Don Black, OBE, is one of Britain’s most distinguished and prolific lyricists. Born in London in 1938, he has worked in film and theatre for more than 60 years, and has written lyrics for five James Bond films: Thunderball (1965), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). He won an Academy Award for best song for Born Free (1966), written with his frequent collaborator, composer John Barry.
Black has also worked with composers such as Jule Styne, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein, Marvin Hamlisch, Lalo Schifrin, A.R. Rahman and Maurice Jarre. His other film credits include The Italian Job (1969), To Sir, with Love (1967), True Grit (1969), The Party (1968) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). His Golden Globe-winning title song for Ben (1972) became Michael Jackson’s first solo number one hit.
Black features in the new documentary The Sound of 007, which takes an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the world-famous music and songs of the Bond series. A snooker devotee, if not a champion player (“My nickname would be ‘The Tryer’”, he tells us), he paused a match to speak to us about James Bond, John Barry and finding the perfect words for songs the whole world will hear.
What makes the Bond song such an enduring phenomenon?
I don’t think anyone can say exactly, but it’s a marriage of tension, suspense and incredible music. I always thought John Barry should be a co-star; that’s how much he contributes to the opening of the films. A great Bond song is a great tune, first, and a lyrical thrust, with a ‘come hither’ feeling. It should feel like a guilty pleasure. There is something about the Bond song which is different to any other song. It sticks with you. Whenever anyone writes about me they usually say “Don ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ Black”. One of my favourite songs from Bond is ‘We Have All the Time in the World’. It’s so beautiful, and you wouldn’t think of that as a ‘Bond song’. I love doing them.
How do you approach the lyrics?
There’s no riddle to it. John Barry would spend days and days getting the melody, and when he came to me, it would be like an ‘unveiling’, because he’d honed it so much. My job is to feel the music and write the words that the music tells me. With ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ as just a melody in your head, and you’re walking round the park or staring out of the window, the thing is to make the right words fit the tune. I’m making it sound very simple; it isn’t that simple.
At what stage in the production is the Bond lyricist involved?
I’ve always come in late. People often think you read the script, but John Barry used to tell me what it’s about in a sentence or two, and I liked that – getting straight to the nuts and bolts of the movie. Not that I mind reading pages and pages, but you do get the kernel of the whole thing in a sentence or two.
How did it feel when you were asked to do ‘Thunderball’?
It felt like a wonderful thing, because I’d just started song-writing. I had a hit with Matt Monro, called ‘Walk Away’, which was John Barry’s favourite song at that time. I was a great friend of John’s. We used to hang around Tin Pan Alley together, Denmark Street, and one day he just said to me in that lovely Yorkshire accent, “Do you fancy having a go at Thunderball?” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s a film.” I looked ‘thunderball’ up in a dictionary and it wasn’t there. But John said he could get Tom Jones for it, so I knew it was going to be a muscly, masculine kind of thing. I wrote ‘He always runs while others walk’ and so on, because of Tom’s steely voice. Whereas when you know Shirley Bassey’s going to sing it, you look for that sensual, irresistible allure.
How far through the score was John Barry when you wrote ‘Thunderball’?
He was pretty well done with it, apart from the song. As I found out later, there was another song, ‘Mister Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, that they were going to use, till suddenly someone said, “Hang on a minute, the song has to be the title of the film!” It was done very quickly; it was a bit of a panic.
At that point, there had been only two Bond title songs. Did that give you freedom or did you feel a lack of guidance on what was needed?
I was influenced by the music. It has a signature to it; you recognise it – straight away you’re in that universe. And I had loved ‘From Russia with Love’, which I had a tenuous link to, because I managed Matt Monro for about 20 years and I negotiated his fee for singing it. That’s how it started. I got him something like £200 for it (I didn’t say I was a good manager!) – but it was a look into that world.
In your book The Sanest Guy in the Room: A Life in Lyrics, you mention “the miracle of brevity” about lyrics. What is that?
