Don Black: Star lyricist puts a productive life into words

By John Nathan, September 2, 2013
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Don Black

Don Black

You’ve come at a busy time,” says Don Black as he opens the door to his sprawling, comfortable apartment in west London. However, one of the world’s most sung lyricists is not being unwelcoming. It’s just that, as well as compiling his new late Sunday evening Radio 2 show, which is fuelled by the Great American Songbook, there is still work to be done on his latest musical, Stephen Ward.

Based on the events surrounding the 1963 Profumo scandal — which led to the resignation of War Secretary John Profumo — the show reunites Black and Andrew Lloyd Webber for the fourth time. And with writer Christopher Hampton involved, the triumvirate who created the musical version of Sunset Boulevard are back together. And, in October, two months before the world premiere, Michael Ball leads an evening of Black’s music at the Royal Festival Hall, a showcase for the rare diversity of the lyricist. The film-score songs include his Oscar-winning Born Free and The Self-Preservation Society from The Italian Job. Interspersed with the music, Black will be interviewed by Michael Grade. It’s already almost a sell-out.

“I can’t believe it’s Don Black the name [that’s packing them in],” he says with genuine modesty. “But if you put on the poster Diamonds Are Forever, Thunderball, Born Free, Sunset Boulevard, Michael Jackson and James Bond, well the producers think there probably is an audience. Because my — what do you call it? — oeuvre isn’t just theatre, or musicals, it’s pop songs and movie songs like True Grit.”

Aside from being known as one of the great conjurers of words for melodies written by some of the finest composers — among them, Marvin Hamlisch, Quincy Jones and particularly John Barry — Black’s reputation in the industry is for being one of the nicest chaps you could possibly wish to meet.

Soon after I arrive, in comes Black’s wife with some shopping. They’ve been married for over 50 years, longer even than Black’s musical career. Shirley is a good-looking woman who has the elegance of someone accustomed to expensive things but the no-nonsense manner of someone who doesn’t much care about them. Black is similarly grounded. The success that has scooped one Oscar (for Born Free), two Tony awards (for Sunset Boulevard), a Golden Globe and six Ivor Novellos is worn lightly. It’s because of the Jewish East End boy in him, he agrees. He was born in Hackney to Russian Jewish immigrants. His father pressed garments for a living. They lived, all seven of them including Black’s four siblings, in a small council flat. The humble beginnings still inform his attitude to life.

“I’ve always felt there are very happy people in Hackney and very unhappy people in Belgravia. It’s [about] what’s inside you. It has nothing to do with that car outside. I’ve never had rich man’s tastes.”
Still, living in a very des-res in Holland Park doesn’t seem to have impacted too negatively on Black’s happiness. He is 75 now. “Yes, 75. I can’t believe that I am, but I am,” he says ruefully. And he’s right. It is hard to believe. His hair is still mostly the colour of his name. And he moves and sounds like a man in mid-middle age. Perhaps all that snooker keeps him supple. He has a table at home and plays at the RSC club every week. But Black reckons it’s the work, not the play, that counts.

A conversation with the lyricist is likely to be studded with star names. He drops them liberally. Yet it somehow never feels like name-dropping. This might partly be because Black’s name is itself big enough to be dropped. But it is also because, to him, those names — Michael Jackson for instance — are not celebrities, they are just people he has worked with. You never get the sense they are mentioned for the sake of self-aggrandisement, I suggest, unlike some name-droppers, such as Black’s late neighbour Michael Winner.

“We miss him in this street. His house used to be lit up and now it has an air of melancholy about it. I was with him a week before he died. He seemed to be relishing all the nonsense that was being written about him. He was hard to get close to. He didn’t have many friends. There was something likable and something…” Unlikeable? “He seemed to also enjoy making people not like him,” responds Black diplomatically.

“I thought Michael was a Disney-esque character,” he adds, but this time referring to Jackson. Black wrote the song Ben for Jackson while he and Shirley were living in Bel Air. In 1972, it became Jackson’s first solo number one in America.

“He was so childlike and lovely,” he recalls. “Shirley used to draw with him. I’ve still got a picture they did together. It’s signed by both of them. If I could get her name off it, it might be worth something,” he suggests allowing a glimpse of the stand-up comedian he once was.

Nearly 50 years on, there is no sign of slowing down. “Shirley and I were watching that Woody Allen documentary on TV the other day. And he was saying that he’s made 40 films, or whatever it was. And the minute he finishes one film he starts working on the next. And I’m looking at my wife and I say: ‘See? He doesn’t stop.’”

I point out that Woody Allen is motivated, at least in part, by a mortal fear of death. Is Black? “No, I’m not,” he shrugs. “As Charles Aznavour once said to me: ‘A man will never grow older if he knows what he’s doing tomorrow.’’’

His career has a fair claim to being one the most diverse in the business. You can trace it back to a song Black — then Blackstone — wrote for a Jewish wedding and which contained the line: “There is no smoke without salmon.” But really the idea of putting words to music for money took serious hold after the song Walk Away, which he wrote for Matt Munro after managing the “British Sinatra” for years. It reached number four in the charts. Suddenly all the jobs he had done up until that moment in 1964 — which included working as a New Musical Express journalist, a song-plugger for the likes of Doris Day, and stints in advertising and, yes, stand-up — were mere stepping stones to his true vocation. Except that for Black, “vocation” is probably too grand a description.

“I remember when Paul McCartney was asked how he wrote Yesterday and he said ‘it was a good day at the office’. And that’s true. It is a business. You have got to produce by a deadline. You can be as brilliant as you like but if it’s not delivered, it’s not done.”

The nearest Black got to not delivering was when writing the musical Bombay Dreams with the composer A R Rahman. The East End Jew and the Indian Muslim had very different working methods.

“He was the most frustrating composer I’ve worked with,” he remembers. “He’s very religious. We’d be working and suddenly he’d leave the room to pray. So whenever there was any urgency to do anything, and I spent a sleepless night thinking about it, he would say something like ‘it will happen when it is meant to happen’. And I’d go, ‘it’s meant to happen now’. I’ve never written so many songs with my shoes off.” Not that Black doesn’t have his own brand of Eastern mysticism.

“To me Shangri-la is walking in Holland Park with a melody in my head and thinking of some words that are going to sit nicely on it. It’s a lovely feeling. It’s what I’ve always done.”

‘A Life in Song — Lyrics By Don Black’ is at the Royal Festival Hall, October 3
‘Stephen Ward’ previews at the Aldwych Theatre from December 3

    Last updated: 3:01pm, September 2 2013