John Barry – A Man And His Music

It was the best part of the day for the young boy John. His own time, after the evening meal, to indulge his imagination.

A pile of shellac records stood alongside the wind up gramophone, and he would select his favourite Sibelius or Ravel. Next would come his collection of Dinky toys, and together, both toys and music, would transport the young John to a secret fantasy world only he knew. Children in those 1930’s days knew their place, and only spoke when they were spoken to.

John Barry Prendergast was born in York on 3rd November 1933, the youngest of three children. Patrick, his elder brother was born in 1923, and sister June in 1928.

By 1942 John was a pupil at the well known Bar Convent School in York, when the blitz of World War II was at its height, and York became a target for Hitler’s bombers. Although John and his sister were not boarders, many of the children were, and the school was considered to be one of the safest in the city. However, on one particular night during heavy bombardment the school was hit. A whole wing of the school was destroyed and five of the nuns were killed. The sadness and horror of what he witnessed was to have a deep rooted effect on John, and would be reflected in his work in later years.


John’s father, Jack Xavier Prendergast, was an Irish born show business personality who owned eight cinemas and theatres in Yorkshire, building the impressive Rialto Cinema in York in the 1930’s. JX, as he was known, enjoyed a prominent position in York life, being one of a small number of people who ran a motor car at that time.

By the time he was fourteen years old the young John had mastered the intricacies of the projection room, and could run it single handedly. Every day after school would find him in the cinema doing any job which presented itself. It was, after all, a family business and everyone joined in. More importantly, however, he was watching movies every day, and the marriage of music and celluloid was germinating within.

After leaving school, John persuaded his father to allow him to join the business and to follow his musical interests privately.

Dr Francis Jackson was Master of Music at York Minster, and it was to him that befell the task of teaching the complexities of harmony, counterpoint and choral music. This education would prove invaluable to John many years later when working on The Lion In Winter in 1968.

By the mid 1950’s a wind of change was blowing through popular music, bringing with it a new phenomenon from the USA called rock and roll. Aimed at the newly christened teenage market it swept the world and things would never be the same again.

John realised that to be successful he had to be part of this music scene and set about forming his own band. They rehearsed at the Rialto on a Sunday and topped the bill at Sunday night concerts. By 1957 the John Barry Seven undertook their first professional engagements, and appeared with Tommy Steele at his summer season in Blackpool. Other work followed as their style developed, and slots on tv teen shows Six Five Special, Oh Boy! And Drumbeat captured the mood of the country’s teenage population. In 1959 the Seven were backing the next teenage idol, Adam Faith. Always trying to be one step ahead Barry came up with a pizzicato string arrangement and Faith hit Number One with What Do You Want. A succession of similar hits for Faith followed, together with John’s own composition for the Seven called Hit And Miss. This became the signature tune of BBC TV’s Juke Box Jury, and was probably the first tv theme tune to enter the charts in pop history.

Then came the turning point. Faith was chosen to play the lead in a film called Beat Girl, a beatnik story of delinquency in Soho. The producer then needed someone who could provide music to appeal to the younger generation. Someone suggested using Faith’s current guru. John Barry could not believe his luck. He had always spoken of a desire to write film scores, and this was to be his debut. A jazz and rock score for Beat Girl brought considerable success, and became the first British movie to have a soundtrack issued on a long playing record.

Another Faith movie drama, Never Let Go, starring Peter Sellers and Richard Todd, began to mould the fledgling composer in a new direction.

In 1962 the name of John Barry came to the notice of the producers of the first James Bond movie Dr No. They were struggling to come up with music for the main title. Barry met composer Monty Norman, and together they forged The James Bond Theme. John Barry recorded the music in June 1962 and was paid the princely sum of £200. It is easily the most recognised piece of music in cinematographic history, although when issued one month ahead of the film few could have foreseen its phenomenal success. It has become a cornerstone of the James Bond movies for over 50 years.

This was to be the way in to big time film making that Barry had been looking for. He was offered the full score for the second Bond movie From Russia With Love and he grabbed it with both hands. Lionel Bart wrote the song and Matt Monro had a major hit. The Bond style and imagery was evolving.

James Bond poster showcasing JOHN BARRY as Music Composer and Conductor
James Bond – Russia with love poster showcasing JOHN BARRY as Music Composer and Conductor

By the time that Goldfinger, the third film, opened in London, the Bond star had been soaring. Everything turned to gold. Barry was this time given the chance to write both title song and score and didn’t disappoint. Shirley Bassey powered the vocals and the song established itself as a Bond anthem for perpetuity. In America the soundtrack album reached Number One, replacing the Beatles Hard Day’s Night. The template for future Bond movies had been struck. Goldfinger provided the style, the music, the cars, the girls, the guys, and the gizmos.

