Born Jonathan Barry Prendergast on November 3, 1933, in York, England; married Jane Birkin, 1966; divorced; married Laurie; children: four daughters, one son. Education: Instruction via correspondence with jazz arranger William Russo. Addresses: Management--The Kraft-Benjamin-Engel Agency, 9200 W. Sunset Blvd., Suite 321, Los Angeles, CA 90069-3505.

For more than three decades, the music of composer John Barry contributed intrinsically to the definition of the American film experience. He created award-winning soundtracks that wafted in the background of dozens of cinema's more memorable film attractions and into the mainstream of American culture. Through his musical scores he effectively defined the emotional backdrop for the most watched movies of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves.The list of Barry movie soundtracks is as impressive as it is lengthy, including Lion in Winter,the remake of King Kong, The Deep, The Cotton Club, Chaplin,and Mercury Rising.Altogether Barry earned a total of four Oscars for his motion picture scores, and for generations of moviegoers his name was closely associated as the composer of the soundtracks to more than a dozen James Bond spy thrillers. The James Bond music scores, at times enervating and always seductive, captivated moviegoers who became spellbound at the adventures of the unstoppable spy hero in Goldfinger, Octopussy,and other films based on the novels of author Ian Fleming about an unusually capable British agent, code-named 007 and otherwise known as "Bond, James Bond."

Barry was born Jonathan Barry Prendergast in York in northern England. He was the youngest of four siblings, including two other boys and a girl. His father owned a string of eight movie theatres in the town where the family lived, and Barry quit school in his mid-teens to go to work in the projection booth of one of his father's cinemas. Barry, having studied classical piano and harmony, was fascinated with the dramatic appeal of theatrical music. He sometimes composed his own personal soundtracks to the movies he saw, and he became determined even as a young man to work as a composer and to write film scores. When the cinema hosted live musical concerts, Barry enjoyed the jazz music above all and embraced every opportunity to make the casual acquaintances of some of the great jazz artists of the times.

When Barry joined the army around 1950, he continued to write and to study music even from the remote locations in Cypress and Egypt where he was stationed. He used borrowed money to purchase a correspondence course on jazz arrangement through a mail-order advertisement in a magazine. The course, guided by jazz artist Stan Kenton's arranger, William Russo, kept Barry engrossed for two years.

In 1955, after leaving the army, Barry collected his own musical ensemble and eventually billed the band as the John Barry Seven. Barry played a trumpet in the septet; nonetheless his musical scores focused squarely on guitar as the lead instrument. According to Barry, he allowed the guitar to take center stage because the instrument symbolized contemporary music and was indisputably the most popular of all the instruments. During the late 1950s Barry and his band recorded for Columbia (EMI) and one of their songs, "Hit and Miss," reached the top ten echelon of the hit chart in Britain. Also during that time he accepted a position as musical director for EMI Records, a situation that led to a further opportunity to write his first professional movie score for Adam Faith's Beat Girl in 1959. For that movie, Barry developed contemporary jazzy themes, in keeping with the times. In 1960, he wrote the soundtrack of the Peter Sellers movie, Never Let Go,and in 1962 Barry wrote the music for The Amorous Mr. Prawn.

In 1962, Barry accepted an offer to rework the score of a new movie called Dr. No,which at that time was the first in a series of immensely popular films to be based on Ian Fleming's novels about an exotic and debonair British spy, James Bond. In retrospect the score was widely attributed to Barry who rewrote the score to better suit the movie's producers. Years later Barry's involvement in creating the score was publicly acknowledged, although he never received formal credit for the Dr. Noproject. The James Bond film series, which for many years starred the smooth lead actor, Sean Connery, developed into a cultural phenomenon. Over the course of the next two decades Barry scored 11 out of the 19 subsequent movies in the series, catapulting his name into the forefront of the film music industry in the process.

Barry's dynamic Bond themes augmented the rare blend of culture, danger, and adventure that was inherent to the Fleming novels. Barry's music constituted an essential factor in the evolution of the James Bond persona. A generation later, composer David Arnold succeeded Barry as the composer for the James Bond scores. As quoted by Paul Sexton in Billboard, Arnold noted that, "For me the success of the Bond series was 50 percent Sean Connery and 50 percent John Barry."Among Barry's greatest hits from the Bond movies was the title song from the 1963 feature, Goldfinger.Also among the more popular Bond melodies were Barry's collaborations with lyricist Don Black that resulted in the hit title songs, "Thunderball" and "Diamonds are Forever." Barry also created the soundtrack to Casino Royale, and Never Say Die, two later films about the secret agent James Bond, by other producers.

Barry collaborated with lyricist Don Black again in 1966 for the soundtrack to the movie Born Free, a James Hill docudrama on human interaction with the lions of Africa. Barry's score won the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences "Oscar" award that year. The title song of the movie became enormously popular and was heard everywhere; it too won an Oscar. Also nominated for an Oscar was his 1971 score for Mary, Queen of Scots.

