‘I am amazed at what I have done’

They call him 'the sanest man in the room', he's won an Oscar and a Tony, and at 82 his career in showbiz is still going strong. Lyricist Don Black tells John Nathan about his life - and his recent brush with Covid-19


As one of this nation’s most successful lyricists for stage and screen, Don Black is used to applause.

Indeed, to add to his Oscar (for Born Free, written with his long-time collaborator John Barry) and Tonys (for the stage version of Sunset Boulevard) he is the recipient of this year’s special award at the Oliviers. Or he would have been, had the ceremony not been cancelled by the pandemic.

“I’ll get it,” says Black — now 82 — with a hint of determination. “It might be on Zoom, but I’ll get it.”

When he does, the award will honour a career spanning six decades during which he has written more songs with Andrew Lloyd Webber — for such shows as Aspects of Love and Whistle Down the Wind — than even fellow lyricist Tim Rice.

Yet the Olivier for outstanding contribution to theatre reflects only half a career of history-making collaborations with Matt Monroe, Quincy Jones, Lulu and Michael Jackson, among others. You could fill a book. And Black has, with a breezy memoir called The Sanest Guy in the Room, A Life in Lyrics, of which more later.

But the applause Black received on the May 12 was different from every other ovation he has received. It was given by about 30 nurses and doctors as Black left the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after being treated for Covid-19.

“What happened is that I had a chest infection and Clive [one of his two sons, the other is Grant] took my temperature and I did have a fever. He said ‘thats it’.” Clive was right.

Black is full of praise and gratitude for the NHS who he says “took the terror out of feeling ‘is this the end?’” But it was while he was hooked up to wires and with oxygen fed through pipes in his nose (thankfully a ventilator was not required) that one of the nurses noticed the soft hands of her patient, one Donald Blackstone. She asked what he did for a living.

“I said I’m a song writer and when she asked what I had written I was too exhausted so just said ‘Google Don Black.’”

Blackstone is the name under which Black was admitted to hospital, not as some celebrity ruse to disguise his real identity but because Blackstone is the name with which he was born and raised in a crowded Hackney council flat, the youngest of five children begat by his Ukranian Jewish parents.

His father Morris ironed clothes for a living and the book reflects a childhood that was poor in monetary terms but rich in love. These early memories include reminiscences about best friend at around the time of his barmitzvah — a fellow Hackney-boy-made-good called Laurence Graff who went on to make billions as a jeweller.

According to Black, if you ring one of his old friend’s outlets and are put on hold you will hear one of Black’s James Bond songs, Diamonds Are Forever. Black doesn’t say if he gets a royalty. But the point is that when Mr Blackstone was discharged from hospital on May 12, nine days after he was admitted, during which time there were moments when he could tell from his doctors’ faces that “certain things were not going right”, there was a surprise waiting for him at the entrance.

What seemed like the building’s entire complement of medical staff had lined up to applaud him. This is often the case for survivors of Covid-19. What is less usual is that the nurses and doctors sang Born Free.

“I had about six people looking after me,” says Black. “But this was like a whole hospital worth of people. Obviously when anyone leaves they all get together. But they went to the trouble of learning the song. Or maybe some of them knew it. It was unbelievable.”

When Black returned to his sprawling Holland Park apartment it was a hollow homecoming of sorts. In 2018 his beloved Shirley — his wife and soulmate of 60 years — died after a sudden illness. He met her at the Harmony Club in Clapton when he was 16. She died of an infection picked up during or just after a holiday in Miami. I met her a few times, either at the theatre or on first nights, and once when I interviewed Black at his home in 2013.

I mentioned Shirley in the article, describing her as “a good-looking woman who has the elegance of someone accustomed to expensive things but the no-nonsense manner of someone who doesn’t care much about them.” (It is unseemly to quote oneself. But the description makes it into Black’s book and as Shirley deserves to be described it feels wrong to avoid the description that Black himself approves of).

“It doesn’t get any easier,” he says of the grief. But the book has helped.

“This book has been a godsend, because it has kept me busy. That’s how it started out, the motivation of it. People said work, work, work. It’s the only way to deal with grief. I’m not the kind of person who looks back. But when you write a memoir there’s no way out.”

The title takes its name from a description of Black by the writer Mark Steyn. The phrase describes a man who has somehow gone through showbiz life without any of the ego or neuroses associated with so many of his contemporaries.

The book is a collection of Black’s encounters with seemingly every famous showbiz personality of the second half of the 20th century, though in no particular order. It’s like being immersed in someone else’s memory, with randomly firing synapses dictating which encounter is to be conjured next. It’s a good, fast read and writing it has forced him to dwell on his achievements.

“I am amazed at what I’ve done,” he says. “When you get letters from people that say ‘what a career you’ve had, an Oscar, and you were so young [he was 27] and all those James Bond things’, I think yes I have had a great career. But I’ve never wallowed in anything I’ve done.”

I remember no shrine to successes at his home, in the way many showbiz big-shots have.

“I used to have stuff on the wall but I took them off. Too many memories, especially if a show doesn’t work, you don’t want to be reminded of it.”

He might be talking about the ill-fated musical Bar Mitzvah Boy which was developed in New York with composer Jule Styne and writer Jack Rosenthal. There’s a hair-raising story in the book about how Styne turned from a nice guy into an attack dog that went for Rosenthal’s throat when previews didn’t go well.

Yet despite his now being an octogenarian, it is still possible to speak about the future of Black’s career. Though of course only if ways can be found to stage shows again during or after the Covid era. He is not optimistic about the short term, however.

“It’s so gloomy. I really can’t see it ending for a long, long time, [the ability] to go to the theatre and sit next to anyone and wear a mask, it ain’t going to be the same. Andrew [Lloyd-Webber] is always optimistic every time I speak to him. ‘If you can go on a plane, you can go in a theatre’, that’s his mantra.”

But if Lloyd-Webber’s optimism proves to be well-founded there are projects waiting for Black to return to when the gloom lifts.

“Writers spend a lot of time in their own heads,” he muses. “We’re always busy, or imagining we’re busy. There’s always that mind-wondering lunacy as we’re walking along.”

One possible future project is a new version of Tell Me on a Sunday with the lead character changed from a straight woman to a gay man. Away from musical theatre he has just written a lot of new material for a new album by Van Morrison. There is also talk of a musical version of Downton Abbey. So the life of a lyricist continues.

“Shirley isn’t here,” he says.”But apart from that, everything is exactly the same.”

The Sanest Guy in the Room, A Life in Lyrics by Don Black is published by Constable

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