Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
Don Black

He's won an Academy Award, received five Academy Award nominations, three Tony nominations, five Ivor Novello Awards and a Golden Globe. He's written songs such as "Born Free", "Ben" (as recorded by Michael Jackson), "To Sir With Love" (as recorded by Lulu), and a quintet of James Bond theme songs - "Thunderball", "Diamonds Are Forever", "The Man With The Golden Gun", "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "The World Is Not Enough". He's written over a hundred songs for movies such as The Pink Panther Strikes Again, True Grit, Dances With Wolves and Out Of Africa. He was awarded an *OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honors list and awarded with an Honorary Degree of Doctor Of Arts by the City Of London University. He's worked with the leading composers of our time, including Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Marvin Hamlisch, Jule Styne, Elmer Bernstein, Michael Legrand and Charles Aznavour. His list of credits goes on and on. We are speaking of course about Mr. Don Black.

Q - You didn't start out as a songwriter, but as a stand-up comic. How successful were you in that line of work?

A - Not really very good. I did it for a couple of years professionally. It was a tough time, probably the equivalent of Vaudeville in America. It was held in good stead because I always think comedy is like writing lyrics. You can't add a wasted syllable. It's all about getting the jokes right. It's easy to mess up a joke by adding words. There's a connection definitely between lyric writing and stand-up comedy.

Q - And that lead into you becoming a songwriter?

A - Well, not really, except when I started writing lyrics I found I could do it quite easily, 'cause I was used to being a comedian. There is definitely something in it. I don't know what it is. There's something about the economy of writing words, the lyric, and the economy of getting your jokes right.

Q - So, how then did you get into songwriting?

A - I started writing songs and I became more successful than (in) comedy.

Q - Do you write the lyrics or the lyrics and the music?

A - I only write the lyrics.

Q - And someone else writes the music and sends it over to you?

A - It varies. Mostly like that, but sometimes I write the lyrics first. There's no formula. There's no set pattern.

Q - When you write lyrics, do you hear a melody in your head?

A - Well, not really, no. I have the melody in front of me. People send me tunes. I have to hear their melody. But it's usually for a movie or for a show. So I know roughly the story lines, what the story should be.

Q - Would it be harder to write a Pop song over a song for a film?

A - It depends. It's impossible to say. Sometimes a Pop song is easy to write. Sometimes it's hard. It's a business. You gotta remember it's a business. It's what I do. I prefer writing stage shows because you know what the story is, very clearly.

Q - At what age did you start writing songs?

A - I started writing songs when I was about fifteen, but by the early twenties I started to get a bit successful. When I realized you could make a living out of it is when I took it seriously.

Q - Are you writing every day?

A - No, because at the same time, I was working as a song plugger, a music publisher. I worked for the Musical Express, which is a newspaper, as well. So, I did other jobs, then wrote lyrics in-between. When I became a successful lyric writer with "Born Free" and "Thunderball" and "Diamonds Are Forever", I then became a full-time songwriter.

Q - You were living in London in the mid-60s?

A - Yeah.

Q - That means you probably would've come in contact with all of the British Invasion groups?

A - Yes, all of them.

Q - Were you managed by **NEMS?

A - I had an office with NEMS. I managed people for them. I was managing the English singer Matt Munroe, and Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis when they came to England. I looked after them when they came here.

Q - So, who was your boss? Brian Epstein?

A - No. I had an office next door to Brian Epstein. We were great friends because he was over awed that I won an Oscar. He liked the idea of having an Oscar winner in the next office.

Q - You were originally with the Vic Lewis Agency?

A - That's correct, yes.

Q - And then NEMS bought out Vic Lewis?

A - That's right.

Q - Why did you title your autobiography Wrestling With Elephants?

A - When I was writing "Sunset Boulevard" with Christopher Hampton, we were writing it together, the book and the lyrics. One day we were having a rough day and he said "This is like wrestling with elephants", writing a musical. The phrase struck me and I thought it was a good title - Wrestling With Elephants. In other words, it's pretty impossible.

Q - Would you say a songwriter can improve with age? Is your best work ahead of you?

A - I'd like to think so. It's impossible to say. I'm as busy as I've ever been. I don't try to take it that seriously. I just do my best work and hopefully it connects and people hear the songs. It gets harder as time goes by, not to write them, but so many people write their own songs these days. It's very competitive now. If you look at the Top 50, nearly all the songs are written by the singers. So, it's tough. But I enjoy it so much that I'll never stop.

Don Black's official website:

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

*Order of the British Empire

**NEMS (North End Music Stores) was the name of a management company run by Brian Epstein