There can be no doubt, pop lyricists are truly the unsung heroes of the songwriting world. Billions of people know Elton John’s tunes but, when they’re singing along, do they appreciate the words embedded in their brains and coming out of their mouths are actually the work of master wordsmith Bernie Taupin? Broadway superstar Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name now appears above every one of his titles but, unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe or Kander and Ebb, these days his lyricist’s names most often appear on a lower and separate line. What too often seems to be lost when people talk about Sir Andrew is that, without Tim Rice, there’s no “crying for Argentina“, without Trevor Nunn and T.S. Elliot there’s no questioning of whether the moon has lost her “Memory” and without legendary lyricist Don Black, there’s no “Unexpected Song” or “Sunset Boulevard“.
Don Black began his creative life as a stand up comedian, he has said he “wrote his first song waiting for a laugh in Manchester“. His first musical for the stage, Maybe That’s Your Problem, dealt with the misfortunes of premature ejaculation and was, as you might imagine, less than successful. Still, it was only a few years later that his lifetime collaboration with celebrated film composer John Barry began, when Barry first approached Black about putting some words to the theme he’d written for the feature length documentary Born Free. That collaboration lead to an Academy Award for the composer and lyricist and established Don Black as the go-to-guy when Hollywood was in need of some words to sing with the tunes. What followed were several James Bond title songs, written once again with Barry, and the monster hits Lulu’s To Sir, With Love and the only song ever written about that “special relationship” between a boy and his rat, Ben, which Michael Jackson took to the top of the pop charts in 1972.
In the many years since, Black has collaborated with some of the greatest living composers of our time. That long and impressive list includes; Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Jule Styne, Charles Strouse, Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch. With Andrew Lloyd Webber he has worked on the Broadway musicals, Tell Me on a Sunday/ Song and Dance, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express, Whistle Down the Wind and the Tony Winning Sunset Boulevard. Most recently Don Black worked with composer Frank Wildhorn on the Broadway musicals Dracula and Bonnie and Clyde and, just last month, he put words to the theme of the popular PBS series Downton Abbey which will be featured on an upcoming episode of Dancing with the Stars.
I think it’s only fitting we begin our interview today with a Don Black classic from one of his many John Barry collaborations, enjoy!
Pop Bitez: So, it seems like the Bond themes have lost some of their magic throughout the years, why do you suppose that is, what changed?
Don Black: What changed was when they went for the artist more than the song. When I did it with John Barry it was all about getting the song right. When we did Thunderball we got the song right first and then you’d get the artist. I’m not sure when it changed, but it changed when they said, “wouldn’t it be great to get a big star to sing it?”, and then the song came second. I don’t want to be nasty about any of them but it did lose a lot, you know, there have been some great songs, but every now and again one comes along and you think, “Oh my God, it’s lost that lovely, seductive quality”. Then again I think maybe it’s only the older generation who remembers Diamonds Are Forever and the other songs, I’m sure with Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace, there’s an audience for that, but I find people of a certain age want to go back to Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever.
PB: I’m actually one of those people who think the Bond films take themselves too seriously these days, I blame Austin Powers for some of that.
DB: (laughs) That’s right.
PB: Now your career as a lyricist pretty much began when you won the Oscar for Born Free which is actually the reverse for most people, winning the Academy Award so early in a person’s career has ruined more than a few, but for you it seems like it was more of a launching point.
DB: Yes, I mean, I’ve never really changed in my outlook to writing. I love writing lyrics, you have to have fire in your belly to stay the course, so I’m as enthusiastic about projects today, whether it’s movies or shows, as I was all those years ago. I was only 27 I think when I won that Oscar and, you know, it is like yesterday, but nothing has changed my outlook from Born Free to right now, I’m still doing the same things, I’m still writing songs.
PB: It’s still the same process.
DB: Same process, it’s exactly the same.
PB: In terms of your many collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tell Me on a Sunday, which eventually became, Song and Dance, and then toured the U.K. recently in a return to it’s original form, is a bit of a curiosity. More than any other show I can think of, the genesis of that project is long and dramatic and- through the years- you’ve adjusted the story and lyrics many times over. So, I guess the question is, how difficult is it to go back to a song you’ve heard hundreds of times before- with a certain set of lyrics- and completely rethink them?
