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John Barry, composer of iconic James Bond music, dies; highlights of an amazing musical life


John Barry, the Academy Award-winning film composer whose idiosyncratic and iconic compositions over the course of a lifetime in the movies -- including some of the best known James Bond music and the themes to "Midnight Cowboy," and "Out of Africa," among dozens of others -- died in New York on Sunday at age 77. The British-born composer not only helped define the feel of the Bond films but crafted music that served as a 1960s soundtrack to a new kind of jet-setting lifestyle. With his wildly adventurous arrangements and instrumentation, his music's devil-may-care feel will forever be connected to fashionably mod cocktail lounges of the era.

You'll be reading more on Barry in the Times' obituary, but here's a primer on some of his best known work.

With its seductive strings and grand melodies, "You Only Live Twice" captures the sound of sexy adventure, both smooth and pleasantly casual but somehow filled with tension. The pluck of an acoustic guitar sits alongside the flutter of a harp; an underlying rhythm sounds like Phil Spector's wall of sound as filtered through a cocktail shaker.

Though the authorship of the original theme song for the James Bond films has been in dispute (Monty Norman is credited as sole writer), there's no denying that regardless of who thought up the melody -- the crux of the authorship claim -- it's Barry's arrangement that pushes the song over the edge. Witty and sharp, his use of brass as de facto exclamation points helped define James Bond.


One of the most profoundly moving theme songs in film, Barry's 1969 score to "Midnight Cowboy" won the 1970 Grammy for best instrumental composition. Barry oversaw both the score and soundtrack, which also featured Fred Neil's song, "Everybody's Talkin'" as performed by Harry Nilsson. That won the Grammy for best male pop vocal performance.  



Barry's genius was on full display for his Academy Award-winning score to "Out of Africa." The theme was somehow both epic and gentle, a patient, moving hymn that takes its time unfolding, but whose open spaces are filled with majestic grandeur. The score offered evidence of a composer who was settling down from decades providing energy and action to thrilling narratives, and moving toward a contemplation that felt less tense but no less urgent.

-- Randall Roberts

Comments () | Archives (7)

It was one of John Barry's work that started my love for movie scores. That was the soundtrack of "Somewhere In Time". In the special edition of the movie's DVD, he explained that the inspiration for the music was his parents who died weeks apart.

He was a great composer and he will be greatly missed and forever remembered for his many awesome film scores. Some of my favorite pieces from him are "Dances with Wolves", "Out of Africa", and "Somewhere in Time". He wrote music that both touched and thrilled us. What a talented man.

My understanding was that it was Barry's single BEAT GIRL that gave Monty Norman the "sound". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPIvot1iYnw

I agree, given Barry's amazing ability to create new sounds, I believe that it is possible Norman actually wrote the song, but could not have without Barry's Beat Girl.

Was just watching Lion In Winter and marvelling at Barry's score. Somewhere In Time, Out Of Africa... what will do without Barry?????

Thanks for this wonderful eulogy!!!

I didn't realize that all the above were composed by him...but I didn't see the credit for "Somewhere in Time"...Thanks for the update. He will be missed very much!

I thought Moby did the James Bond theme song. Oh, really bad news for today :/ Another really talented man died...five Oscars speak for themselves...

Thank you for this. John Barry was gifted and ever since my love for making movies since I was in third grade, he taught me that sound is as much an actor in every film as any human on celluloid.

His music can make you happy, angry, smile, and cry. He always came across as both humble and grateful even though we were the ones he was giving to. I'll miss his magic.

"Body Heat"


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