John Barry profile for Ritz magazine

John Barry profile for Ritz magazine

revised 3/03
"This feature appears courtesy of the RITZ magazine, London, published by INK www.electricink.net"

On this site May 9, 2003.

By Jon Burlingame

Oyster Bay, New York, 2002, is a long way away from London's Pickwick Club circa 1964. The man who composed "Goldfinger," "Born Free" and "Midnight Cowboy" amidst the tumult of England's Swinging Sixties now resides quietly some 45 miles from New York City, with his American wife and young son.

But John Barry, 69, is as busy as ever. He has a West End musical in the works, is headed back into the studio with an album of original songs for Decca, and is preparing to score his first animated film (for Walt Disney and Pixar, the computer-animation geniuses who gave us "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life").

"I've got a nice variety of things," he says with obvious contentment in his elegantly appointed living room with a view of Long Island Sound. The Oyster Bay house, where he spends most of the year and does all of his writing, is located on four acres of land in a secluded spot off the northern shore.

He still maintains an apartment in Cadogan Square, Chelsea, that's "five minutes from The King's Road and ten minutes from the West End," he says. And he returns there often, these days collecting a seemingly endless series of honors commensurate not only with his fame but with his many contributions to the soundtrack of our lives.

In 1998, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and sold out the Royal Albert Hall in a matter of hours for his first concert appearance in 25 years. The following year, he received an OBE and the Music Industry Trust Award. In 2000, he was the subject of a BBC-TV documentary on his life. This year, he was declared an Honorary Freeman of the City of York, his hometown.

John Barry is, without question, England's single most successful composer of cinema music -- and the only Brit to have received five Academy Awards (two for "Born Free," for its title song and score, plus one each for the scores of "The Lion in Winter," "Out of Africa" and "Dances With Wolves"). But he's more than that. He has become an icon to generations of music fans as well as to modern rockers who record covers of his tunes, sample his originals and study his chord progressions to try and replicate his winning formula.

They can't, of course. Only John Barry writes like John Barry. The singular melodic sense, the unique harmonies, the specificity of his orchestrations: They infuse every memorable theme, from "The Ipcress File" to television's "The Persuaders," and even the obscure ones, like the haunting riff from his failed stage musical "Lolita, My Love" (penned with Alan Jay Lerner) or the enchanting "The Me I Never Knew" from the forgotten movie musical "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Barry is a very private man. For many years, he gave no interviews at all, preferring his music to speak for him. And why bother anyway? Writing film music is a complex process, requiring not only the obvious musical gifts but also a high level of technical expertise and something of the sensibility of a psychologist (trying to figure out what directors and producers want, never an easy task). Publicity serves no real purpose; it doesn't sell film scores and is usually just a distraction from the real work at hand.

These days, he grants just a few. A brush with death back in 1988 (his esophagus ruptured, nearly killing him) and the birth of his son in 1994 have literally given him a new lease on life. And as a revered composer of classic pop entering his sunset years, maybe he relishes -- just a little -- the adulation. I was at the Albert Hall the night that 5,000 fans cheered his long-overdue return to the concert hall. The Times reviewer called the three standing ovations "the most devoted clappings I've ever seen in my life," likened them to "the prayers of the faithful," and conceded that their actions were "entirely understandable."

Is he a dreamer, a poet? Certainly. And he likes the solitude. In Oyster Bay, he can walk along the beach, collect his thoughts and turn them into musical phrases before returning to his studio to jot them down on paper, the old-fashioned way (before music-writing software took the romance out of the composing business). To the casual observer, his quiet lifestyle may seem light-years removed from the fast life (including three short-lived marriages, one to actress Jane Birkin) of the '60s; to him, it's one long continuum of musical growth and development. He has become what few great songwriters ever have: An accomplished creator of symphonic music that is both contemporary and classic. While many of his colleagues were stuck in the banal 4/4 of rock, Barry was expanding his horizons by studying Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich.

No artist enjoys analyzing his own work. But, pressed to describe what links so many of his popular tunes, Barry replies: "I'm strongly attracted to subjects that deal with loss: `Out of Africa,' `Dances With Wolves,' `Somewhere in Time.' All these movies are about a sense of loss. I don't know whether that comes from the World War. It leaves its mark. I don't know how it couldn't."

Barry attended a Catholic convent school in York, which was bombed by the Nazis in early 1942. "Several of the nuns and many of the children were killed," he recalls. "And nobody explained it to us. They just came up and bombed the hell out of the place. I can remember my father coming back and taking me out into the street. We lived just outside the city, and the whole sky was red from the reflection of the city burning. And I remember him saying to me, `Just get this into your head. You're never going to forget this night.' I had a tough Irish father, and I'm glad he did that to me. Other fathers would have said, `I don't want you to see this.' He grabbed me out of the air-raid shelter and said, `I want you to see this. Remember it for the rest of your goddamn life.' Which I did."

