Don Black (right), pictured in 1966 receiving his Oscar from Dean Martin
Lyrics By Don Black
Friday 22 August on BBC Radio 2
BBC Radio 2 marks the 70th birthday of lyricist Don Black with a special concert, broadcast on Friday 22 August. Lyrics By Don Black sees a glittering cast assemble at London's Palladium Theatre, on Sunday 17 August, to celebrate the Oscar-winner's incredible back catalogue.
Born Gerald Blackstone on 21 June 1938 in Hackney, East London, Don was the youngest of five children born to Russian immigrants Morris and Betsy Blackstone. His mother would take the children to the cinema every week and Don was particularly captivated by The Jolson Story, a film he watched 32 times. He once recalled: "I felt an incredible empathy with this Jewish kid who wanted to be something in show business. Of course, he ends up on Broadway and all of that seemed fantastic to me. Where was this place Broadway? Far from the council flat in Hackney, that's for sure!"
His own career in show business got off to a rather inauspicious start at the London Palladium when, as a 15-year-old usher and brass polisher, he was fired for repeatedly sneaking into the auditorium to watch the performers. But he then secured a job as an office junior at the New Musical Express on Denmark Street – nicknamed Tin Pan Alley because of its association with British popular music – before pursuing a career in stand-up comedy. Don followed this calling for two years, despite having a fairly terrible line in mother-in-law jokes. He has since joked that he blames himself entirely for the death of variety.
Don returned to Tin Pan Alley as a music "plugger". It was here that he met Matt Monro, whom he went on to manage and write lyrics for after a typically down-to-earth bit of advice from the singer: "You're always on about lyrics, son. If Lionel Bart can do it, so can you!" They had a Top 40 hit with Walk Away in 1964 and many more followed, including Matt's signature tune, Born Free, in 1966 and If I Never Sing Another Song, a decade later, which poignantly details the regrets of a celebrity past his prime.
His lyrical debut in Walk Away quickly captured the attention of resident Bond composer John Barry, who invited Don to pen the lyrics for the 1965 film, Thunderball. Don went on to write the lyrics for four further Bond films: Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough.
When recording Diamonds Are Forever, one of the most memorable Bond theme tunes, John Barry wanted singer Shirley Bassey to imagine she was singing about something far more intimate than diamonds. Don remembers in his biography, Wrestling With Elephants: "Seediness is what we wanted. Sleaziness. Theatrical vulgarity. It had to be over the top with a dash of vulgarity." Producer Harry Saltzman certainly thought they would never get away with the sexual innuendo.
Don's lyrics for Born Free also met with some initial resistance from producer Carl Foreman, but Don and John Barry went on to collect the Oscar for Best Original Song from Dean Martin. Back home, his success was met by Evening Standard placards headlined "East End Boy Wins Oscar". The victory also opened further doors for Don in LA, enabling him to work with the likes of Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein.
Don has written over 100 songs for films including The Italian Job, The Pink Panther Strikes Again and Dances With Wolves. His move into theatre came when John Barry decided to stage Billy, a musical version of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, which starred Michael Crawford and opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1974. "I just got the bug for theatre because there's no greater thrill than when there's a full house and they're laughing and they're crying. And Billy Liar is a wonderful story,"
he has said.
Bar Mitzvah Boy, which Don wrote with Jule Styne, followed in 1976. A musical version of the Jack Rosenthal play, the production was not very successful but Don's lyrics were favourably received and captured the attention of a young but already successful composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber. He called Don to ask him to work on Tell Me On A Sunday, a one-woman song cycle for Marti Webb, and this was later developed into the stage show Song And Dance.
The duo's subsequent theatrical collaborations include Bombay Dreams and Sunset Boulevard, for which Don received two Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Lyrics in 1993. In a long and distinguished career, Don has also picked up an OBE, five Ivor Novello Awards, platinum, gold and silver discs (he has enjoyed two No. 1 hits in America with Michael Jackson's Ben and Lulu's To Sir With Love), and he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997.
Retirement is far from Don's mind and he has just completed a musical version of The Count Of Monte Cristo with French composer Michael Legrand. It is scheduled to open in London this year and the London Palladium audience and Radio 2 listeners will be treated to a sneak preview as part of the evening's repertoire.
Lyrics By Don Black is broadcast within Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night, radio's longest-running live music programme, which frequently visits theatres and music halls throughout the UK.
For ticket information, please visit bbc.co.uk/radio2