I’m pleased you picked that up. I started life as a stand-up comic, and a comedian never wastes a syllable. You can kill a joke just by adding a few words. It’s exactly the same with lyrics. You have to use every word, and it’s a wonderful thing; the miracle of brevity is true. It’s economy, and to be concise, compressed. Writing that book, or if I’m asked to write for a newspaper, it’s hard for me to make it long, because I feel I can say it all in a hundred words.
‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is a masterclass in that “miracle of brevity”, because you very succinctly and suggestively convey the person’s life; she’s been hurt in love so has turned her heart off and become almost this human diamond – glittering, cold and unfeeling. If Cole Porter had written a Bond song, I think that would be it.
That’s great flattery. I wouldn’t have written those words if I’d been given a different tune. John Barry wrote those notes and I had to think, what sits on that lovely melody?
You’ve called ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ a “delicious piece of nonsense”, and it has that mischievous fun associated with Roger Moore. Was it a knowing shift in tone?
Yes. John Barry had that lovely Yorkshire bluntness, and I remember asking him what it should be about, and he said, “It should be like a cartoon.” I said, “You mean with a wink to it?” and he said, “That’s right, Don. Don’t ask questions; just do it.” That’s how we spoke to each other. And that’s how I wrote it. It still said Bond and killers and murderers, but something about it put a smile on your face.
You had a break of 23 years till the song ‘Surrender’ for Tomorrow Never Dies. In your book you say you were “disappointed” it was on the end credits and not the main title. Was that a diplomatic understatement or are you just battle-hardened to how the industry is?
If you can’t take rejection, you’re in the wrong business. It’s no good getting too upset. However, I personally feel, and I know David Arnold and a lot of people in the Bond world felt, that this is the best Bond song ever written. And k.d. lang was so great on it. It was a shame, because the end titles don’t get as much visibility, but hey, it’s one of those things. The people who love Bond know their song. The words ‘tomorrow never dies’ were all over it, but one day they phoned up and said it’s got to have a different title, because Sheryl Crow’s song is called that. I said, “Hang on a minute… ‘Surrender’.” (Which is a word that’s in it.) It took literally 10 seconds to change that.
Do they normally ask for changes once you’ve submitted the song?
No. Barbara and Michael are happy to trust people. I mean, if they don’t like it, you’ll hear from them.
How long does it take to write a Bond song?
You can’t put a clock on it. But it doesn’t take months; there’s usually such a hurry. It’s probably a matter of a week or so, because you write it and then you want to rewrite or double-check it. That’s very important, because the world is going to hear that song.
When you’re seeing the film for the first time with an audience and the song is about to come on, how do you feel?
Relieved. Relieved that it’s finally in there and it’s done, because it’s very competitive. A lot of people have a go at writing these things, so the fact that I managed to get through five times…
Hearing ‘Thunderball’ transports some of us to the Bahamas, but you’ve said it takes you back to the flat in Highbury where you wrote it, overlooking the station. Where do your other Bond songs take you back to?
They take me back to every time I ‘unveiled’ the lyric to John Barry. He didn’t play piano very well, but I would put the lyric in front of him and he’d stumble through it. His first reaction was always, “Ah, that’s fine, Don; that’s fine.” He liked very simple, direct lyrics, and he didn’t want you to hang about. And he wanted them so they could be sung properly; he didn’t want his tune messed about with. Some words just don’t sit on certain notes, so a composer wants to know if I’ve changed the emphasis on any of the notes.
There are thousands of people involved in the Bond series. What would you like it said that your particular contribution was?
Well, I’m mindful that it isn’t like a Sean Connery contribution! I would just like them to say I wrote five Bond songs and they were good. That’s all.
Don Black features in The Sound of 007, which previews at BFI Southbank on Saturday 1 October as part of the BFI’s Bond at 60 weekend. The Sound of 007 will be available exclusively on Prime Video on 5 October along with all 25 James Bond films.
Originally published: 30 September 2022
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