An interview with Don Black

don-black

Having completely revamped my blog with a shiny new site and title (previously Theatrical Me), I’m back with the latest theatre news, reviews, interviews and features kicking off with one of my favourite ever interviews. Enjoy!

A couple of years back I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black at his London home. Perhaps not instantly recognisable by just his name, Don Black is a man whose work almost everybody will know, for he’s responsible for some of the biggest selling songs, film soundtracks and theatre scores of all time.

Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun and The World Is Not Enough are just a few of the James Bond soundtracks Black is responsible for writing, among songs for films such as Born Free, Out of Africa and The Pink Panther Strikes Again, musical scores including Tell Me On a Sunday, Aspects of Love and Bombay Dreams, plus US number one hits written for the likes of Michael Jackson and Lulu – so it’s really no wonder Black has an Oscar, an OBE, two Broadway Tony Awards and a Golden Globe under his belt.

So how did this Great British talent from humble beginnings manage to fulfil such a wonderful career and still be reaping the rewards of his continued success? It all started with the New Musical Express (NME) in Denmark Street, London, where a young Black worked as an office boy: ‘Denmark Street, off Charing Cross Road, is known as Tin Pan Alley. It was a fantastic place where all songwriters used to congregate and my whole world was around artists of the day,’ Don recalls. Being surrounded by stars such as Frankie Vaughan and Dickie Valentine, Don began to mix with the right crowd and soon his love of lyrics blossomed.

After working for some time with little money or success, Don decided to try his hand as a professional comedian. His radical career change came to an unsuccessful end just a short two years later: ‘Comedy was in my blood, it’s a shame it wasn’t in my act,’ Don jokes. And so he returned to work on Denmark Street but, in a turn of fate, met singer Matt Monro. Monro asked Don to write lyrics for him and at the same time Don met composer John Barry: ‘John Barry asked me if I’d like to do a song for a James Bond film called Thunderball, which got me started really. And Matt Monro was just building up to be a big name so I wrote the song for him called Walk Away, which was a big hit,’ Don explains. This was to mark the turning point of Don’s career as John Barry went on to ask him to write Born Free in 1966 – the song for which Don won an Oscar, determining the start of his career as a serious lyricist.

Black’s talent did not simply come from luck, for the skill and ability needed to write lyrics is quite incomprehensible: ’It’s a complicated thing writing lyrics. I once compared it to doing your own root canal work. It’s that finicky thing getting the right word on the stress of the note and it’s got to be able to sing properly, as it’s not just words on a page, they have to sing it,’ Don explains.

Whilst the difficulty may come with writing the words, it’s clear that Don’s passion for lyrics is what has brought him his success. With over 50 years of song-writing experience, having worked with over 100 different composers in that time, there must be a secret to mastering a lyric: ‘If you get a lovely melody it’s much easier to write a lovely lyric. Sometimes if you write the lyric first you tend to ramble because a lyric writer’s craft is all about compression and economy. In Sunset Boulevard, the musical I did with Andrew Lloyd Webber, there’s a song called With One Look. I called it With One Look because there were three notes. And if I wrote the words first I could have written something like, Every Time I See Your Face. But, the fact that you’ve got just three notes to say something, you have to think with one look. And that’s what I’ve been doing all my life.’

Despite having worked on lyrics for films as well songs for artists such as Robbie Williams, theatre is where Don’s heart lies: ‘In theatre you can write about tragedy, you can write about disappointment, you can write about anything; it’s much more of a word escape for a lyric writer. In pop music you’re very limited, you can find a quirky idea but it’s not as satisfying as writing a song or a big duet that’s going to bring the house down,’ Don smiles. With musicals such as Tell Me on a Sunday, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express, Bombay Dreams and Whistle Down the Wind under his belt, it’s clear that theatre has had a big influence on Don’s career: ‘There’s nothing better than to sit in a theatre watching people laughing and crying at what you have written and standing up at the end and saying what a wonderful show it is. And you know you have given people a lot of pleasure. It is a big deal.’

When looking back on his theatrical works, Don’s series of collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t go unnoticed: ‘He [Andrew] asked me to write with him one day because he saw a show of mine called Bar Mitzvah Boy, and he thought the lyrics were very good. That’s when I did Tell Me On a Sunday with him, then I did Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, and lots of other odd songs with him. He is a dear friend,’ Don explains.

One of Don’s more recent musicals, Bonnie and Clyde, debuted on Broadway, though it’s not the first time he has ventured to the Big Apple and he has the Tony Awards to prove it. But is it a world away from the West End? ‘I think it [Broadway] is probably more exciting because there’s so much more at stake. If you open a show here in London there are many critics – there’s a dozen or 15 or 20, but in New York if the New York Times gives you a bad review your days are numbered. It’s that brutal.’

In 2007 Don was inducted into the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside the likes of John Lennon and the Bee Gees, an achievement he tells as his greatest career accolade to date.

On reflection of his successful and varied career it is hard to imagine how one would follow in the footsteps of Don Black: ‘You have to absolutely love what you do… to me I can’t wait, it’s like a drug and I am addicted. I don’t do it because I have to do it, I do it because I truly enjoy it.’

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