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 rude good health after a life-threatening bout with Covid, the legendary songwriter has much to celebrate. Not one but two of his successful musicals are about to be revived in the West End: Bonnie & Clyde opens today, while Aspects Of Love, which made a star of the youthful Michael Ball in 1989, will play a season from mid-May.
Again, it will star Michael Ball whose idea it was to revisit the show, albeit with a significant twist. “Michael came up with the idea, and a very good one it was, too,” says Don, who has written lyrics for some of the world’s most famous musicals and film theme tunes.
“This time round he’ll play the older man, George, as opposed to his younger nephew, Alex.”
It was only recently Don, 84, re-read the story of Aspects Of Love. “And I realised that George’s role in particular has real gravitas.
“It took me back. I have very happy memories of writing it with Andrew Lloyd Webber at Cap Ferrat in the South of France.”
It wasn’t his first collaboration with the famous composer, as we shall see. And despite the good Lord’s reputation for tantrums, the two have never had so much as a minor tiff.
Anne Crumb and Michael Ball in Aspects of Love
“But then I haven’t with any of my musical collaborators,” says the man who, over the course of a glittering career, has written lyrics for the likes of Sir Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey, John Barry and Michael Jackson.
Not for nothing was his memoir entitled The Sanest Guy In The Room. He’s certainly not remotely starry. “People ask me what car I’ve got and I say, ‘A blue one’,” he smiles. He describes his relationship with Lloyd Webber as extraordinary.
“I’m godfather to his son, Alastair, by his wife, Madeleine. We go back to the late 70s when we first worked together on Tell Me On A Sunday, a piece of work I’m still very proud of. Of course, Andrew has a reputation. But then he would.
“He’s the most successful composer in the world. To me, he’s simply a very, very close friend. And I’ll tell you his overriding characteristic: his enthusiasm.” Don claims Lloyd Webber’s success is not driven by money. “I mean, why does Michael Caine continue to make movies? Because it keeps him young.”
The lyricist recalls how French singer Charles Aznavour once offered him a piece of advice he’ll never forget. “He said, ‘A man will never grow old if he knows what he’s doing tomorrow.’
“My sentiments precisely. It’s very important for a creative person to keep doing what you do.”
Unlike Bernie Taupin who supplies in advance the lyrics which Elton John then sets to music, Lloyd Webber and Don create together. “But I prefer the music first because that then gives you the framework. If you’ve got three notes, you’ve got to come up with three words that mean something. If you write the lyric first, you tend to ramble.”
Very often, he says, composers and lyricists form something of a double act: “Rodgers and Hart, Lennon and McCartney who did both, and Bacharach and David.”
Sadly, Don didn’t know Burt Bacharach, who died last month aged 94, that well. “The man was a genius and the most handsome composer ever,” he remembers. “Most of them look like dentists or accountants. I was saddened by his recent passing.
“My real friend, though, was his collaborator, Hal David, but then we were both lyricists. I never felt he was heralded quite as much as he should have been.”
The closest Don has come to a regular collaborator was John Barry and not least because of the three Bond themes they wrote together: Thunderball, performed by Tom Jones; Diamonds Are Forever, the unforgettable Shirley Bassey song; 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 end credits for Tomorrow Never Dies; and The World Is Not Enough, performed by Garbage. His favourite 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 simply said, ‘It was a good day at the office.’
“Well, that’s how I sometimes feel.”
As it turns out, Diamonds was lucky, he says, to get on the soundtrack of the movie. Producer Harry Saltzman didn’t like it, apparently. “But it became a hit. And, even to this day, when I hear Shirley Bassey
sing it, there’s no escaping that hers is a landmark performance.
“She acts it as much as sings it, of course, with all her customary drama. It’s what I call theatrical vulgarity but I say that entirely as a compliment. She’s a fantastic performer.”
Born Donald Blackstone, in 1938, Don was brought up in London’s East End and began his career as a song plugger in the famous Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley, in the West End. Also on the scene was Matt Monro, a jobbing singer, who would record demo discs for £5 a time. The two became friends. When Don morphed into a lyricist, it was to Monro he turned for his interpretation of the theme tune to Born Free. Aged just 27, it won Black an Oscar in 1966.
Again, he was fortunate it saw the light of day. Producer Carl Foreman thought the song was too syrupy but its chart success and the Academy Award changed his view. “He came up to me after the Oscars and whispered in my ear: ‘It does grow on you’.”
It is an abiding sadness for Don that Monro, a heavy drinker, died of liver cancer in 1985 at just 54. “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 anyone as content as Don Black. And there’s a reason for that, he says.
“This doesn’t make a very good story. But I’ve only known love throughout my life. I’m the youngest of five and brought up in a household surrounded by love. Then I had an unbelievably happy marriage.”
His wife Shirley died five years ago and Don is only now adjusting to life on his own.
“People want to read I had an affair with Shirley Bassey, for example. But it just isn’t true. My wife and I were married for 60 years, the love of my life.”
He is sitting in his handsome apartment in London’s Holland Park. Next door lives his son, Grant, his daughter-in-law and his 11-year-old grandson, Ulysses.
“I go there every evening for a meal,” Don says. “Family is everything to me.” He also has another son, Clive, two more grandchildren and now great-grandchildren are starting to appear. Don’s parents both moved to the UK from Ukraine when they were children.
“My father retained his accent to his dying day although my mother displayed her northern roots, having been raised in Sunderland.”
Ukrainian origins must make watching the news particularly poignant right now.
“My mum originally came from Mariupol, my dad from Kyiv. So, it’s horrendous seeing the destruction caused by Putin’s invasion. But then war is never pretty, is it?”
Don reckons he must have written more than 2,000 songs in his long career. And it’s one that doesn’t lack variety. Apart from the theatrical hits, there was the score for the John Wayne movie, True Grit, for instance, and the title song for To Sir, With Love which Lulu took to the top of the charts.
Then there was Ben, hauntingly sung by a teenage Michael Jackson. Don says he knew the late American singer well.
“We were living in LA at the time and he’d come over and play pool with my boys. He was so innocent, just 14. But that was before the madness started.”
Don is no dinosaur when it comes to today’s musicians. “Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift, they’re all terrific,” he says. “I’d never look down my nose, moaning there are no Sinatras around.” And what about his own future?
“More of the same, please. The mighty Stephen Sondheim was writing musicals in his 90s. I’ve still got a raging fire in my belly.”