‘I’ll work until the fat lady sings’ – Don Black to continue composing
Don Black has worked with the greats and is one of the greats
For Don Black, these are the days of wine and roses. Restored to good health after a life-threatening attack with Covid, the legendary composer has much to celebrate. Not one but two of his hit musicals are about to be revived in the West End: Bonnie & Clyde opens today, while Aspects Of Love, which made a star of the young Michael Ball in 1989, will run for a season in starting mid-May.
Again, it will star Michael Ball, whose idea was to revisit the show, albeit with a significant twist. “Michael came up with the idea, and it was pretty cool, too,” says Don, who has written lyrics for some of the world’s most famous musicals and movie themes.
“This time he will play the older man, George, as opposed to his younger nephew, Alex.”
Don, 84, recently reread the Aspects Of Love story. “And I realized that the role of George in particular has a real seriousness about it.
“It set me back. I have very happy memories of writing it with Andrew Lloyd Webber in Cap Ferrat in the south of France.”
It was not his first collaboration with the famous composer, as we will see. And despite the good Lord’s reputation for throwing tantrums, the two have never had even a minor fight.
Anne Crumb and Michael Ball in Aspects of Love
“But I haven’t done it with any of my musical collaborators,” says the man who, throughout a glittering career, has written lyrics for the likes of Sir Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey, John Barry and Michael Jackson.
It is not for nothing that his memoirs were titled The Sanest Guy In The Room. He’s certainly not remotely starry. “People ask me what car I have and I say, ‘A blue one,’” he smiles. He describes his relationship with Lloyd Webber as extraordinary.
“I am godfather to his son, Alastair, to his wife, Madeleine. We go back to the late ’70s when we first worked together on Tell Me On A Sunday, work I’m still very proud of. Of course, Andrew has a reputation. But then he would.
“He is the most successful composer in the world. To me, he’s just a very, very close friend. And I will tell you the paramount characteristic of him: his enthusiasm ”. Don claims that Lloyd Webber’s success is not driven by money. “I mean, why does Michael Caine continue to make movies? Because he keeps him young.
The lyricist recalls how the French singer Charles Aznavour once gave him advice that he will never forget. “He said: ‘A man will never grow old if he knows what he will do tomorrow.’
“My feelings precisely. It is very important that a creative person continues to do what he does.
Unlike Bernie Taupin, who provides lyrics in advance that are then set to music by Elton John, Lloyd Webber and Don create together. “But I prefer the music first because that gives you the framework. If you have three notes, you have to think of three words that mean something. If you write the lyrics first, you tend to ramble.”
Very often, he says, composers and lyricists form a kind of double act: “Rodgers and Hart, Lennon and McCartney, who did both, and Bacharach and David.”
Unfortunately, Don didn’t know Burt Bacharach that well, who died last month at age 94. “That man was a genius and the most handsome composer in history,” he recalls. “Most of them look like dentists or accountants. I was saddened by his recent passing.
“However, my real friend was his collaborator, Hal David, but we were both lyricists. I never felt like it was advertised as much as it should have been.”
The closest Don has come to a regular collaborator has been John Barry, and above all because of the three Bond themes they wrote together: Thunderball, performed by Tom Jones; Diamonds Are Forever, the unforgettable song by Shirley Bassey; and The Man With The Golden Gun, which was sung by Lulu.
Dame Shirley Bassey performs at the Royal Jubilee
He went on to write the lyrics for two more: Surrender, sung by KD Lang over the closing credits of Tomorrow Never Dies; and The World Is Not Enough, performed by Garbage. His favorite of all?
“It has to be Diamonds Are Forever,” he says. “Don’t ask me how it all came together. Someone once asked Paul McCartney about writing Yesterday. And he just said, ‘It was a good day at the office.’
“Well, that’s how I feel sometimes.”
As it turns out, Diamonds was lucky, he says, to be on the film’s soundtrack. Apparently, producer Harry Saltzman didn’t like it. “But it became a success. And to this day when I listen to Shirley Bassey
sing along, there’s no escaping that yours is a historic performance.
“She plays it as much as she sings it, of course, with all her usual drama. It’s what I call theatrical vulgarity, but I mean that entirely as a compliment. She is a fantastic performer”.
Born Donald Blackstone, in 1938, Don grew up in London’s East End and began his career as a song publisher on the famous Denmark Street, also known as Tin Pan Alley, in the West End. Also on the scene was Matt Monro, a working singer, making demo records for £5 a time. The two became friends. When Don became a lyricist, it was Monro he turned to for his interpretation of the Born Free theme song. At just 27 years old, Black won an Oscar in 1966.
Once again, he was lucky that he saw the light of day. Producer Carl Foreman thought the song was too honeyed, but its chart success and Academy Award win changed his opinion of it. “She came up to me after the Oscars and whispered in my ear, ‘It grows on you.'”
It is an enduring sadness to Don that Monro, a heavy drinker, died of liver cancer in 1985 at just 54 years old. “I was in the room at the time. He was the best friend I ever had.”
For all that, you’ll walk a long mile before you meet someone as content as Don Black. And there’s a reason for that, he says.
“This is not a very good story. But I have only known love throughout my life. I am the youngest of five siblings and I grew up in a home surrounded by love. I then had an incredibly happy marriage.”
His wife Shirley died five years ago and Don is only now adjusting to life on his own.
“People want to read that I had an affair with Shirley Bassey, for example. But it’s just not true. My wife and I were married for 60 years, the love of my life.”
He is sitting in his beautiful apartment in Holland Park in London. Next door to him lives his son, Grant, his daughter-in-law, and their 11-year-old grandson, Ulysses.
“I go there every night to eat,” Don says. “Family is everything to me.” He also has another son, Clive, two more grandchildren and now the great-grandchildren are starting to appear. Don’s parents moved to the UK from the Ukraine when they were children.
“My father kept his accent until the day he died, although my mother showed her northern roots, having grown up in Sunderland.”
Ukrainian origins must make watching the news particularly poignant right now.
“My mother originally came from Mariupol, my father from kyiv. So it’s horrendous to see the destruction caused by Putin’s invasion. But then again, war is never pretty, right?
Don reckons he must have written over 2,000 songs in his long career. And he is one of those who does not lack variety. Aside from the theatrical hits, there was the soundtrack to the John Wayne film True Grit, for example, and the title track from To Sir, With Love, which brought Lulu to the top of the charts.
Then there was Ben, hauntingly sung by a teenage Michael Jackson. Don says that he knew the late American singer well.
“We lived in Los Angeles at the time and he would come over and play pool with my kids. He was so innocent, he was only 14 years old. But that was before he started the madness.”
Don is not a dinosaur when it comes to today’s musicians. “Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift, they’re all great,” he says. “I would never look down my nose, moaning that there are no Sinatras around.” And his own future?
“More of the same please. The mighty Stephen Sondheim was writing musicals at 90. I still have a raging fire in my belly.”
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