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Don Black Interview

Introduction by Jim Liddane
Born in Hackney, Don had a smash hit with his first ever lyric - 'Walk Away', recorded by Matt Monro - since when he has managed to stay right at the top with a string of top-flight lyrics mainly written for the cinema, the stage, and TV.

The best known of his 100-plus cinema lyrics include the Oscar-winner 'Born Free' plus 'Ben', 'Thunderball', 'To Sir With Love' and 'Diamonds Are Forever'.

Four of the six shows he has been associated with have been successes, yielding hit songs like 'I'll Put You Together Again' (from 'Dear Anyone'), recorded by Hot Chocolate, and 'Take That Look Off Your Face' and 'Tell Me On A Sunday (from 'Song And Dance'), both recorded by Marti Webb.

Last Autumn, he had simultaneous smashes with words set to two TV themes composed by Simon May S Leslie Osborne: 'Anyone Can Fall In Love' (from 'Eastenders') and 'Always There' (from 'Howards' Way'). His many collaborators have included John Barry, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Jackson and Simon Climie (of Climie Fisher).

Somehow, Don Black also finds time to manage Marti Webb and to be Chairman of the London-based songwriting organisation BASCA. His seventh show, 'Budgie', with music by Mort Shuman, has recently opened in the West End.

Gerald Mahlowe interviewed Don Black for the International Songwriters Association's "Songwriter Magazine".

You've specialised in words. Do you also have a talent for music?
In a word - as lyric writers are used to economical answers - no! l don't have any musical talent and if 1 did, I wouldn't delve into it anyway, because there are so many wonderful composers. When I came into this business, I was told there were very few lyric writers in this country. When I started, in the 60's, there was Norman Newell and there was Norman Newell! So I really concentrated on lyrics. I love a good tune, obviously, but 1 don't lean that way. Very few lyric writers do. Johnny Mercer was an exception: he wrote the occasional melody and surprised everybody. But I stick to words.

What makes a lyricist? The obvious thing would be a love of words.
I've always liked words, obviously, in fact I started as a journalist with the NME, but what made me was being always brought up with great songs. I've always had a great admiration for Larry Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, the Gershwins and all those people. They always seemed to say things in a fresh way, and the skill and passion those people put into their songs can only be admired.

People seem to drift into lyric writing - it never seems to be anyone's ambition. Did you drift into it?
Well, I'd encourage people to do it, but you're right, it isn't the sort of thing where you say, 'Oh I must be a lyric writer when I grow up'. In my case, I was working in a music publisher's office and Matt Monro, who was a very dear friend of mine, came in with this tune, a Eurovision song, and wanted a lyric for it.

This would have been 'Walk Away'. Was it Italian?
It was Austrian, by Udo Jurgens, and it came second or third in the Eurovision Song Contest in '64. Matt loved the melody and a few people had had a go at writing English lyrics to it, but he wasn't happy with them. So he said, 'You're always on about words - go on, have a go!' So I wrote this lyric, 'Walk Away'.

How long did it take?
Well I spent about a week on it- I wouldn't normally take that long but in those days, 1 wanted every comma to mean something! And it was a very big hit, it was a Top 3 song and the kind of hit you dream about as a first success, because it was what they called in those days 'a quality ballad'. It was the sort of song where people said, 'Who wrote that?' When I started, people would often say that, or 'What a great song!' Now they say, 'What a great record!' There's one major difference, I think. The record is the thing today, rather than the song.

After that first hit, you never looked back, really?
Well, as a result of 'Walk Away', John Barry came in and said, 'Try and write for films', and I did 'Thunderball' and 'Born Free' with him and .... I'm saying this as if it all happened overnight but it didn't, it took time .... but as I say, there wasn't a long list of lyric writers and whereas there'd just been Norman Newell, now there was Don Black, and I became very busy. Now there's also a little chap called Tim Rice who you may have heard of! So, as we were saying, you do drift into it, but once you're involved, you realise that although it's marvellous, you have to take it very seriously. It's a very, very hard business.

