A Short Biography
John Barry Prendergast was born in York, England on November 3, 1933. His parents represented two things that would become dominant in his life: his mother was a classical pianist, and his father owned a chain of movie theaters. As he grew up, he developed his musical talents (playing piano and trumpet) and his love of films. He claims that he always wanted to be a film composer.
At 15 and worked as a film projectionist, then joined the Army. During his Army tour, he took a correspondence course in composition and orchestration. In 1957 he left the army and formed a rock & roll band called The John Barry Seven. After some live performances, including some television appearances (though Barry hated to perform), Barry signed with EMI's Parlophone label. They released an EP (The Big Beat), various singles, and made the rounds of the television shows.
In 1960, Barry was hired to score his first film, Beat Girl, which featured his rock & roll sound. Barry followed it up by scoring Never Let Go and The Amorous Prawn. He also continued his pop music career with a variety of singles and an album called Stringbeat.
While he and his group were doing well enough in Britain, Barry's big break came in 1962 when the producers of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, approached him to work on the project—specifically the song that became The James Bond Theme.
The controversy over the James Bond Theme continues even though 30 years have passed. Both Barry and Monty Norman (Dr. No's soundtrack composer) have been credited for the famous tune. I've heard various versions, and the one I believe is this (but I don't *know* that it is true): the producers were unhappy with Monty Norman's version of The James Bond Theme (which appears on the soundtrack to Dr. No and sounds like all the other Norman compositions), and they asked Barry to compose another version. The result was the James Bond Theme, the one used as the title score on the movie and in subsequent films. It sounds very different from the other cuts on the soundtrack.
Norman usually gets sole credit for the famous James Bond Theme, particularly on the James Bond soundtracks that use it. Sometimes Barry shares credit with Norman. In an issue of Music from the Movies magazine, Monty Norman positively claims to have written it and says that various lawsuits about ownership have been decided in his favor. So legally he does own it.
Barry is evasive about the matter, but David Toop quotes him as saying, "if Monty Norman wrote it, why isn't he still scoring the rest of the movies?"
Either way, the success of the James Bond Theme got Barry the job of scoring the next Bond movie, From Russia With Love, and the strength of that score led to Goldfinger. After that, Barry and Bond's futures were cemented. Barry went on to score nine other Bond movies (no other single composer scored more than one). But while he was clearly the architect of the Bond sound and a huge creative contributor to the success of the Bond movies, Barry was not limited by them, nor by action movies in general. During the 60's he scored such diverse movies Born Free, The Ipcress File, The Lion in Winter, and numerous others. As the 70's, 80's, and 90's rolled around Barry became even more diverse, scoring movies ranging from big budget epics like Dances With Wolves to little films like The Dove, from popular hits like Peggy Sue Got Married to blockbuster bombs like Howard the Duck, as well as continuing to score many of the Bond movies. Barry collectors can never be sure of what his next project will be, because there is no "typical" Barry movie.
In addition to his film scores Barry found time to write stage musicals like Billy, the themes to TV shows like The Persuaders, and during the 60's was musical director of the Ember label, where he recorded and produced pop music.
John Barry passed away on January 30, 2011. He was 77.
For more information on James Bond Theme controversy, see my Norman v. Barry page.