During the 1980s, Barry suffered a series of emotional trials, including the death of his parents in close proximity to one another in 1980, followed by the accidental death of his older brother five years later. It was suggested that during that time a morose and melancholy atmosphere shrouded his film scores, including Out of Africaand Somewhere in Time. Barry's 1985 score for Out of Africa won the Oscar award for the best soundtrack that year. The drama, which starred Meryl Streep, was set around the exotic backdrop of a coffee plantation in Africa; Barry dedicated the sentimental soundtrack to the memory of his late brother.

Barry himself suffered a serious accident in the late 1980s, brought on by a toxic reaction to a drink he was consuming. Ironically, it was a so-called health potion that caused the affliction, which resulted in a critical injury when his esophagus ruptured. He underwent life-saving surgery and a lengthy recovery period, including a series of follow-up operations. His recuperation lasted two years, from 1988-1990. He returned to cinematic composing with the subsequent release in 1990 of an Oscar-winning soundtrack for the Kevin Costner production, Dances with Wolves.Again in 1992 he received an Oscar nomination for the music from Chaplin.

Barry, in addition to his stature in the film industry, found enjoyment throughout the years in composing works of his own inspiration and volition--music not associated with any story or screenplay, but rather the spontaneous music of his heart. Among his early productions, an album named Moviola was released in 1966. A compilation of his own works and arrangements, the recording presents Barry conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Also among his sporadic non-cinematic releases was his 1998 album, The Beyondness of Things, released by Universal Classics (Decca). Beyondnesswas his first major non-film project after a number of years. It offered a romantic respite of symphonic music, specifically intended notto portray a visual image and likewise to distinguish itself from his film scores, according to the composer.

Throughout his lifetime Barry earned a reputation for his tireless dedication to his work. In the late 1990s he performed to a sellout crowd at London's Royal Albert Hall, his first concert in more than two decades. Also during the 1990s his many compositions experienced a resurgence of popularity for a variety of reasons. In particular, several young pop stars discovered his music and incorporated his songs into their own performances, and the compositions that he created for the James Bond movies experienced a revival because they evoked a special nostalgia for many performers of the 1990s. Also in 1999, Barry began a project to record Celtic songs and dances featuring vocals from guest artists.

Barry was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998, and in complement to his sizable collection of Oscars, he received the Frederick Loewe Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January of 1999. He was honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in July of 1999, and that same month he was honored by the British Music Industry Trusts. That same year saw the publication of two full-length biographies documenting the life of Barry--Sansom & Co.'s John Barry: A Life in Musicby Geoff Leonard and others, and John Barry: A Sixties Theme by Eddi Fiegel. Barry, according to Entertainment Weekly,stands among the "living legends" of film composers.

Barry married actress Jane Birkin in the 1960s; they were later divorced, and Barry remarried. He has three daughters and one son. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Laurie.

by Gloria Cooksey

John Barry's Career

Selected movie soundtracks: Born Free, 1966; Goldfinger, 1963; Thunderball, 1963; Lion in Winter, 1968; Mary, Queen of Scots, 1971; The Deep, 1976; Somewhere in Time, 1980; Out of Africa, 1985; Dances with Wolves, 1990; Mercury Rising, 1998; signed with Universal Classics and Jazz, 1998.

John Barry's Awards

Best Film Scores (Born Free, Lion in Winter, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves), Best Songs ("Born Free"), Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1998; Frederick Loewe Award, Palm Springs International Film Festival, January 1999; Officer of the Order of the British Empire, July 1999; Honoree, British Music Industry Trusts, July 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Thank you, Mr. Barry, for the soundtrack to Out of Africa. The theme is the most gorgeous piece of music I have ever heard, and I am somehow on that train traversing the African plain at dusk every time I hear it. When the quiet, creeping intro comes to an end, and finally spills over into the full harmonic fullness of that opening theme, I can feel my heart break against such beauty. After watching a tape of the movie to listen to it occasionally, I finally bought the CD (from which I finally got into on the titles and your name). I will be listening to it with much relesh on my fabulous Lexus sound system for the rest of my days. Thanks again for providing the most important sound track of my life.

over 15 years ago

I have been a fan for a long time. My late husband and I chose 'We have all the time in the World' as our love song and wherever we were if that song came on we would find each other and slow dance to it. I can't help but think if we had chosen another song, he might have lived longer. One of my Dad's favorite pieces of music is 'Somewhere in Time.' That haunting melody always brings a tear to my eye. One of the overlooked soundtracks is 'Playing by Heart.' It's nice to see him "reunite" with Sean Connery again. I am grateful for his driving rhythms that help me clean. Bond music is wonderful to do housework with. I hope he realizes how great a contribution he has made to the industry. Many thanks that go beyond words or even the melodies he has created.