DB: It’s difficult, it is difficult, but then it’s a job, it’s just like, you know, a journalist writing about Obama, he may have written about Obama a thousand times but he’s got to do another piece on Obama, he’s got to come at it from a different angle, it’s the same thing with a melody really, to forget everything you’ve done and start again, but, you’re right, it isn’t easy, it’s tough.
PB: Do you remember a title a composer or studio threw at you that was especially challenging?
DB: I think True Grit was a difficult one, but then also writing a musical like Bombay Dreams for Broadway, because it’s all Bollywood and a different language, anything that’s a different language, in a way it’s good. My first musical that was successful was called Billy, which I wrote with John Barry, and it was set in Yorkshire and the fact that you have dialects….it’s very, very good, it’s the same as Sondheim writing West Side Story, the fact that he’s writing for Puerto Rican people is probably good, it makes him go places he’s probably never been before, in a way it’s something to cling to as a writer.
PB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Barry?
DB: Well, they’re different people, but the process is the same, at the piano they’re both identical, it’s only when they get up from the piano, John is much more of a loner and Andrew is a different kind of person, interested in many things, and I love working with both of them. What they both have in common is that they’re both stimulating, they both really have this fire in the belly for whatever they’re doing, they’re both very dedicated and focused.
PB: I’m sure many would debate this point with me but, personally, out of all the Webber musicals, I think Sunset Boulevard is his most traditional show and, for that reason, I consider it one of his best. The film is, of course, a highly revered classic, I’m curious, how daunting was it to take on such a legendary story?
DB: It wasn’t daunting because I love movies, my whole life I was raised on movies, as a kid it was always movies, movies, movies…and Christopher Hampton, who I wrote it with, loved Hollywood and that period, and we met Billy Wilder and we spent some time with him which was incredible, it was a labor of love. It was hard work because anything you do with Andrew Lloyd Webber the world is looking at it, he’s the only composer in the world that when he announces his next thing every paper in the world covers it, that doesn’t happen with anyone else.
PB: Now Barry and Webber are both extremely romantic composers, do you have to be a bit of a romantic yourself to match the words with their tunes?
DB: Well, I am anyway, but I’m also very sensitive to music, the way the notes are and how they should sing. It’s a delicate kind of sculpting, the words to those tunes and it sounds very hard, and it is very hard if you don’t enjoy it but, if you love it, it’s a crossword puzzle.
PB: Now you recently collaborated with composer Frank Wildhorn on the Broadway musical, Bonnie & Clyde, which closed at the end of December after a very brief run. From all reports the audiences loved it, but the critics- who I am now convinced have it in for Wildhorn- were surprisingly harsh. What do you think happened there?
DB: Well, this is the real shock of my career, up until the opening night, all through the month of previews, there was a standing ovation every single performance. There were lines around the block, people raving about it and coming back, one guy saw it twenty times, people were saying, “I’ve seen it 12 times”, “I’ve seen it 10 times”, it was fantastic, and the fact that we opened to bad reviews, particularly the New York Times, really surprised us. However, it will have a happy ending I think, we opened in Japan a couple weeks ago and it was a huge success and we are definitely going to go to London, I had emails about it yesterday, they’re over there now working out a West End production and we’re hoping the rest of the world will enjoy it and, you know, we can always come back to the states.
PB: I understand you’re currently working on a musical version of The Count of Monte Cristo with composer Michel Legrand, what can you tell me about that project?
DB: Well we’ve been playing with the book a lot, it’s always about getting the book right with a musical, but the guy who wrote the book, Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors), is a bit of a genius, he’s going to be the toast of Broadway and win the Tony this year, and we’ve got it nailed I think, he’s actually going to do the play of it at the National Theatre this year and we’re hoping to get the musical ready by the end of the year.
PB: Is it a straight forward adaptation or will it be more like Frank Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel where the humor was played up a bit?
DB: It’s witty because the writer Richard Bean is very witty, but it’s a truncated form, the brilliance of it is… when I read it…I thought, “how do you get a 1200 page novel down to a few hours on the stage?”, but he did it, it’s a great story about revenge, it’s a lot of people’s favorite, so we absolutely have to get it right.