in front of our parents. I was usually doing impressions of Jerry Lewis or Peter Lorre. My mother praised us all to the sky and, when it came to awarding points, she diplomatically gave us all 10 out of 10.
My father worked as an under-presser, which meant he ironed things. He was an emotional man but hid it well. He was strong and had some chest expanders that only a muscleman could open.
He was also a major smoker and he wouldn’t stop. He was told that if he continued his legs would have to be amputated. He said, “Take them off,” and they did. He was as brave as a lion and he used to say, “I never give way,” and he never did.
MY first job was as an office boy at the New Musical Express whose offices were in Denmark Street, which was known then as Tin Pan Alley and populated by music publishers selling their songs.
This is where I got to meet so many brilliantly talented songwriters. I started as an office boy, then moved into circulation and then advertising. I really wanted to join the editorial staff but, after five years, I moved across the street to the David Toff Music Publishing Company.
It was my job to plug the songs they published and we had a couple of big hits – ‘PERFECT’ SONG: Shirley’s Bond Don’t Laugh at Me by Norman Wisdom and Que Sera Sera by Doris Day.
I mingled with songwriters even more – Barry Mason (Delilah), Les Reed (It’s Not Unusual), Mitch Murray (How Do You Do It?). I still meet some of those writers but it’s usually in Harley Street rather than Denmark Street these days!
Don’s parents Betsy and Morris
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you meet someone who makes you see life differently. My best friend from the moment we met in the Fifties to the day he died was Matt Monro. He had given up his job as a bus driver to try to make a living as a singer. I was able to hire him from time to time to demonstrate new songs and pay him the princely sum of five pounds per song.
But I was getting a bit fed up plugging songs and toying with the idea of becoming a stand-up comedian. I did this professionally for a couple of years and played some of the most famous music halls in the country.
Coincidentally, they all closed down afterwards. I blame myself for the death of Variety.
By then, Matt Monro was becoming a huge international star, winning all kinds of awards and gold records, and I became his manager.
He encouraged me to write lyrics. He fell in love with an Austrian melody by Udo Jürgens hit called Warum, nur Warum and I remember him saying, “You’re always on about lyrics – if Lionel Bart can do it so can you”.
I called the song Walk Away and it went to number two in the hit parade. I went on to write about 30 songs for Matt, including my Oscar-winner Born Free.
My burgeoning success as a writer meant I had less time for Matt and I was torn between my career and Matt’s deeply felt friendship. Eventually we agreed someone else should take over but we stayed close until his death in 1985 aged just 54.
Not a day goes by I don’t think about this ordinary man with an extraordinary talent. I still remember his phone numbers in Ewell and Ealing.
Shirley’s Bond hit
I first met composer John Barry in Denmark Street in the early Sixties. In those days John was handsome, successful and famous, the coolest man on the planet. He drove a white Maserati, wore handmade suits and had a fabulous bachelor apartment overlooking the Thames.
He would become one of my closest collaborators. One miraculous day he asked me if I’d like to have a go at Thunderball, the new James Bond film.
That was a truly life-changing moment. When I came up with the first line: “He always runs while others walk”, the rest of the song came quickly. We always wanted Tom Jones to sing it because he had such a muscular voice. It has often been said Tom fainted when he sang the final note and it’s true. I always believe a Bond song should be provocative, seductive and have the whiff of the boudoir about it.
There should also be the lure of the forbidden, a kind of theatrical vulgarity as you are drawn into Bond’s mysterious world.
I also think Tom or Shirley Bassey should sing them all! As Terry Wogan used to say, “They don’t sing songs, they bite lumps out of them.”
After Thunderball, I must have written more than 100 songs with John and, I think it’s fair to say, I was his only true friend. He was a loner and an introvert and hated being with people he considered phoney or artificial. He drank too much and his Yorkshire bluntness came bursting through.
Only the best was good enough for John: Dom Perignon champagne, Stolichnaya vodka, Puligny-Montrachet wine, Delamain brandy then we’d have lunch.
Writing songs with John was an absolute joy; he liked uncomplicated, honest lyrics – nothing fancy or clever. Our collaboration was more like a marriage, and like a wonderful marriage it was too short.
John Barry, Tom Jones and Don Black at work recording Thunderball
Born Free, for which we would win an Oscar, started out like any other song. John played it rather badly on a piano in my office. He said the film was “about a lion called Elsa who is tamed and at the end she is set free to go into the wild”.
We recorded the song with Matt Monro and the plan was that it would go at the end of the picture but the film’s producer Carl Foreman thought the tune was too syrupy, and the words were too much of a social comment. So he took it off the soundtrack and it didn’t appear at the royal première of the film. This was highly embarrassing for Matt and his family as they told everyone it was going to be featured. I regarded the whole episode as just another disappointment. But as luck would have it, a choir recording of the song shot up the American hit parade and Columbia pictures realised it could be a contender for the 1966 Academy Awards.
To make it eligible, they recalled every single print of the movie and added Matt’s vocal at the end.We got the nomination, and everyone was in a state of euphoria,but the other nominees were impressive, including Burt Bacharach and Hal David with Alfie and Jim Dale and Tom Springfield with Georgy Girl. Dean Martin read the nominations and said the words that changed all our lives: “The winner is John Barry and Don Black for Born Free.” At the after-show party, Carl Foreman came up to me and remarked: “Well, it does grow on you.” When we got back to our hotel on Sunset Boulevard the stars were lined up and applauded as we entered. My sister Nita called me to say that she saw an Evening Standard placard that read: “East End boy wins Oscar”. I was the first British songwriter to win an Oscar and they tell me that, at 27, I was the youngest. I will never forget those incredible days.
The Sanest Guy In The Room: A Life In Lyrics by Don Black (Constable, £20) is out. now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk
Published at Sat, 05 Sep 2020 17:43:00 +0000