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John Barry, 1933-2011

Posted by Mark Feeney  January 31, 2011 01:23 PM

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The composer John Barry, who died yesterday of a heart attack in Glen Cove, N.Y., will forever have his name linked with another J.B., James Bond. Barry wrote the scores for 11 Bond pictures. He also arranged the James Bond theme, introduced in the first Bond movie, "Doctor No."

Even if you've never seen a Bond picture, you know the music. People on other planets probably know it, too. It's that ubiquitous -- and catchy. Pseudo-surf guitar prowls over vibes, muted trombones, and muted trumpets, then a section of wailingly unmuted brass (very Basie) erupts before the return of the original music. Think of it as the national anthem of cool, c. 1962. If Hugh Hefner had been able to pick out a ring tone back then, Barry's music would have been it. Except it's not Barry's music. Not officially, anyway. It's credited to Monty Norman, who has two rulings in British courts to back him up. Still, Barry claimed that he wrote it as well as arranged it. And when you look at Norman's subsequent career vs. Barry's, you have to wonder. 

Barry, who wrote scores for more than 100 feature films, TV films, and TV series went on to win five Oscars (the scores for "Born Free," "The Lion in Winter," "Out of Africa," and "Dances with Wolves"; and best song for "Born Free"). He also won four Grammys. Maybe Barry's most memorable non-Bond score was "Midnight Cowboy." Other credits include "Body Heat," "The Cotton Club," and "Chaplin." Musically, the man was nothing if not eclectic.

His name and 007's weren't the only examples of J.B. looming large in Barry's life. His first wife was Jane Birkin. Imagine what a Barry arrangement of "Je t'aime" might have sounded like. . . .

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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