Spotlight on Composer John Barry

John Barry (November 3, 1933 – January 30, 2011)

John Barry is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and talented composers in cinema’s history. He is most famous for his themes to the James Bond movies and his scores to Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves but his body of work extends well beyond these films. Bearing the true mark of a great composer, his scores are quite capable of standing on their own, apart from the film they were written for.

“Ever since I was a child I’ve considered poetry and music to be two twin sisters, completely inseparable. Over the years I’ve always tried to develop a poetic universe of my own, not only for filmmakers but, through their films, for audiences too.” – John Barry

When one thinks of film composers, it seems that John Barry’s name was always ranked at the top, but few realize how great was the shift he had chosen to make in the persona he would assume in the music world.

John Barry Prendergast was born in York, England in 1933 and spent his childhood working in a chain of cinemas that his father owned. He took up the trumpet when he served in the British Army and shortly after his discharge formed his own band – The John Barry Seven. The young Barry was greatly influenced by American jazz and rock n’ roll and he wanted his band, modeled after Bill Haley and the Comets, to usher in a new era of music; of vibrant and youthful jazz and swing beats. Between 1957 and 1960, the band had a number of hits that were released through EMI’s Columbia label and these were formative years for Barry himself. He loved arranging and composing music and other groups were asking him to arrange their music as well.

EMI later hired Barry to arrange orchestral accompaniment for many of the studio’s other signed artists, including teen sensation Adam Faith. When Faith was asked to make his first film, Wild For Kicks aka Beat Girl (1960), Barry came along to compose, arrange and conduct the score. This began a forty-year career in composing for films.

Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman caught wind of the young Barry’s arranging talents and asked if he could work his magic on a theme for the first James Bond film they were making – Dr. No (1962). Monty Norman‘s opening theme needed some extra punch so Barry was paid £250 to rework it and was also given a promise to be contacted if another Bond film was to be made. Barry went on to write the scores for 11 Bond films, including the themes to Goldfinger and Thunderball.

The success of his work on From Russia with Love (1963), Zulu(1964), and King Rat (1965) skyrocketed him to musical stardom. Barry was no longer the leader of a youthful rock n’ roll band. Now, his music represented the “new sound” of film and by 1972 he was dressed in white tie and tails conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the Filmharmonic concert at the Royal Albert Hall, sharing the stage with the great Miklos Rozsa.

Barry composed so many excellent scores throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Born Free, The Lion in Winter, Deadfall, King Kong) as well as the themes to the television series Vendetta, The Persuaders!, and Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries. In the 1980s he was composing one beautiful theme after another, including the romantic classics Somewhere in Time and Out of Africa. His composing talent remained in high demand until his death at the age of 77 in 2011.

Throughout his career, John Barry earned six Academy Award nominations, four BAFTA awards, ten Golden Globe awards, and won four Grammy awards. These were well-deserved accolades for such an accomplished composer.

Signature Style

Barry’s trademark stamp of excellence is a unique mixture of lush strings, very precise harmonic mechanisms and jazz elements. His melodies are often sensuous and usually involve complex key shifts. Barry was influenced by his love for jazz, big band music, and Russian romantic composers. Quite an intoxicating combination!

The Noteworthy Five

Goldfinger (1964) – This was the theme that set the bar for all James Bond films to follow. It was bold, brassy and extremely classy. The golden voice of Shirley Bassey increased its worth tenfold.

Born Free (1966) – The theme to Born Free is a lovely musical salute to freedom and the yearning wild animals have for their native habitats. It sounds beautiful whether it is performed strictly as an instrumental or sung by the English singer Matt Monro. Notice how the french horns majestically sound the “Born Free” notes as the Columbia logo appears on the screen just prior to the introduction of the melody.

The Lion in Winter (1968) –  Like his score to Zulu, The Lion in Winter is very menacing and yet it captures the atmosphere of its medieval setting beautifully. Without the presence of Barry’s score, this film would be dreary indeed. The version linked here is an easy-listening adaptation by Percy Faith but Ferrante and Teicher also made an excellent cover on their album “Listen to the Movies”.

Out of Africa (1985) – This one is truly breathtaking. The main melody does not make its entrance until nearly a minute and a half into the theme yet that seems to matter very little since the orchestration is so lush and sweeping. Like Bernard Herrmann, Barry loved french horns and used them profusely.

Dances with Wolves (1990) – The John Dunbar theme to Dances with Wolves is one of those melodies that most everyone instantly recognizes, regardless of whether they have seen the film or not. The movie is set in the American West during the time of the Civil War and so John Barry implements motifs that evoke traditional American folk tunes, yet always remaining distinctly Barry in style.

Highlights from his Discography

What’s your favorite John Barry film score? Let us know in the comments!

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.” This article originally ran earlier this year and is being reprinted as today’s guest post.