'Born Free' followed a couple of years later. Could you say a little about the writing of that?
It was a John Barry melody and I knew it had to be called 'Born Free', and I watched the film ... and there were some people involved in that movie who wanted the song to be about lions! But you may have noticed that not many songs about lions do that well - although I had a very good song some time after that, about a rat, called 'Ben'. So I just tried to write a song that could be more of an all-purpose song, more general. And although 'Born Free' and 'Ben' are about animals - if you look at the lyrics, they could be about humans, too.

Is 'Born Free' still your biggest hit to date?
I think it's the most well known - about 700 people have recorded it- but I think 'Ben' is almost as big. It was Number 1 in America and it keeps coming up with Michael Jackson, on 'The Best Of...' and things like that, so that is a very big song too.

Could you have lived comfortably off of 'Born Free' alone?
I don't think so - this is a myth of songwriting, that you write one song and retire. It cannot happen that way. Over the years, 'Born Free' has made a lot of money, obviously, but you need a lot of those to rest. Anyway, the joy of being a songwriter is to write songs, not to look back too much. I think that's a natural thing with songwriters - you move on. Which is not to say that I don't have a lot of affection for my older songs. They mean a lot to a lot of people. 'Born Free', for instance, is played in a lot of churches in America and it's used for sermons. 'To Sir With Love' is used a lot in graduation ceremonies in America. I also did a song for a John Wayne movie, 'True Grit', and that has become the theme of a John Wayne Scholarship prize - 'You've gotta have true grit!' - so all these songs have away of coming back, thank God.

Did the success of 'Born Free' tempt you out to Hollywood?
Well 'Born Free' won an Oscar in 1967 and I went on to do 100 songs in films, but I only lived in L.A. for about a year, and that was in '76 while my musical 'Billy' was on here. I enjoyed L.A. and met some nice people but I much prefer to live in London. Anyway, I'd got the bug about writing for theatre by then, and if you want to do that, this is Head Office, I think.

'Billy' opened in 1974. Was that the start of your theatrical work?
Yes, it really got me into musicals, I really got my feet wet with it. It was based on 'Billy Liar', John Barry again wrote the music, Michael Crawford was the star, and it ran for nearly three years at Drury Lane. The cast album went silver.

You've been involved in musical theatre ever since. It is, surely, a different proposition from other areas of lyric writing.
Certainly. On the one hand, it's a lyric writer's dream because there's so much more to draw on. If you're writing a pop song, you're looking for that title, you're looking for that hook. But musicals and theatre are all about character development and pushing the story along. On the other hand, it's one of the most underrated skills in the theatre. Again, with pop music, it isn't necessarily a good thing for a song to be too polished. Not everything has to rhyme in pop, and sometimes it shouldn't, because it's rougher or rawer. But in the theatre, in order for a lyric to happen, it should crackle and sparkle, it should have irony and wit, it should move you. Yet it has to appear effortless as well! But I'm very much involved with it now and I love it.

Could we talk a little about your working methods now? Do you usually have the tune there before you start work on the words?
I'm happiest having a melody because, as Alan Jay Lerner said, 'What makes a good lyric is a good tune!' I mean, it's as simple as that! A tune speaks volumes. As a lyric writer, you can write the cleverest, wittiest, triple-rhyming lyric, but if that music doesn't 'sing', it doesn't end anywhere. Yet if you have a marvellous melody, the simplest of lyrics will work.

he tune is usually supplied to you on a cassette?
Yes. I prefer the composer to la-la it without any words, or just play the melody on the piano.

On the few occasions when you do the lyric first, do you have what they call a 'cod' tune in your head?
No, I don't. 'To Sir With Love' comes to mind - the film with Sidney Poitier and Lulu. The lyric seemed more important to the film people, so they asked me would I write a lyric and I just wrote a lyric that scanned, that's all.

Whichever way round it happens, either you or the composer must sometimes ask for alterations?
Oh sure. A collaboration should be like that; there should be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Very rarely do you get a melody, write the perfect lyric and off you go into a legend! That may happen in old movies but it doesn't happen in real life! And I think it's best to have the kind of collaboration that's slightly wonky where there's something disjointed. You come up with some very unusual phrases that way. With Andrew Lloyd Webber on 'Song and Dance', I'd say, 'I've added an extra couple of words there because I wanted to say this. I don't know how you're going to fit it in, but please have a go'. And he would play around with bars and things, and vice versa: he would come up with a melody that he didn't want to change and therefore I would have to change. They either work or they don't. There's no formula with writing songs.

