A week after Don Black was admitted to hospital with Covid-19, a nurse happened to notice his hands. “She said, ‘they’re very soft – what do you do?’” the 82-year-old tells Weekend. “I said, ‘I write songs – Google me’. And I thought that was it. Anyway, when the day came for me to leave, they put me in a wheelchair, the door was opened, and there were… I don’t know, around 20 nurses, all singing Born Free, and applauding me. It was so moving, as you can imagine.”
By the time we catch up with him a few weeks later, Black is feeling “almost there – nine out of 10”, and full of praise for the NHS heroes who helped him in his fight against the virus – the latest chapter in a remarkable life story that he’s now chronicled in an entertaining new memoir, The Sanest Guy in the Room.
Refreshingly, he begins the book by admitting he finds most autobiographies “too long, and full of boring pages about stuff I’m not interested in”. As such, he’s approached the task in the same way he approaches his lyrics – by being spare, economical and trimming any excess fat.
“A song has to have air around it,” insists Black. “There are words you can’t use in a song – words like alimony or crematorium – because there has to be a clarity, an instancy about it. If you analyse the greats, the Rodgers and Harts and Irving Berlins and Cole Porters, there isn’t a wasted syllable anywhere.
“It’s also the way I’ve lived my life,” he adds. “Long-windedness is rife in this world, but I’ve always cut to the chase.”
Shortly after starting the book in 2018, Black was blindsided by the loss of Shirley, his wife of more than 60 years. After that, he says, his main motivation for writing it was to spend more time with her (“every word brings her closer”).
“Everyone said to me, ‘Don, you’ve got to get busy’. So that’s when I accelerated it. I just poured my heart out,” he says. “When I look at the book, it’s as much about Shirley as me. It’s about a marriage – we had an incredible life of unrivalled happiness – and it’s about grief, which men don’t usually write about.” Touchingly, when people ask if he’s ever written a song for Shirley, Black’s answer is always the same: “Yes, all of them.”
Raised in a council flat in Hackney, the youngest son of Ukranian Jewish immigrants (who had met in Sunderland, of all places), Donald Blackstone started out as a stand-up comedian, but was encouraged to turn his hand to song lyrics by his friend, bus driver-turned-crooner Matt Monro. Their first hit together, Walk Away, so impressed composer John Barry, he hired Black to help him write the theme to the next James Bond film, 1965’s Thunderball.
Shortly afterwards, the pair reunited for Born Free (performed by Matt Monro) – though the song’s path to glory was far from straightforward: when the film had its royal premiere, it had been removed completely by producer Carl Foreman, who thought it ‘sentimental and syrupy’. Fortunately, Columbia Pictures persuaded him to reinstate it, and it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, making Black the youngest person – and the first Brit – to win a songwriting Oscar. At the after-show party, he was approached by Foreman: “He put his arm around me and said, ‘Well, it does grow on you…’”
History would repeat itself a few years later when producer Harry Saltzman took a dislike to Black and Barry’s theme to the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. “He thought it was filthy – all that stuff about touch it, stroke it, undress it,” recalls Black, whose other 007 credits include The Man With the Golden Gun and The World is Not Enough, and who in the book expounds his belief that a good Bond song should be ‘provocative, seductive and have the whiff of the boudoir about it’. “It should have something forbidden about it,” he tells Weekend. “A proper Bond song should give you goose bumps before it starts.”
Black describes himself as Barry’s ‘only true friend’. “I was discussing this with his widow just the other day,” he says. “I was the only one at the funeral that wasn’t part of the family. I had a knack, if that’s the right word, of getting close to people that no-one else could get close to. At the moment, I’m writing with Van Morrison, and people say, ‘How can you work with him, he’s a grumpy old bugger, isn’t he?’ But I get on well with him. And it was the same with John. He didn’t suffer fools gladly – it was Yorkshire bluntness, I suppose – but I think he liked the fact I was normal.”
Other notable Don Black lyrics include Lulu’s US chart-topper To Sir, With Love, Get a Bloomin’ Move On (aka The Self Preservation Society) from The Italian Job, Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love and Anyone Can Fall in Love, Anita Dobson’s hit vocal version of the EastEnders theme. In total, he’s written more than 2,000 songs. How many does he think he could sing off-by-heart? “Probably just one,” he laughs. “The one I wrote the other day with Van Morrison.”
I realised very early on in my life that there are very happy people living in Hackney and some very unhappy people living in Belgravia and HawaiiDon Black
Another longtime friend and collaborator is Andrew Lloyd Webber, with whom he has written several musicals, including Tell Me on a Sunday, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, he says, he’s written more songs with ALW than Tim Rice (“but he’s made more money”). He was also made many a cuppa by Prince Edward when he was Lloyd Webber’s royal teaboy. “He’d leave little notes, saying ‘Can I have an eight-by-ten [photograph] of you, Don?’…”
The move into films and musical theatre was, Black admits, partly a result the new trend for bands like The Beatles writing their own hit records. “I always thought The Beatles were fantastic,” he stresses. “What irked me was the fact that, after The Beatles, every waiter started writing songs. The professional songwriter, who doesn’t perform, is a thing of the past, I think.”
Earlier this year, he received the Special Award at the Oliviers, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to theatre across more than 20 major productions, from Starlight Express to Bombay Dreams and Whistle Down the Wind. “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “Because the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Shirley’s not here’. You’ve got to remember we were married for 60 years. You’re one person.
“I don’t go around saying, ‘oh, I’ve won an Oscar,’” adds Black, whose other awards include a Golden Globe (for Ben), a Tony (for Sunset Boulevard) and of course the OBE. “You’re not doing it for yourself. You want your family to be proud, basically.”
He cheerfully admits he doesn’t have anything on his bucket list. “What’s important to me is that, in half an hour, my two boys [sons Clive and Grant] are coming over and we’re having lunch together.”
But despite his wish to live a “simple and unadventurous” life, Black has ended up living rather an extraordinary one: a journey that took him from that Hackney council flat to a house in Bel Air. “I realised very early on in my life that there are very happy people living in Hackney and some very unhappy people living in Belgravia and Hawaii,” he says. “Tim Rice laughed when he said to me, ‘what car do you drive” and I said, ‘a blue one’. [Success] doesn’t alter the root of who you are.”
It’s a life that’s also brought him into the orbit of some of the world’s most gilded superstars, from Sinatra to Streisand. He also struck up a friendship with the young Michael Jackson, after co-writing his debut solo hit Ben, but was shocked when Jackson’s father banned him from speaking to him. “It was very sad,” he says of the superstar’s later troubled life. “He used to come cover and swim and play pool with us all the time. He was a lovely kid, so innocent, so normal. It was terrible to see [what happened to him]. Terrible.”
Despite moving in such rarefied circles, Black says he’s always been more “talent-struck” than star-struck. “It’s wonderful to be a room with Stephen Sondheim or Jule Styne or Alan J Lerner or Trevor Nunn,” he says.
“All these brilliant people. And it rubs off on you over the years, you know? It must do. At least I hope so.”
The Sanest Guy in the Room: A Life in Lyrics by Don Black is published in hardback by Constable, £20.
An edited version of this interview appeared in Waitrose Weekend published July 23, 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend