Obituary: John Barry, film composer known for Bond movies including 'Goldfinger

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 10:32 PM

John Barry, a composer who earned five Academy Awards for films including "Born Free," "Out of Africa" and "Dances With Wolves" and redefined the sound of action-adventure films with his pulsating scores for nearly a dozen James Bond movies, died of undisclosed causes Jan. 30 in New York. He was 77.

The English-born composer, whose father owned a chain of cinemas, was influenced by the Hollywood soundtracks of the 1930s and 1940s.

A self-described "musical dramatist," he was one of the most versatile and conspicuous masters of film and TV soundtracks in a career spanning six decades and more than 100 films. Along with John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, he became a rare movie composer of his generation with name recognition beyond Hollywood circles.

Mr. Barry won his first two Oscars for the alternately soaring and jaunty title theme for the Kenyan-based wilderness drama "Born Free" (1966), about a couple who raise a lion. In addition to the best score Oscar, he won for best song (shared with Don Black).

Among Mr. Barry's other memorable scores were the foreboding sounds of "Zulu" (1964); the choir- and brass-laden "The Lion in Winter" (1968), which brought him an Oscar; and the jaunty, harmonica-laden theme of "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), which was set on the seedy streets of New York and earned him the first of four Grammy Awards.

There was also the grandly romantic string-and-flute sound of "Somewhere in Time" (1980), a time-travel romance, and the sensuous but threatening saxophone in the thriller "Body Heat" (1981).

Classically trained, Mr. Barry had a hit-making career as a jazz and pop bandleader that brought him an invitation to work on the first film in the Bond franchise, "Dr. No" (1962).

Jon Burlingame, a historian of TV and film composition, said Mr. Barry's band music from that era had many of the qualities that excited Bond film audiences: the twangy electric-guitar riffs, the punchy brass work in the tradition of American jazz bandleader Stan Kenton, and the driving jazz-rock rhythm that reveled in its hipness.

"John Barry created a new action-adventure scoring approach with films that combined jazz and pop with traditional orchestral scoring," Burlingame said. "You'd never really heard anything like those things in action-adventure movies prior to John arriving on the scene."

Though Monty Norman was credited as sole author of the celebrated guitar riff that starts every film in the franchise, Mr. Barry played a critical role elaborating on the sound as the arranger and conductor of the "Dr. No" score, which set the standard for the rest of the series.

He worked on many other Bond scores over the next 25 years, including "Goldfinger," (he also wrote the title song popularized by Shirley Bassey), "Thunderball," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Octopussy."

"I've always called my Bond scores 'million-dollar Mickey Mouse music,' " he told the New York Times in 1990. "While everybody knew that James Bond was going to win, be the hero and end up with the woman, the music still had to believe that he might not and take the audience through that process."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company