Does where you are affect your work?
I'm just as happy writing in the kitchen here or on a mountain in Rio de Janeiro. It really doesn't matter. You see, 1 think everything is in your head anyway - it's just a question of sorting it all out and tuning in to the emotion of the music when you're writing lyrics. Like, I don't think you have to know about lions or like animals to write 'Born Free' or 'Talk To The Animals'. It could never be that. Everything is in your head. One of the best songs ever written in this country was 'South Of The Border' by Michael Carr - 'South of the border down Mexico way...' 1 think the furthest south he ever went was Bournemouth! I think it's a bad habit for new writers to get into, to start believing and thinking they have to be in the right mood. I mean, you really have to take writing seriously and my advice is, if you're going to be a writer, you get up in the morning and write! None of that self-analysis of 'Can I? Will I? Won't I?' You get on with it and refine it later. But you've just got to do it, otherwise you never get anything done.

You don't need any special conditions to work, then?
No - as long as there's no music playing! Televisions can be going, kids can be screaming, just as long as there's not another tune going on different to the one I’m working on.

You switch off, mentally?
Yes. I walk around, anyway - most of your writing is done while you're walking, that's your thinking time. I swim nearly every day and I walk a lot and I’m thinking. So when I actually sit down with that blank piece of paper, it may look blank, but I'll have been chewing it over for a number of days.

Do words and phrases come to you all the time - and do you jot them down?
Yes, I've been brought up like that. You have to beep your mind very alert for fresh phrases - or someone saying something in a different way, for instance. I'm always jotting down notes and titles and attitudes. One song 1 did like that was 'Tell Me On A Sunday'. It was a phrase 1 had; I thought it was a nice idea for a song: 'if you're ever going to leave me, do it nicely'. And 1 put that down, 'Tell Me On A Sunday', and two or three years later, a situation came up where it did fit. Every lyric writer should have a little book.

Do you tear up things, make mistakes, agonise?
I do agonise, a great deal, yes. You have to be your own editor. There's many times you're writing and you've wasted days, you've spent three or four days, you go away and come back to it, and you say, 'It's just not good enough'. Then you've got to dig deeper and deeper, and it's hard. But when it's right, it's worth it, it's the best high you can get.

Eventually, you have to present your finished lyric to the melody writer!
It's a bit nerve-wracking. I prefer to sit around with a collaborator when I've finished it, and say, 'You play it and I'll sing it'. Then I'll sing it out of tune, and he'll say, 'Let me try it now', and you ease him into it gently! A lot of composers, I must say, are not lyric-minded. A lot of them will just be thrilled that it fits! But there are others who'll say, 'Have we said enough or does the second verse just compound the first verse?' Personally, I like them to get stuck in.

I suppose your collaborators are all different, then.
They're very different people with different likes and dislikes. But when you get them round a piano, they're all much the same: the dreamer looking for the tune. It's marvellous if you can find one writer and stay with them. Some of the best work ever to come out of the world of popular music is by Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Kander and Ebb team are terrific. Even writing flops together is good because you get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses and the team becomes more enduring.

Who have you been working with lately?
Well I've been working with Michael Jackson on a secret project, and also with a young guy named Simon Climie. He and I have written quite a few songs and I've enjoyed that, because I'll give him a lyric and he will make it sound amazing - the whole mood of it. He's a wizard with the Fairlight (synthesiser), yet it doesn't diminish the song - the feeling still comes through. It's interesting working with younger writers because they still need lyrics that have some texture to them and are rich in some way, yet at the same time, you can be looser with them.

Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with that you haven't?
I would love to work with somebody like an Elton John in a theatrical way, someone like him. Maybe David Bowie, maybe Rod Stewart. Not to write songs for their albums but to get them into musicals. Perhaps Paul McCartney. I think it would be an interesting kind of blend. I'm sure they could write for the theatre and the reason they haven't is because of the lyrical responsibility of writing a musical. If it was their job just to write the melodies, it would be interesting.

