A spy walks into view, framed by the barrel of a gun. He is underscored by a distinctively familiar tune, a few bars of strings at first, foreshadowing something big. The spy swings and fires, and the screen is filled with red as the brass band kicks in. This is, of course, the opening to the James Bond films, instantly recognisable to audiences since Dr. No in 1962. Although for years it was Monty Norman’s name that appeared on-screen, it was John Barry’s arrangement of the “James Bond Theme” with its jazzy leanings that captured the hearts and minds of audiences across the world. Composer John Barry OBE, who also went on to compose 11 James Bond films – not to mention Born Free and Dances with Wolves – died on the weekend at age 77.
John Barry Prendergast was born into a family in the cinema business, but it was not until his time in the National Service that he began has career as a musician. He got his first break while working for the BBC, arranging songs for artists such as Adam Faith, graduating to film scores when Faith made his film debut with Beat Girl (1960). Barry’s soundtrack became the first soundtrack available on an LP in the UK, and Barry subsequently had a short career with record label EMI arranging orchestral scores for label artists.
Undoubtedly, Barry’s most significant career move was agreeing to the producers of Dr. No to come on board their new spy film in 1962 and in many ways, the rest is history. For From Russia with Love (1963), Barry would create an alternative Bond theme called “007”, a refrain that would be heard throughout the next few films. Barry would go on to be involved in the scores for 11 James Bond films, all the way up to Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights (1987), although his arrangements heavily influenced David Arnold who followed him. By the time Barry reached Goldfinger (1964), he had perfected the ‘Bond sound’ with the large brass band and jazzy score that would compliment Shirley Bassey’s iconic title tune. Indeed, this was so indelibly linked with the Bond series that years later, it was these themes that would be parodied in such films as Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).
While it was the Bond films that Barry may always be associated with, the “other half” of his film career was perhaps where he met with the most critical success. Barry won five Academy Awards for his film scores, including both Best Original Song and Best Original Musical Score for Born Free. Barry would win the latter category an additional three times – for The Lion in Winter (1969), Out of Africa (1986) and Dances with Wolves (1991), the latter of which would also win a Grammy and a BAFTA. Yet his film career was not confined to these award-winning compositions. With over 100 screen credits to his name, Barry tunes and arrangements would be found on Midnight Cowboy (1969), Zulu (1964), Walkabout (1971), King Kong (1976), The Black Hole (1980) and his last screen credit, Enigma (2001).
Barry would enjoy a successful career outside of cinema, including the theme to the popular 1970s TV series The Persuaders! and a recent musical version of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (2004) with lyricist Don Black. In 1999, he was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List for his services to music. For fans of music and film around the work, it is certainly a great loss to the community but his distinctive and genre-defining themes will continue to please fans for generations to come.