Don Black, 75, has written the lyrics to more than 2,000 songs, including the Oscar-winning Born Free and the classic James Bond themes such as Diamonds are Forever and Thunderball, as well as for many theatre shows. He is currently working with Andrew Lloyd Weber on the musical Stephen Ward. A concert featuring his songs, Lyrics by Don Black, with the BBC Concert Orchestra and guest vocalists, is at the Royal Festival Hall on October 3 (www.southbankcentre.co.uk). He also has a Sunday morning show on Radio 2. Married with two grown-up children, he lives in London with his wife, Shirley. Here he talks to me about his travels.
But first watch David McAlmont/David Arnold’s brilliant version of Diamonds are Forever. Dame Shirley who?
DON BLACK: “I used to manage Matt Munro and we went round the world together. Everywhere, from Sao Paolo to Sydney. Didn’t see any of it. I’d say, Matt, Ipanema beach is out there, let’s go. He’d say: “Relax, it’s just sand, have a drink”. Or in New York, it’d be: Let’s go shopping up 5th Avenue and he’d reply: “Don, it’s Crown Court today and they’re giving the verdict. I’ve got to find a TV.” Hopeless. It was ironic he used to open his act with ‘Around the World.’ Like he’d know anything about it. I’m all for combining work and travel, but you have to get the balance right. Matt’s wasn’t.
I’ve just got back from Barbados, working with Andrew Lloyd Weber, who has a place there, and the balance was about right. I lie by the pool all day, scribbling a few ideas once in a while. Then Andrew sits at the piano and plays something and says: what do you think of this? And we’ll work on that for a bit. Perfect.
We used to go to Barbados every year when the children were young. We’d stay at Treasure Beach, which is right next to Sandy Lane, and it was always fun to watch my neighbor Michael Winner hold court on the beach, deciding who he would deign to talk to or not. The kids loved it, but one thing I have instilled in my children is the love of a good deli. No, really, what can beat a good corned beef sandwich with pickle? So we were in Barbados one year and the weather was awful and we were miserable. Then, a nest of some sort fell out of a tree and hit Shirley on the head. That was the last straw., I said: how about we go to Miami? The kids said – is the weather better there? I don’t know, I said, but they’ve got great delis in Miami. That was good enough, off we went for corned beef and pickle.
Mind you, Miami hasn’t got much else going for it. It’s nice, sure. I once stayed at the Delano, Madonna’s favourite, and I’ve never felt so old in my life. Miami’s OK if you are young, but beyond the party scene there’s no ‘there there’, as Gertrude Stein once said.
New York, though, is my favourite city in the world. You know you are alive – I love the energy and optimism. You can walk forever and never get lost, as long as you can count. And the Rodgers and Hart song sums it all up: ‘I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too..’ Just going through the song is magic.
I know a lot of the appeal is nostalgia, but it gets me every time. I used to love the Waldorf Astoria, for instance, but I’m sure that was partly because it has Cole Porter’s piano.
I also had some the very best times of my life in Las Vegas, although it’s changed. When I went I saw Sammy Davies Jr and Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Incredible entertainers. Now it’s all shows like Cirque du Soleil and fancy illusionists, which isn’t quite the same. And I suppose I should mention Los Angeles. We used to live there but I went back recently for a James Bond 50th anniversary tribute. Stayed at the Four Seasons, had dinner with the Broccolis – a little work mixed with pleasure, very nice. But LA is the capital of showbusiness – it’s great to visit if you are in the business, not so much if you aren’t. As someone said, it’s the only city where you can die of encouragement, because there is no such thing as a bad meeting. There is a shallowness to it – but on the other hand you’ve got places like Route One to Big Sur and great weather. It’s hard to hate, really. I always look forward to going back.
Growing up in Hackney, we didn’t do holidays. A day trip to Southend was about it. I didn’t go abroad until I started work at the New Musical Express in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street – two hundred yards of hokum, as someone called it – meeting stars like Frankie Vaughan and Frankie Lane – old fashioned now, but the Robbie Williams of their day. Paris was my first trip out of the country and my first flight and I thought it was wonderful. Taking off and coming down over a necklace of twinkling lights. After that I became a stand-up comic for a bit and most of my travelling was to die in places like Bradford and Glasgow. I always say I wrote my first song while waiting for a laugh in Darlington.
I know this sounds terrible, but there aren’t many wonders of the world that would tempt me away, just to visit. Sightseeing doesn’t interest me and the thought of three weeks on a perfect beach would drive me mad. Besides, Shirley doesn’t swim. Shallow end in pools, only. The places I want to go to are towns like Sag Harbor, where Hemingway went to write. I’d like to copy that. And New England. I read a lot of poets like Edna St Vincent Millay, who was born in Maine, and Robert Lowell, who was from Boston, a city I would love to visit. I get this world of diners and liquor stores from them and, although it might have gone now, I’d really enjoy trying to find it.”