International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting • Gary Osborne Interview

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Gary Osborne Interview



Introduction by Jim Liddane
Gary Osborne is a widely-respected songwriter whose contributions to music, showcasing his versatility and lyrical prowess, span several decades. Known for his collaborations with some of the biggest names in the music industry, he has left an indelible mark on the landscape of popular music through his insightful and evocative lyrics.

One of Gary's most notable collaborations has been of course with Elton John. Beginning in the late 1970s, their partnership produced several memorable songs that have become classics in Elton John’s repertoire. Songs like "Little Jeannie," which became a top 10 hit in the United States, and "Blue Eyes," celebrated for its poignant simplicity, exemplify Osborne's ability to craft lyrics that are both deeply personal and universally relatable. His words have a way of capturing complex emotions and translating them into songs that resonate with a wide audience.

Apart from Elton John, his songs have been recorded by such stars as Nana Mouskouri, Earl Thomas Conley, Engelbert Humperdinck, Albert Hammond, Ralph Stanley II, Jennifer Warnes, Lulu, The Righteous Brothers, Millie Jackson, Richard Kerr, Ray Stevens, Vicky Leandros, Jimmy Helms, Melissa Manchester, Randy Meisner, The Seekers, Judy Collins, Brenda Lee, Vikki Carr, Colin Blunstone, Wilson Pickett, The Fortunes, Cliff Richard and many more. And of course Gary was the principal lyricist for Jeff Wayne's "Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds". one of the best-selling albums of all time.

What sets Gary apart as a songwriter is his keen sense of storytelling and his ability to infuse his lyrics with genuine emotion. Whether writing about love, loss, or life's simple pleasures, his words often reflect a deep understanding of the human experience. This emotional authenticity has earned him a secure place in the hearts of music fans around the world.

Gary's work is characterised by its lyrical sophistication and emotional resonance. His contributions to the music industry have helped shape the soundtracks of many lives, creating songs that not only entertain but also move and inspire. His enduring legacy as a songwriter is a testament to his exceptional talent and the timeless quality of his work.

Prologue
Born in London and educated in Switzerland, in his youth he wrote and sang on hundreds of jingles including Pepsi, Ultrabrite, Shredded Wheat and Abbey National, but he is best known for contributing lyrics and backing vocals to five Elton John albums as well as providing lyrics and backing vocals for Jeff Wayne’s “War Of The Worlds”.

His name?

Gary Osborne.

You entered the music biz at 15 - doing what?
I came home from Switzerland on my summer holidays and you must remember my father who was a very successful musical director in the sixties. Tony Osborne was the musical director for people like Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt, and Judy Garland. He led the band on the first pop TV show “6.5 Special”. My uncle was a top sax player and my sister was engaged to Kenny Jones from the Small Faces so everywhere I looked, the family were involved in the music business!

On the way home from Switzerland, I heard a song that was hugely popular in France and I bought a copy for my parents and realised that although the best thing about the song was the lyrics, as neither of them spoke French they wouldn’t appreciate it. So on the plane coming home, I started to do an adaptation of the lyrics into English, purely so I could illustrate to my folks what a great song it was.

My mum looked at the lyrics, phoned up the UK publisher. The publisher said they’d already had some lyrics done to the song but preferred mine and ended up giving me a whole load more songs to translate and adapt. At that time my Dad was doing the incidental music for a pop movie with people like Freddie and the Dreamers and Johnny Leyton - a real sixties pop film - and it climaxed with a song so he asked me to do the lyrics and as a result, I got a song in the film! Then Nana Mouskouri covered one of my songs in German where I had also written the melody so at the end of the summer holiday I had so much going, I just never went back to school!

What was the first successful piece you worked on?
The first minor success was a song I wrote with Tom Springfield for The Seekers, the original act with Judith Durham, which was a small hit in the States, and I remember getting a cheque in 1969 for about a grand at a time when I was earning something like £20.00 a week, so I thought I should keep this writing lark up! The first success really was where I became one of the top advertising jingle singers. You name them, I sang them, and sometimes wrote them as well with Jeff Wayne, with whom I went on to write “War Of The Worlds”

Was that your first connection with Jeff?
That’s right, and then about 1971 or ’72 I was asked to write some English lyrics for a French girl singer called Veronique Sanson, who was a kind of Joni Mitchell singer and a big star in France. One of the songs I wrote for her at that time was called “Amoureuse” and Elton John picked that song up and recorded it with Kiki Dee. It was the first hit for Kiki Dee as an artiste, it was the first hit for Elton John as a producer, the first hit for Rocket Records and the first hit for me!

