The James Bond hitman whose lyrics fire hearts

By Paul Lester, August 8, 2008

Don Black is responsible for several classic 007 film themes, as well as a host of hot soundtracks in his 44-year career as one of the world's finest lyricists.

Did you know that James Bond was born in Mill Hill? Well, not the secret agent, but certainly some of his most famous songs. Because Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With The Golden Gun were all written by Don Black, one of the most prolific and successful lyricists in the history of British popular music, when he was living in that quiet north London suburb.

He also supplied the words to the EastEnders theme tune, recorded as a pop song under the title Anyone Can Fall in Love, as well as lyrics for songs from the films The Italian Job, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, True Grit, Dances With Wolves, Out Of Africa and Born Free, for the US number-one hit Ben (sung by Michael Jackson) and for the musical Bar Mitzvah Boy - and these are just a few of the 1,000 titles to have come from Black's pen.

"It's all about touching a nerve," says the man born Gerald Blackstone, 70 years ago, in Hackney, in London's East End. "People write to me and say: ‘How did you know my life?' That's a wonderful thing. Have I got the common touch? I'd like to think so. I go on buses and tubes - when you're writing about people's emotions it helps to be close to ordinary people. Rich people and poor people all have the same hopes and fears. I feel very at home in the East End of London and I'm pretty happy in Belgravia."

Black went to school in Hackney, and had his barmitzvah at the local Orthodox synagogue, where he was mesmerised by the "minor-key, Talmudic prayers".

To escape the grim reality of their council flat, his mother, a Russian immigrant, would take him to watch American movies at the Hackney Empire.

"She loved showbusiness," he recalls, "and her ambition was to be an usherette at the Empire. She couldn't believe the chandeliers and red plush carpet - that whole glitzy world. In the same way I loved to watch Hollywood films where you'd see people dancing on glass pianos." Her son's success, he says, "gave her nachas like you wouldn't believe".

He started out as office boy at the New Musical Express, moving on to stints in advertising, journalism and plugging songs for the likes of Doris Day and Norman Wisdom. He spent his days in Denmark Street, just off Soho - "Tin Pan Alley" or, as Black calls it, "the street of dreams". There, Frankie Vaughan and Dickie Valentine or big US stars such as Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray, "the Michael Jackson of his day", would hang out. He even became a stand-up comedian for a while. "I was a sort of Jewish Bob Hope," he says. "I had these one-liners like: ‘Comedy is in my blood; it's a shame it isn't in my act!' Did I get a good reaction? Not really, no."

He did, however, learn the value of timing and economy. "There's a connection between writing songs and comedy; it's about getting to the point. A good joke or song can be screwed up by adding one ‘if' or ‘but'. You can't meander. It's all about compression."

Black always did his compressing at home - first in Mill Hill, then Knightsbridge, and now Kensington, where his neighbour is good friend Michael Winner. He writes the words, then sings them to himself in a voice like Anthony Newley, "another good Jewish boy from Hackney". Of two of his biggest hits he says, "When I was asked to write Ben for Michael Jackson I knew it had to be about a rat, but I didn't want to write about cheese and traps, so I made it about friendship. The same with Born Free: I knew I couldn't write about lions and cages so I made it a social comment. You've got to be open to universal themes."

Black had his first chart entry in 1964, when Matt Monro, "the British Sinatra", who he managed for years, reached number four in the charts with Walk Away. After that came partnerships with some of the world's top composers, including Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones and, most notably, John Barry (his words to Barry's score for Born Free won him an Oscar), putting him at soundtrack music's top table. Later, he had one of his songs covered by The Smiths, which earned him "a lot of brownie points with my kids", and in 2005 rapper Kanye West recorded a version of Diamonds Are Forever - "so," he jokes, "I started wearing bling for a bit."

Hearing West rap his words, was it like seeing graffiti on a work of art? "There was a bit of that," he admits. "But this industry is so competitive I'm just delighted to still be doing it."

He has always had the best of both worlds: great success and the anonymity that comes from being a bespoke lyricist. "One of the greatest thrills," he says, "is to write a song or have a hit show, and you're at home watching The Sopranos! I don't have to schlep around the country. I love my anonymity."

His career spans four decades, from the dawn of rock'n'roll to the digital age. Did he change his approach with the times? "I don't think I did, no. I became aware of the times, because while I was listening in my room to Stephen Sondheim my kids would say: ‘Dad, don't forget Tom Waits or Rufus Wainwright.' They've always kept me up to date. But I haven't changed as a writer. Why should I? Tony Bennett has been singing the same songs for 60 years and he never compromised himself by singing the latest Coldplay song." Besides, as he points out, why change when people are essentially the same. "Songs should be about primal emotions," he says. " The world might change, but what's important, what you want from life, that stays the same."

What has stayed with Black has been a determination to fill a page with the right words and hit the mother lode. "Someone once said: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs'. The same way that you're going to have to write this article: where do you start? I've always had a love of words and a love of songs. But it's a labour of love. I've never thought: ‘Oh, I've got to write a song today.' It's always, ‘Great, I've got a song to write!'."

If he had to pick a song written by someone else that most succinctly captures an aspect of the human condition, he does not hesitate. "It Had To Be You," he says, citing the lyric by Gus Kahn to the 1930s standard. "A good song leaves you changed in some way. And songs like that say it so beautifully: ‘It had to be you/With all your faults/I love you still'. I've always been attracted to that kind of thing."

Later this month, Black's career will be celebrated at the London Palladium where composer David Arnold - who has also done his fair share of Bond music - will conduct the Royal Philharmonic and Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Elkie Brooks, Craig David, Gary Barlow and more will perform Black classics.

"It'll be a couple of hours of adulation, all for me!" he laughs. He appreciates the effect his songs have had on people, far more than statistics. "How many records have I sold? I haven't a clue. Why would I bother? It's meaningless." More significant to Black was being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame last year where he now stands alongside such all-time greats as Cole Porter. But more than anything, what matters is being able to express eternal truths in a pithy lyric. "I just hope people will recognise themselves in my songs or say: ‘I've felt that'. That's great."

A Taste Of Don Black (CD) is out now on Sony/ATV. The Lyrics By Don Black tribute show is at the London Palladium on August 17. Call 0844 412 4657

Last updated: 10:51pm, August 7 2008