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The sad news come through this morning that Oscar winning acclaimed British film composer John Barry OBE had died of a heart attack, aged 77.  He had been ill for some time. Barry not only changed film composition, by introducing a potent mix of crime jazz and rock ”Ëœn’ roll into movie scores, including the numerous James Bond scores he wrote, but he was also a pivotal figure in the birth of British rock ”Ëœn’ roll.

Born Jonathan Barry Prendergast in York 1933, Barry wanted to compose for films from a very young age.  A passion for cinema was inherited from his father, who ran a local chain of cinemas.  He was taught the basics of orchestration by a classical teacher at York minster and developed a love of jazz, in particular for the hard-edged swing of Stan Kenton’s band.

Having left school at 15, Barry joined a local dance band, The Modernaires, playing trumpet and writing his own compositions.  John Dankworth, one of the UK’s most successful bandleaders at the time, picked up on a piece he had written, played it, and Barry’s career began. In 1952, Barry was called up for National Service, and while serving in Egypt and Cyprus with the Green Howards, he continued playing the trumpet with a military band and studied the techniques of composition and arrangement through a correspondence course with Stan Kenton’s arranger, Bill Russo.

Demobbed in 1955, Barry returned to England.  American rock ”Ëœn’ roll had hit the UK and Barry instinctively understood this new sound, recognising that it was the future.  The composer formed his own group, The John Barry Seven, as a way to attract attention to his talents and pave the way for his film music career, but with hindsight their formation can be seen as the actual beginning of British rock ”Ëœn’ roll.  The Seven’s guitarist, Vic Flick, was the UK’s answer to Duane Eddy and his twanging guitar styling, coupled with Barry’s pulsating arrangements, laid the foundation for their success.

Extensive exposure on the television show Six-Five Special led John Barry to working with a young singer with acting ambitions ”“Adam Faith.  Barry gave Faith a huge hit in 1959, with his arrangement of an exuberant song called ”ËœWhat Do You Want’. When Faith was offered a roll in the British cult classic Soho beatnik B-movie Beat Girl, Barry got the chance to write the contemporary score.  Mixing big band styling’s with Flick’s nervous guitar lines, Barry laid the foundations for a sound that would reverberate around the world with as much impact as The Beatles.

Barry’s 1962 arrangement of the ”ËœJames Bond Theme’, for the first Bond picture Dr. No, all swinging drums, grooving trombones, blaring trumpets and swaggering guitar, was a key moment in film scoring, influencing Morricone’s music for the Eastwood Dollar films and giving Barry “the longest job I ever had”¦ the most successful series of films ever made.”

From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and other unforgettable Bond scores followed, making Barry’s name synonymous with film soundtracks from the sixties into the seventies.  Zulu, The Ipcress File, Born Free, The Quiller Memorandum, The Chase and the beautiful choral music for the mediaeval period picture The Lion In Winter (for which he received his second Academy Award in 1968) were among the many great soundtracks he produced during this era.

Barry’s haunting harmonica theme for Midnight Cowboy, played with achingly stunning melancholy by Toots Thielman, marked a turning point in Barry’s career.  The ”ËœJames Bond Theme’ bridged his rock ”Ëœn’ roll career and film work, while Midnight Cowboy linked his sixties scores of highly emotional majestic scores of the seventies, eighties and nineties ”“ King Kong, Somewhere In Time, Chaplin, out of Africa, Dances With Wolves.

The term ”ËœBarryesque’ has become a reference to the composer’s rich use of the string section and his work has influenced countless artists including Pulp, Portishead, Barry Adamson, Magazine, Orbital, Propellerheads, Duran Duran and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

John Barry’s work will continue to exert a huge influence upon contemporary music and film composition for a long-time to come.  John Barry RIP.

Copyright © Ian Johnston

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