Was that your first link-up with Elton?
I used to see Elton playing with “Bluesology” in the late sixties at the Cromwellian so we were kind of on nodding terms but this was a huge bond between us because although he was a massive star already, he was as excited as I was to have a hit as a producer, and for the record company to have a hit, and of course to know Kiki is to love her, so we were all thrilled for her. So it was a great experience for us all and it threw us together and I just became matey with him on a personal basis.

So how did you then start to write with Elton?
Because we were friends, we would socialise. He knew my wife, he became godfather to my son - and he’d say "One day we’ll write songs together", Then one day he just gave me a tune and said "Here you are can you put some lyrics to it" so I said "Shouldn’t you send it to Bernie (Taupin)" and he said he’d already done that and Bernie couldn’t come up with anything. Bernie of course usually writes words first and he’d moved to the States by now, but also Elton was starting to come up with tunes first - previously he never wrote a song unless he had lyrics in front of him. Someone would give him a sheet of lyrics and he would put them to music. Suddenly he found himself sitting at a piano and coming up with tunes, and that was more my forte than Bernie’s.

He’d give me an idea for the title of what the song was about and I’d go away and write the lyric.That first song we did "Shine On Through" was on the album "A Single Man" We were in the studio recording that one song and during a break, he wrote another tune, so I took that away and started working on that. Then as we finished recording "Shine On Through" in another break, he wrote another tune, and it just went on like that until we had finished an album. We went on to record about four or five albums but it wasn’t a big split with Bernie or a big link with me even. He started doing it both ways - he wrote to some of Bernie’s lyrics and I wrote to some of his tunes

So every time he came to you, it was with a tune?
Only once did it happen the other way where I wrote a song with him called "Strangers" but I prefer writing to a tune first anyway.

When he came to you with a tune, would he make adjustments to the lyrics you came up with?
Oh yes, he would make adjustments to my lyrics and I would also make adjustments to his tunes. It was very democratic. He was phenomenally easy going. I would say that notes going down there - it would be better going up. He’d say that’s a good idea and go with it. Mostly though, he would stick to the lyrics as written.

What lyrics are you particularly proud of?
I particularly like a song called "Nobody Wins" which was a French tune, to which Elton asked me to write English lyrics and which got to 42. However he didn’t promote it so it didn’t go as far as it could. Another song I am proud of is called "Thunder Child" on the "War Of The Worlds" album, because many people have written many things, but nobody except me has written a lyric about a battle between a turn of the century iron-clad ship and three Martian fighting machines! I loved the ways the lines fell together and I loved the tune that Jeff had written.

When you were an A&R man at RCA, who did you sign?
I was just doing whatever I was asked to do. I did some producing - like Ron Grainer - nothing spectacular - just learning the ropes.

Do you instinctively know when a song is likely to be a hit?
We can only write a good or bad song. The record company and the public make it a hit or a miss.

Do you follow what’s happening with the popular music scene at the moment?
Oh yes I have to. because I’m one of the people who helps to organise the Ivor Novello awards and I chair the judging for the best dance category. So my involvement with the Ivors keeps me listening, though it gets harder and harder to listen to Radio One or watch "Top Of The Pops".

Who would you like to work with?
It would be lovely to do something with Burt Bacharach though it’s unlikely. However, he did do some work with Cathy Dennis last year. Then, she’s a lot prettier than me!

Finally what are you up to currently?
I am concentrating on the Ivor Novello awards at the moment and I have just written some songs with Sasha Distel in the hope that we could get something to Tony Bennett. I am also doing the incidental music (which is a new departure for me) on a kids cartoon show called "Little Monsters" which has been running for some time on BBC TV.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Birmingham: All Rights Reserved

Postscript

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