Barry was to subsequently score eleven 007 films between 1962 and 1987, including Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, Octopussy, A View To A Kill, and The Living Daylights. These movies were to produce Bond songs for Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, Rita Coolidge, Duran Duran, A-Ha, and Chrissie Hynde.

Whilst the world at large can instantly recognise music from the Bond suite, John’s composing abilities encompassed all styles and cultures. Five Oscars and four Grammy’s were to come his way making him the most successful British film music composer of the 20th century.

Born Free in 1966 was a double Oscar winner for Best Original Score and Best Song. The film tells the story of Joy Adamson adopting a lion cub called Elsa. Matt Monro had a hit with the song, and lyrics were supplied by his manager, Don Black. This success emphasised that Barry was not a one trick pony.

The Lion In Winter in 1968 won John his third Oscar for Best Score as well as the British Film Academy’s Anthony Asquith Award. Set in the 12th century court of Henry II the film starred Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Barry’s early training at York Minster in religious and choral music was tailor made for this score, making his American critics sit up and take notice. No longer was he referred to as “the guy from the pop group”.

Taking the mean streets of New York to the Americans won John his first Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Theme in 1969 for Midnight Cowboy. Barry’s harmonica theme achieved classic status reflecting the desperation and lack of hope around the time depicted.

In the mid seventies John embarked to do a project in Los Angeles and spent five years living in Beverley Hills and working in Hollywood. He gradually moved from London and settled at Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, the closest point to England.

Somewhere In Time in 1980 made little impact with moviegoers but was followed by cult status on cable tv. This back in time travel story featured Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Barry’s melodic music, although sad, is at the same time hauntingly beautiful. It reaches to the very depth of one’s soul. It came as no surprise to learn that Barry wrote this score within eighteen months of losing both his parents. John won a platinum disc for sales of this album.

John Barry and his BAFTA award
John Barry and his BAFTA award

Out Of Africa in 1985 won seven Academy Awards including Best Score. This film continued John’s love of Africa following the earlier successes of Zulu and Born Free. The marriage of landscape and music were simply unforgettable. John also won a Golden Globe and a platinum disc for album sales.

After a serious illness in 1988 John announced his return with a blockbuster score for the Kevin Costner western Dances With Wolves in 1990. John was rewarded with his fifth and final Oscar and a fourth Grammy Award. This three hour epic film included The John Dunbar Theme, recognised the world over as a Barry signature tune. In 2001 Don Black added the words and it became Here’s To The Heroes, bringing renewed success around the world. The John Dunbar Theme was featured in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games 2012, a fitting tribute by the organisers to the composer, who passed away a year previously in 2011.

John Barry and his oscar statue award
John Barry and his oscar statue award

Many accolades and awards came John Barry’s way in a career spanning over forty years. July 2001 saw him proudly receive an Honorary Doctorate from the University of York. Surrounded by his wife, son, sister June and the Prendergast family, Barry was deeply touched to be honoured by his home city.

The City of York made John Barry an Honorary Freeman of the city in June 2002. John, clearly moved, said “It is an honour to be recognised in this way by one’s home town. Coming back to York always brings back happy memories”.

In 1998 John had the opportunity to record an album of his memoirs. Called The Beyondness of Things, these are his thoughts at that time.

“As a young boy growing up in the North of England our family would on occasion drive out to an old mill house in the country for lunch. After a meal of the best York ham and eggs, and home made bread and butter with tea, we would take a stroll through the woods by the river before setting out on the journey home. Driving across the plain of York one would see the magnificent Minster silhouetted against the setting sun. In the years to come I would commence my serious musical education with Dr Francis Jackson, the Minster’s Master of Music, in the shadow of this great cathedral”

“In the late 70’s I decided to make my home at Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. On journeying back and forth to New York City one is faced with possibly the most spectacular skyline in the world – with it’s inherent feeling of vitality and excitement, the dynamic hub of the western world. Both these visions, past and present – ‘The Old Country’ and ‘The New World’- harbour so many dreams, memories and reflections beyond the norm: The Beyondness of Things”

John Barry’s achievements as a composer put him at the top of the tree in his profession. All the more strange then, that in an era when knighthoods were prolific amongst his contemporaries, John’s only honour was to be the OBE presented in October 1999. The tap on the shoulder during this period was received by Michael Parkinson, Tom Jones, Michael Caine, George Martin, Tim Rice, Terry Wogan, Cliff Richard, Mick Jagger, and Paul McCartney.

We will never know the background to this glaring omission, but can only stand aghast and wonder how such a blunder was perpetrated. How ironic then that in a career encompassing over one hundred movies John’s final film in 2001 was called Enigma.

John Barry’s work took him far from his native heath. Those who knew him say that he never lost the broad vowels of his Yorkshire accent, nor any of the characteristics of his birthright. His best friend, Don Black, described him as a good honest man and a brilliant composer.

He was all of these things and more. Born and raised in a County so strongly defined by it’s people, John Barry was truly one of us.