Life & Culture

James Bond theme tune lyricist Don Black: 'I’m lousy at most things, but I can write songs'

The Oscar-winning lyricist behind five James Bond theme tunes reveals how, at the age of 84, he is busier than ever


We are playing that game, the one about your home being on fire and having to choose what you would save if you could only take one thing. Don Black is perusing his options, of which there are many.

“I used to have walls and walls of gold things. But I took them down,” he says of the discs, gongs and framed paraphernalia that often festoon the homes of successful people in the music business.

But the career of the 84-year-old can now largely be reflected by the contents of two shelves in the study of his west London home. A study that is not a small affair. In pride of place, in the middle of the room, is a three-quarter size snooker table.

One of the shelves, more a sideboard really, is covered with photographs of Black with his fellow titans from the music and theatre industries.

They include John Barry (with whom he wrote the 1966 hit Born Free and three of Black’s five James Bond songs), Donny Osmond (for whom Black wrote the song Ben), Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein, Van Morrison, Tim Rice, and Ray Davies. Moving down the adjacent wall there is Barbra Streisand and, slightly incongruously in this company, Don’s old friend Terry Wogan.

“That’s me with Jimmy White,” says Black, pointing to a photo of himself with the snooker player.

The 84-year-old lyricist has written more shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber than Tim Rice, the lyricist more commonly cited as Lloyd Webber’s other half.

This year sees two Black/Lloyd Webber shows return to the West End: the already opened Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, which returns in September starring Nicole Scherzinger.

But that’s just half of the Don Black shows to open in 2023. His slow-burn of a hit Bonny and Clyde – “It’s not Les Miserables, but it will go all over the world” — had a West End run in the spring and this month sees the world premiere of his latest project, a musical version of the Graham Greene novella and Orson Welles’ movie The Third Man, which opens at the Menier Chocolate factory.

I ask if I have left anything out. “I have been workshopping something,” he says with a chuckle. If all goes well that work in progress will probably be staged next year. Black is coy about its subject partly because it is bad form to talk about shows before deals are sealed but also because the show is personal.

“Everything I’ve ever done creatively — movies, theatre — I’ve been hired to do. But this is one I’ve always wanted to do,” he says, his east London accent undiminished by the years of living on the west side of the city.

He was born Donald Blackstone, the youngest of five children of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Morris and Betsy.

His father worked as a garment presser, his mother in a clothes shop, and the family lived in a crammed council flat in Tornay House in south Hackney.

Above the photos is another shelf, on which sit the most prestigious awards in showbusiness.

“These are the important ones,” says Black. “Two Tonys; a Golden Globe; six Ivor Novellos and an Oscar [for Born Free].” Returning to our game, I ask if the Oscar is the one he grabs as the flames lick at his heels.

“It’s hard to say really,” says Black, refusing to be hurried. “But since you ask, that one means a lot to me,” he says pointing to the picture of him with Jule (which Black pronounces Julie) Styne, composer of Gyspy, Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Funny Girl. Styne also wrote the music for Bar Mitzvah Boy, the show based on Jack Rosenthal’s play and for which Black wrote the lyrics.

We turn and consider the snooker table, its baize littered with manuscripts and papers. “When you’re working on two or three musicals at a time this is what happens,” says Black. “Really I should be slumped on a park bench somewhere at my age. But I’m busier than ever.”

Today, however, Black does not have to attend The Third Man rehearsals at the Menier, a trip he often makes with Christopher Hampton, another long-time collaborator with whom this time Black shares both lyric and book credits. Today, he can take it easy at home, with his snooker table.

“You didn’t move the pink, did you?” he jokes to the cleaning lady who has just dusted the table, before thanking her and saying it is fine if she wants to go home.

She does, and it occurs to me that the solitude to which Black has had to become accustomed since Shirley, his beloved wife of 60 years, died in 2018, will return when this interview is finished. They met in Clapton when Black was 16. She died after picking up an infection during or after a holiday in Miami.

I mention how while watching the current production of Aspects of Love I couldn’t help but be struck by the song Anything But Alone.

It was written in the late Eighties, of course, along with that show’s monster hit Love Changes Everything but, I say as sensitively as I can, so many of Black’s songs seem to be about the dread of being alone and now… “I’m alone,” he says, completing the sentence.

“I have written a lot of sad songs,” he agrees. “I don’t know why. And whereas once my sad songs touched a lot of people, now they touch me,” he says. “Because I am alone.”

One son, Grant, does lives next door and the other, Clive, lives close by. Plus, there are grandchildren. As Black said earlier when we were looking at the awards “family is all that matters”. Still, five years after Shirley died there are still “moments when the world stops.

“All I have to do is open a drawer and smell a perfume. A million things like that happen on a daily basis. But when you’ve got children and grandchildren you’ve got to be strong,” he says. Shirley, a straight talker, would have agreed and Black knows she would not tolerate self-pity.

“I would love to meet someone,” he adds. “When her husband died, I think Judi Dench said, you want someone to do nothing with.”

Not that Black seems to excel at doing nothing. But busy or not he is also cracking company and is not known as the nicest guy in showbiz for nothing.

His memoir, The Sanest Guy in the Room, also reflects that he is invariably an oasis of calm in a business populated by egos. “Ego isn’t in my nature. I’m lousy at everything, but I can write songs,” he says.

He is often also the funniest guy in the room. At the funeral of his friend and fellow Jewish lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the words for Les Miserables, the most successful musical ever written, Black was asked to give a eulogy. Social-distancing rules meant that only a few people were able to attend the service at Golders Green Crematorium.

“I used to be a stand-up comedian, so I’m used to playing small audiences,” quipped Black from the lectern. After making the mourners laugh, Black paid tribute to his old friend with one of Kretzmer’s own lines from the song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: “There is a grief that can’t be spoken.”

“It’s my favourite of Herbie’s lyrics,” says Black now.

I ask if he minds my mentioning his desire to meet someone. “Sure,” he shrugs. “I’ll probably get a lot of calls.” Yes, you might, I say. Though whether he will have time to answer them is another matter.

The Third Man is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until September 9.

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