John Barry, the Oscar-winning composer best known for his work on 11 James Bond films and the pop song “Born Free,” has died of a heart attack. He was 77.
After starting out as a big band arranger, Barry formed his own pop-rock group The John Barry Seven, landing a couple of minor hits in the UK.
That led to his working on the BBC series Drumbeat, where he began composing songs for pop star and actor Adam Faith, eventually leading to his work on Faith’s 1960 youth-in-rebellion film Beat Girl. Barry’s score for the film became the first soundtrack to be released in the UK on an LP.
Barry’s work for Faith led to a contract with EMI, and eventually brought him to the attention of the producers for the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Although they already a theme from composer Monty Norman, they weren’t thrilled with the arrangement, asking Barry to take a crack at it. The authorship of the “James Bond Theme” has thus been a source of legal contention for years—but although the courts have twice upheld that Monty Norman is the established original author, there’s no denying that it’s John Barry’s arrangement that brought it to life and gives it all its iconic, suspenseful flair. A simple surf-rock guitar riff backed by jazzy, creeping vibraphone notes and punctuated by tense brass hits, Barry’s theme evokes sex, danger, and excitement in just a few measures, and it led to him providing James Bond’s musical voice over the course of 11 more films, through 1987’s The Living Daylights.
The Bond films may have been Barry’s signature, but arguably his most lasting contribution was the score for 1965’s Born Free: Barry’s title song became a pop hit for Roger Williams and later Andy Williams, as has been used in dozens of films and television shows since.
Over the course of his career, Barry won five Academy Awards and four Grammys for Born Free, Out Of Africa, The Lion In Winter, and Dances With Wolves, while creating an eclectic body of work that ranged from the orchestral grandeur of Mary, Queen Of Scots to the sax-laden noir of Body Heat to the moody Midnight Cowboy, which took its tonal cues from Fred Neil's pop song "Everybody's Talkin'."
Barry was one of the first composers to genuinely embrace working with pop stars, as seen on his work with Duran Duran and A-ha on A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights, respectively. Barry, ever innovative in his arrangements, was also among the first to incorporate synthesizers, as heard in his scores for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and his theme for TV’s The Persuaders!, which ended up becoming a hit single in the UK.
In addition to his film and TV work, Barry also worked on several musicals, some (such as 1974’s Billy) more successful than others (1981’s The Little Prince And The Aviator). He also released two albums—1999’s The Beyondness Of Things and 2001’s Eternal Echoes—that collected compositions that, though still cinematic, were not connected to any films. Barry’s final film score was for 2001’s Enigma, while his last musical, Brighton Rock, was staged in 2004.