Remembering The Late Film Composer John Barry

John Barry at his piano

John Barry at his piano in 1967, the year both Born Free and You Only Live Twice — the fourth of the 11 James Bond films he scored — were released in theaters. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first LP I ever bought was the soundtrack to the film Born Free. The music was composed by John Barry, who died yesterday in New York at the age of 77, following a heart attack.

Barry wrote the scores for more than 100 films between 1960 and 2001, including Zulu (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Out of Africa (1985). His father owned movie theaters in York, England, and the young Barry learned to operate the projectors. He also learned to love film scores. He studied classical piano as a child; took a correspondence course in arranging from Bill Russo, a jazz composer who arranged for Stan Kenton, among others; and formed a jazz-pop group, called the John Barry Seven, that had some instrumental hits in England in the late 1950s. That Ventures-style music would prepare him for the attention-grabbing James Bond scores he composed later.

Barry had already written the scores to three of the Bond films by the time he scored Born Free, but that movie was the first place I heard his work. I followed that purchase pretty quickly with 45s by the Beatles, Manfred Mann, and the Stones. But the first sound recording I bought with my newspaper route earnings — even though I didn't have a record player — was Born Free.

It wasn't all that unusual back then to buy records without having a way to play them. We were kids whose parents couldn't afford color TVs, much less record players. So we'd buy our own records and take them to our friends' houses where there were record players. That's what they were called before the introduction of separate components — they were usually these big, ugly cabinets that held the turn table, receiver/amplifier, and speakers. They were usually in what used to be called "rec rooms."

I'd seen the film when it came out. I was 13 and I was probably more moved by the story than the music — I bought the book on which the film was based and I still have it. It tells the story of Joy and George Adamson, who raise a lion cub in Kenya they name Elsa. They train her to live in the wild and then release her. It's a great story. It made me cry multiple times.

John Barry composed the music for the title song; Don Black wrote the lyrics; and British singer Matt Monro sang it. Born Free won an Academy Award for Best Original song. John Barry won five Oscars for his scores. He also composed the music for eleven James Bond films, including the title song to Goldfinger. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote the words and Shirley Bassey sang it ultra-cool for her only Top Ten hit.

Barry's sound ranged from those throbbing, horn-driven Bond scores to the swelling orchestras that underpinned the period films. But I will always remember him for the heart-tugging sentimentality of Born Free. It's a broad range for which John Barry could be justly proud.

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