When Don Black says they don’t write songs like they used to, he knows of what he speaks. The Oscar-winning lyricist behind James Bond’s most memorable themes and a host of musical theatre standards, he is a master of the artfully-turned phrase.
“The days of witty songs by Cole Porter,” he says, “are gone.” Today’s hits, he laments, don’t even rhyme. “A great rhyme is an aid to the ear, it does something to you when you hear it. But modern popular songs don’t need to rhyme,” says the Tony, Golden Globe and Olivier award-winner, who was responsible for the 007 classics Diamond are Forever, Thunderball and The World is Not Enough.
“I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon,” says the 82 year-old. “But I just don’t want the Great American Songbook to die. ‘Fly me to the moon , Let me play among the stars, And let me see what Spring is like, On a-Jupiter and…Saturn’? It just wouldn’t be the same.”
The i newsletter cut through the noise
The East End-born writer has corralled his tips on songwriting, alongside entertaining anecdotes about his collaborations with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Barry, Robbie Williams and Michael Jackson in a memoir, The Sanest Guy In The Room.
Before the book went to publishers, Black raced to add a dramatic postscript – he was struck down with Covid-19 in May and spent nine days on an isolation ward at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. “I was very ill but I didn’t feel that way because the NHS was unbelievable. They held my hand and said ‘you’re doing well.’”
The nurses only found out that the patient admitted under his birth name, Donald Blackstone, was a legendary songwriter by Googling him.
“When I left in a wheelchair, the door opened and dozens of nurses applauded and sang Born Free (the Academy award-winning film theme that Black and Barry penned for Matt Monro.) It was an emotional moment I will never forget.”
Concision the key
Black, whose work has graced films including The Italian Job, Dances with Wolves and True Grit, has now fully recovered – and, despite being told to take it easy, can’t wait to get back to writing. “Hopefully the phone will ring with a great idea.”
The lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, Starlight Express and Aspects of Love, Black would like to work with the composer on a new project. “Andrew knows what he’s getting with me.”
And what Lloyd Webber, and Black’s many other collaborators, are getting is the wordsmith’s gift for brevity and concision.
“The job of the lyricist to eliminate the unnecessary. It’s all about economy,” Black says. “If you analyse the great songwriters like Irving Berlin and Porter, they don’t hang about.”
‘Seductive’ Shirley Bassey
Black certainly gets plenty of meaning into few words. Diamonds are Forever, for instance, “are all I need to please me, They can stimulate and tease me” – which is as filthy as it sounds, Black confirms.
“It is explicit. We knew it was for Shirley Bassey and the melody had the lure of the unforbidden about it. I wanted to make it sensual and seductive. It’s kind of appealing in a slightly soiled way.”
Black was stuck for a second line for The World Is Not Enough until his late wife Shirley opened the post one morning and called out “Don! You’ve got an OBE! What wonderful news!”
“I went: ‘Well, it’s not a knighthood but it’s the perfect place to start.’ A second later, I thought: ‘That’s it! That’s my second line!’” The 007 theme was a 1999 hit for Shirley Manson and Garbage.
Robbie a struggle
Paired with Robbie Williams a decade ago, Black encountered a “fragile” and “confused” figure who presented incoherent lyrics that “I don’t think Stephen Hawking could have figured out what they were about.”
Together they knocked into shape a song called Morning Sun and collaborated once again last year on the soundtrack for the animated version of The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
“He’s a different boy now,” says Black. “When singers write for themselves it doesn’t matter about structure or rhymes, their songs are an extension of their personality.”
Michael Jackson immediately formed a connection with Ben, a song about a sick boy whose best friend is a rat, when Black and composer Walter Scharf played it at the piano for the teenage star.
Jackson recorded demos
Jackson became friends with Black and his family but they drifted apart as Michael became a more reclusive, troubled figure.
Jackson recorded demos of more Black songs which have never been released. “I hope they are unearthed one day,” says Black, who accepts the world may not want to hear more from the disgraced singer.
Black, who began his career as a song-plugger in Soho’s famous Tin Pan Alley music district, is happy to defend the reputation of another collaborator – Lloyd Webber. “People are always saying he’s a plagiarist or he’s done this or that. I just know him as a lovely guy to spend time with.”
“He’ll come to me if he’s got an emotional story to tell. Like on Sunset Boulevard and Tell Me On A Sunday, they are the personal, emotional songs.”
Van Morrison is great fun
Black has recently forged a professional and a personal relationship with Van Morrison. “He likes the lyric first and once you give him an idea, he’s off and running.”
As for Morrison’s grouchy image, “Once you get to know him, he’s very easy to get on with. He’s a perfectionist, that’s why he has a reputation for being tough on his band members. He’s very mindful of the business side.”
Gallagher pines for solo songwriters
Black also bonded with Noel Gallagher, with the pair expressing disbelief that hit songs today can have up to ten co-writers.
“He was saying you don’t create great artists that way. There are lots of great singers today but they don’t have the identity of a Sinatra. They seem to be variations of one another.”
Still ambitious, Black would like to write a hit for Elton John and a musical with John Kander, the Cabaret and Chicago composer, who is now 93.
Looking back on his glittering career, Black suggests that “you can’t take it all too seriously. When they asked Paul McCartney how we wrote Yesterday, he said it was ‘just a good day at the office.’”