John Barry Pendergrast, OBE, died Sunday at the age of 77. The film composer, who scored over 60 films, won, collectively, five Academy awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, making him the most awarded Oscar Briton. I first became aware of him from his work on the James Bond series of films, whose title songs could be counted on to be played on the radio with every new Bond movie released in the 1960's. But, there was more to Barry than Bond, much more, although his music left an indelible mark on that series (and that current composer David Arnold constantly utilizes in his current Bond scores). One of these days, Arnold might write one as good as Barry wrote from the beginning (that's not a criticism; Barry was that good and that quick a study).
In 1971, in conjunction with the release of Diamonds Are Forever, the United Artists Records unit released a double album of ten years worth of Barry music, culled from the soundtracks. I snatched it up as a bargain and played it constantly, probably driving my family nuts, with what Barry called his "million-dollar Mickey Mouse music." But, that one album was a kind of gateway drug to the world of Barry's lush melodies and sultry orchestrations in melancholy minor keys.
It wasn't enough to have the compilation release, I had to know what else he wrote for the Bonds, and then, I snatched up his other releases (as rare as soundtrack releases were in the 1960's, Barry could get recordings made—his Goldfinger soundtrack had, the industry noticed, knocked The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night soundtrack from the #1 position of the album charts). I've been collecting John Barry soundtracks ever since, in whatever style he chose to dabble in, Kentonesqe jazz or Gregorian chant.
As he got older, especially after re-orchestrating his music for symphony orchestra for a concert, his sound became less eclectic in orchestration, favoring strings and simple melodies with sophisticated counter-melodies that sometimes equaled the signature tune. The tempo slowed down a bit. His pedigree in films would vary wildly, veering between scoring "Love Among the Ruins" with Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier, and Star Crash with Caroline Munro and Marjoe Gortner. And he could be persuaded to do a Bond if the timing was right. He was an A-list composer, always. And if Barry couldn't be had, Barry sound-alikes were sought...like Michael Giacchino's affectionate tribute to the Barry (and Mancini) style in The Incredibles.
But, there was only one John Barry. You could tell when there was a Bond film scored by somebody else. No matter how good they were, there was always something a little "off." Part of the veneer of the series was gone when Barry wasn't doing the music...it was too "on the nose," or not sophisticated enough...Barry's scores seemed timeless; the other guys were faddish.
But, it is Barry's music that is important. Here are some selections (where I could, wedded to the original films sections), all very different in style, from across his career, starting with the lush string arrangements he preferred later in life.
And, of course, there's Bond, combining exoticism, excitement, and a sly humor—"million dollar Mickey Mouse music:"
This is my favorite piece of music he composed—for the Nicholas Roeg film Walkabout:
John Barry 1933-2011. Bravo.