In recent years, Barry has shifted his attention somewhat away from the movies, writing and recording instrumental albums that contain musical impressions of people and places from his past. "Dreams, memories and reflections" was how he described "The Beyondness of Things," a Decca CD that sold 100,000 units and was timed to coincide with the Royal Albert Hall concert. He followed that up last year with "Eternal Echoes," inspired in part by the musings of Irish philosopher John O'Donohue.

The mature, thoughtful, reflective Barry of today may seem a far cry from the brash, much-in-demand composer of all those James Bond scores and '60s movies that put him on the map: "Goldfinger," "Thunderball," "You Only Live Twice," "The Knack," "The Ipcress File" and so many others. The composer confesses: "When I look back on it, I think, how the hell did I do all this?"

He would hammer out an entire Bond score -- orchestrating every note himself, often totalling hundreds of pages of music -- in four or five weeks, working virtually nonstop. Longtime friend Michael Caine, who temporarily roomed with Barry at the time, remembers him playing variations on the same tune all night, working out the musical details of some new theme. It turned out to be "Goldfinger," later to be belted into a number-one spot on the charts by Shirley Bassey. Ultimately, he scored eleven of the 007 epics.

Then there was the legendary London nightlife of the young and beautiful, the rich and famous, the Pickwick Club where Barry hung out with Caine, Terence Stamp and other luminaries. "Let's not go into all that," Barry says with a laugh. "It was England in the '60s. Everything was happening. There was such a buzz, doing the Bond movies, doing the musicals (including "Passion Flower Hotel" and, later, "Billy"). It was extraordinary."

Barry moved to United States in 1975. He and wife Laurie have been married since 1978 and lived for most of that time in Oyster Bay (in the house next door to Lerner's, where they wrote "Lolita"). There, in relative isolation -- and, geographically speaking, midway between the show-biz madness of Los Angeles and the nostalgic pull of his beloved London -- he composed the grand-scale romantic scores for "Out of Africa" and "Dances With Wolves," which won him Oscars in 1986 and 1991 respectively.

And that's where he's writing the music for "Brighton Rock," a musical based on the Graham Greene novel about the race gangs of the 1930s. He's wanted to do it since the late '60s, when it was briefly headed for the West End before the deal fell apart. (It was producer Bill Kenwright, once a member of the chorus in "Passion Flower Hotel," who revived it.) At the same time, he's mulling ideas for that song album, and composing themes for "The Incredibles," the Disney-Pixar film that won't hit theaters until Christmas 2004.

Asked what makes him happiest today, Barry surprises by not mentioning his music. "If there is one thing that dominates my life," he notes with pride, "I would say my son." Jonpatrick, 8, "gives me more joy than you can imagine. He's crazy about movies, he loves music and he comes out with things that are frighteningly brilliant at times."

Sounds just like his old man.


Jon Burlingame

"This feature appears courtesy of the RITZ magazine, London, published by INK www.electricink.net"

We would like to thank Jon Burlingame for his help in making this article available to us. Jon is a writer and broadcaster on film and TV music. Check out his excellent books, Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks and Tv's Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes from "Dragnet" to "Friends", still available through www.amazon.co.uk, www.amazon.com and other on-line retailers and good bookshops everywhere!!


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Windmill Publications

windmill publications 1

Specialising in book publications and CD releases about John Barry and our book "Hit ans Miss: The Story of The John Barry Seven.

PIA website

Have a look at our old "Play It Again" label website here.

Play It Again Records CD catalogue offered the discerning listener a wide choice of digitally re-mastered recordings from film and television, and rare collections of work from the likes of Don Black and Ron Grainer.


Geoff Leonard writes CD booklet notes, articles, and occasionally books, in partnership with Pete Walker. You can read more about this here:

Contact the JB site

If you wish to send an email, for example with content for the website, please contact Geoff Leonard:

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Bristol, UK

Geoff (owner) and Ruud (webmaster) have been running the John Barry website since June 18, 2001.

This website is not endorsed by the composer's family.
Use of copyrighted materials and logos are for promotional purposes only.

All files on this website are for personal use only and cannot be bought or sold.


big screen hits s

Plays 007 s

Our other sites

Geoff Leonard writes CD booklet notes, articles, and occasionally books, in partnership with Pete Walker. You can read more about this here:


Some albums

Golfinger French s

Best Of Bond s

Bond US 10th Anniversary s

John Barry related Events or Concerts

Submit your Event or Concert, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. We will not be responsible for any errors or inaccuracies.

A lot more James Bond concerts collected on the link below, I have put them all in this news item. So check it out from there!