Last year, you put the words to two TV themes and had two huge hits. How did they come about?
Well, on 'Eastenders', which came first, Simon May called me and said, 'There's been a lot of lyrics for this, but they're not right. Can you think of one?' Well having worked on so many title songs for films, where you have to encapsulate a three hour movie into 32 bars, it's second nature for you to get to the point. So I said to Simon, 'What is it really all about?' And he said, 'It's about Den, who's always going off with other women, but always coming back to Angie, and it's got to be a song from Angie's point of view'. So I said it all in the title and the little bit that comes after that: 'Anyone can fall in love but staying in love is more difficult'. That seemed to sum up that character, that was a bit of theatricality, finding the character. And they said, 'Yes, it is right. if Eastenders was a musical, Angie would sing that to Den'. And as far as 'Howards' Way' is concerned, Simon again called me and this time he had a bit of a lyric himself, which he called 'Almost There'. And I told him there'd been a song called 'Almost There' with Andy Williams. Anyway, I felt it needed just a nice open air feel to it, just a general love song, and I did 'Always There', very simple. But simple lyrics can dig deep into people's emotions. You get songs like 'Somewhere My Love' from 'Dr. Zhivago' - they're the simplest of thoughts, really, but if they're married to the right tune, it works.

Talking of 'Almost There', I believe you manage the singer who took it into the chart - Marti Webb.
Yes. I can relate to artists and I think I understand how they feel, being a sort of artist myself. I managed Matt Monro for many years and I was involved at one time with NEMS, Brian Epstein's company, where I looked after Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, so I understand what artists are after. As much as guidance, they need a bit of counselling, so every now and again, I become Claire Rayner! But it's very good for me because it balances the writing.

Can you put a percentage on how many times you've had the melody last?
Sure. I would say 85 to 90 per cent of the time, the melody comes first. But I do love to give the composer a title and maybe the opening line or lines, otherwise they're working from nothing. It gives it some character, some texture, and yet it doesn't restrict them. They usually like it, too.

n terms of management, you handle just the one artist?
Yes. I'm often asked to manage other people but it wouldn't be fair. With Marti, it really is no sweat. We have lots of things in common and we get along, we're friends. I got to know her very well through 'Song and Dance', of course.

Through the whole of this conversation, you've talked about writing for specific situations - for film, for state, for TV. Do you never just write ‘a song’?
I would very rarely write a song these days and just hang on to it; there really is no point. I'm much more comfortable writing for a situation or scene as opposed to saying, 'Let's write a song and hope Whitney Houston records it' - which is like winning the pools. Because it doesn't happen anymore where you write a song and someone records it and it sweeps the world. The business changed with The Beatles. That's when people stated writing their own songs and that is when the songwriter, I think, the traditional songwriter, hit trouble.

But you survived the coming of The Beatles.
Yes, I did. I'm not saying The Beatles came along and stopped everything, just that when they happened, it was the writing on the wall. It took years to permeate down to today, where now the country is, I think, littered with good songwriters looking for a voice to sing their songs. Years ago, there was Pet Clark, Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, lots of singers looking for songs. Nowadays maybe there's Cliff Richard and Barbara Dickson but basically, people today are self-contained.

What's the answer?
You have to be the catalyst yourself. I think it's fair to say that working songwriters have to try and create their own situations. You either have to manage someone or produce someone or be involved in the business in some other way. The songwriter now has to be a bit of an entrepreneur and that's difficult for a lot of people because it isn't their natural way to go out and hustle. It's very, very difficult for the traditional songwriter to survive today unless he's very flexible. Since being Chairman of BASCA, I'm very much aware of just how difficult it is.

You're very pro-songwriter, aren't you?
Very. I want to lift the profile of British songwriters because I think they are a lot of unsung heroes. In America, they really do applaud them. In Time Square, there's a statue of George M. Cohan ('Give My Regards to Broadway', 'I'm A Yankee Doodle Dandy', etc.) and every now and again you'll see a stamp with Jerome Kern's head on it. In this country, we hardly talk about our songwriters at all. I think Noel Coward should have a statue somewhere, and there are some terrific writers working now - there's Tony Macaulay, who's had some great hits and is now active in the theatre and should be encouraged; and there's Mike Batt - there's very little spotlight on these kind of people in this country. I'd like us to start applauding our songwriters. I think maybe we should have a Songwriters' Hall Of Fame.

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