His father was a projectionist and his mother was a classical pianist: one of the most famous film composers of the 20th century grew up in the world of film and in the world of music at the same time – in the course of his life, John Barry understood like no other how to combine these two worlds.
When the sound film replaced the silent film – Barry’s father was a projectionist during the silent film era – it was assumed that there would be far fewer good sound films than good silent films. This was based on the assumption that only a few directors and composers would have the gift of working together to create a film with dialogue and musical accompaniment at the same time. The fear was that the dialogues that had now become possible would completely displace film music.
Before the invention of sound film, films were accompanied live in theaters by a silent film orchestra or a piano.
In the course of his career, John Barry composed the music for eleven of the James Bond films: In doing so, he influenced the James Bond film series like no other composer. Barry arranged Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme and made it one of the most famous themes in film history: without the James Bond Theme, the Bond films would be unthinkable.
But how did it come about that the James Bond producers hired John Barry to arrange the music for the first Bond film Dr. No (1962)?
Youth & Career Start
There’s no question that John Barry was introduced to the world of film at an early age: his father owned a chain of six movie theaters in northern England. Barry practically grew up in the cinema.
In the fifties, Barry arranged music for various orchestras before forming his own band, the John Barry Seven, in 1957.
Between 1959 and 1962, Barry worked for the music label EMI, arranging orchestral accompaniments for various singers with an EMI contract. He arranged numerous songs for singer Adam Faith.
When Adam Faith starred in his first film, John Barry composed the soundtrack for the film: Beat Girl (1960) was John Barry’s first work as a film composer. In the sixties John Barry composed the soundtracks for many other Adam Faith movies.
His engagements for the Adam Faith films attracted the interest of the producers of the first Bond film, Dr. No, who were looking for a suitable composer for their film.
At the end of June 1962, the James Bond Theme was recorded for the first time with the John Barry Seven & Orchestra. Officially, John Barry was listed as the arranger of the James Bond Theme.
The collaboration proved successful: John Barry was also hired for the next Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963). James Bond meant the big breakthrough of John Barry’s career.
The collaboration between the James Bond producers and John Barry continued until 1987 and the Bond film The Living Daylights: The music for the James Bond films is among John Barry’s best-known works. In the seventies and eighties, Barry knew how to incorporate contemporary music into Bond soundtracks: He stayed true to the classical-influenced James Bond theme, yet works like All Time High and A View to a Kill demonstrate Barry’s ability to blend pop music with classical music to appeal the audience.
When Barry last composed the James Bond music for The Living Daylights (1987), he made a cameo appearance conducting an orchestra in the film’s final scene.
John Barry was a pioneer in film music: For the score of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), John Barry used synthesizers – a novelty in film music at the time. John Barry was usually responsible for the entire musical background of a film – not just the title song. As a result, many films earned critical acclaim for their John Barry scores. Films like Out of Africa (1985) or Dances with Wolves (1990) would be hard to imagine without John Barry’s music.
Out of Africa
For the soundtrack to Out of Africa, John Barry worked with influences from traditional African music: right from the beginning of the film, it becomes clear that music plays a crucial role in the film. The piece Flying Over Africa makes the viewer believe that he is actually flying over the mountains and valleys of Kenya with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen. In Out of Africa, the music not only completes the plot of the film: John Barry proves here that a soundtrack can merge with the plot of a film. Listening to the Out of Africa soundtrack immediately brings the various scenes of the movie to life in front of the mind’s eye. Only a few composers are able to accomplish this.
Composing film music is about more than just composing: A film score must fit the rhythm, content, and emotional states of a film. It also involves knowing which film scene needs music and in which film scene merely realistic tones are appropriate.
John Barry knew all this: his legacy includes countless film scores. Among them are prominent examples such as the James Bond series, Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig