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

January 31, 2011 |  8:16 am

 

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

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