The Man Who Created the ‘Sinister’ “James Bond Theme”
In 69 years of books and 60 years of movies, seven actors became James Bond, and over two dozen composers created 25 songs to support the opening atmosphere of each one of them – that moment, the dramatically dangerous intro when Bond walks across the screen and shoots at us in the audience.
One man, however, has left his signature on all of them – Monty Norman, composer of the “James Bond Theme” that announces how fierce, smart, cool, and indomitable 007 is. This one.
Yes, John Barry is the name more often connected to the “James Bond Theme,” and there’s a good reason for it – Barry is responsible for the iconic arrangement of the theme, from the opening with the brass section announcing the power of Bond to the crescendo of strings holding the tension behind the guitar, all planned to tickle our attention.
A maestro and a masterful composer, Barry received important awards throughout his long career – including many Golden Globe accolades. The two-minute theme, however, belongs to a less known composer – Monty Norman, who passed away today in the UK, aged 94.
Born Monty Noserovitch, Norman was the only child of Jewish parents. After serving in the Royal Air Force during the war, Norman developed an interest in music. First as a singer for the jazz bands in vogue in the late 40s, then as a composer for a variety of talents – from Cliff Richard to Count Basie. A few years later, he was working for the theater, composing for musicals.
Between 1958 and 1960, Norman had five successful stage musicals in fast succession, including “Irma La Douce,” soon to become a hit movie as well.
In 1961, Norman received a phone call from Cubby Broccoli and his new partner, Harry Saltzman. They had just acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and had selected “Dr. No” to open the franchise. And they wanted music for the movie, most importantly, “a good theme.” Their enthusiasm was modestly great. “I reckon we’ve got two films and a television series out of this,” one of Broccoli’s assistants whispered in Noman’s ear.
It all began with a visit to Jamaica to meet Ian Fleming – “I met the great Count Basie who was doing a concert there,” Norman recalls on his website. “He asked me to send any numbers from Dr. No that might be possible for his orchestra.” (It happened – Basie recorded four numbers from the film, “Dr. No’s Fantasy,” “The Kingston Calypso,” “Underneath The Mango Tree” and, of course, the soon-to-be iconic “The James Bond Theme”.)
The “Theme” came from what Norman described as “James Bond’s sinister-ness” and the effort to give him a theme that would be at the same time dark and exciting. One song, “Bad Sign Good Sign,” that he had composed for a never-produced musical based on a novel by V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas,” came immediately to his mind.
Not because it was sinister, but because “there was ‘something there.”, Norman recalled. And because he felt that if he split the notes and switched the initial riff from the sitar to the guitar, he’d have the kick-off of the theme.
Add to the piece the talent of, in his word, “the up-and-coming young John Barry,” he had found “a wonderful arranger, so the whole thing worked very well.”
It was not an easy entrance into the world of cinema for Norman. In the UK, they called him a plagiarist, and rumors abounded that he had bought a Jamaican song for pennies to become one of his pieces.
John Barry quickly became the key music person for the James Bond franchise, and Norman went back to musicals. In 2005, he released the album, “Completing the Circle”, with some of his favorite songs he performed in the 1950s, and the numbers from his stage musicals.
“Quite often these days people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the man who wrote dum-diddy-dum-dum.’ ‘They don’t even sing the melody!’ “ says Norman in his site. “But everyone seems to know what they mean!”