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John Barry and the Midnight Cowboy Theme

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     John Prendergast Barry (November 3, 1933–January 30, 2011) was an English composer and conductor of film music who  arranged and performed the “James Bond Theme” to the first film of the James Bond movies, 1962’s Dr. No, and also composed the soundtracks for eleven of the next fourteen films in the series between 1963 and 1987.  Barry was born John Barry Prendergast, on November 3, 1933, in York, England, the son of an English mother and an Irish father. His mother was a classical pianist. His father, John Xavier “Jack” Prendergast, from Cork, was a projectionist during the silent film era, who later owned a chain of cinemas across northern England.  As a result of his father’s work, Barry was raised in and around cinemas in northern England and he later stated that his childhood background of being brought up in the theatres owned by his father influenced his musical tastes and interests as a result.  Barry was educated at St Peter’s School, York, and also received composition lessons from Francis Jackson, Organist of York Minster.

Serving in the British Army for two years in Cyprus, Barry spent his national service playing the trumpet. After his army service, he took a correspondence course with jazz composer Bill Russo, and working as an arranger for the Jack Parnell and Ted Heath’s Orchestra, he formed his own band in 1957, the John Barry Seven, with whom he had some hit records on EMI’s Columbia label, including “Hit and Miss”, the theme tune he composed for the BBC’s Juke Box Jury program, and a cover of the theme for the United Artists western The Magnificent Seven. By 1959 Barry was gaining commissions to arrange music for other acts.  The career breakthrough for Barry was the BBC television series Drumbeat, when he appeared with the John Barry Seven. He was employed by EMI from 1959 until 1962 arranging orchestral accompaniment for the company’s singers, including Adam Faith. When Faith made his first film, for the juvenile delinquency drama Beat Girl (1960), Barry composed, arranged and conducted the score, his first.

Barry’s achievements caught the attention of the producers of a new film called Dr. No (1962). Barry was hired and the result was one of the most famous signature tunes in film history, the “James Bond Theme.”   When the producers of the Bond series engaged Lionel Bart to score the next James Bond film From Russia with Love (1963), they discovered that Bart could neither read nor write music.  The producers remembered Barry’s arrangement of the James Bond Theme and his composing and arranging for several films with Adam Faith.   This was the turning point for Barry, and he subsequently won five Academy Awards and four Grammy Awards, with scores for, among others, Born Free (1966) which put him in the front ranks of popular film composers, The Lion in Winter (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Somewhere in Time (1980). In 1975 Barry moved to California. He subsequently lived for many years in the United States, mainly in Oyster Bay, NY, in Centre Island on Long Island, from 1980.  Barry suffered a rupture of the oesophagus in 1988, following a toxic reaction to a health tonic he had consumed. The incident rendered him unable to work for two years and left him vulnerable to pneumonia.

Barry composed the theme for the TV series The Persuaders! (1971), also known as The Unlucky Heroes.  He also wrote the scores to a number of musicals, including the 1965 Passion Flower Hotel with lyrics by Trevor Peacock’ the successful 1974 West End show Billy with lyrics by Don Black; and two major Broadway flops, Lolita, My Love (1971), with Alan Jay Lerner as lyricist, and The Little Prince and the Aviator (1981), again with lyricist Don Black.  Some of his later films include the first remake of King Kong (1976), Out of Africa (1985), and Dances with Wolves (1990). In 1999 Barry was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) at Buckingham Palace for services to music.  In 2001, the University of York conferred an honorary degree on Barry, and in 2002 he was named an Honorary Freeman of the City of York. During 2006, Barry was the executive producer on an album entitled Here’s to the Heroes by the Australian ensemble The Ten Tenors. Barry and Black also composed one of the songs on Shirley Bassey’s 2009 album, The Performance. Barry died of a heart attack on January 30, 2011 at his Oyster Bay home, aged 77.

The following work by John Barry is contained in my collection:

Midnight Cowboy (1969): Theme (Everybody’s Talkin’).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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