Don Black says he’s part of a disappearing species – people whose job is writing the lyrics for songs. But he’s written with – and for – a huge chunk of the entertainment world from Michael Jackson to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Katie Melua. His new memoirs tell the story.
The Sanest Man in the Room tells of his colourful experiences and, with the book delivered to his publishers, Black was hoping for some downtime before hitting the publicity trail this summer.
But early in May he was diagnosed with Covid-19 – not good news at the age of 81. He was taken to Chelsea and Westminster hospital in London where he spent “nine days in a windowless room with an amazing number of intravenous drips in me”. It was a shock but he says not for a moment did he think he would die.
“I was admitted under my legal name of Donald Blackstone and one day a nurse said I had very soft hands and what did I do? I said I was a songwriter and they could Google me as Don Black.
“The medical staff were so kind and reassuring throughout. When it was time to go home 20 or 30 of them had learnt the song Born Free, which I wrote in the 1960s, and they sang it as I left and they applauded. It was an extraordinary moment.”
Born into a working class home in Hackney, east London, just before World War Two, Black has had a career full of extraordinary moments – though with a lot of hard work, patience and diplomacy along the way.
He borrowed the book’s title from journalist Mark Steyn, who used the phrase to describe the laid back amiability which distinguishes Black from more neurotic colleagues. It’s the same quality which makes him a popular Sunday evening host on BBC Radio Two.
One of the big stars he’s worked with, who became a family friend in America, was the young Michael Jackson.
“In 1974 I’d had my first big West End hit, writing the lyrics for the musical Billy which had Michael Crawford in it. It ran for three years and I was making money and my accountant said financially I ought to live abroad for a time.
“So the family had 15 months in Los Angeles. My boys were teenagers and it was a big adventure. I’d had Oscar nominations and I’d won for Born Free so that opened doors.
“I wrote the words for the song Ben which Michael Jackson recorded and he happened to live near us in LA.
“He was 14 or 15 and very inquisitive about music of all sorts: he told me his favourite song anywhere was the Frank Loesser song Inchworm from Hans Christian Andersen.
“I think at that point he was genuinely innocent: there was no evidence of angst in him. Michael was just a teenager who enjoyed coming over to the house to spend time with us and play pool. He even painted with my wife.
“I have to say I was never very fond of his father Joe (who died in 2018). He had a reputation as a disciplinarian and eventually Joe Jackson said if we were to have any more contact with Michael it would be through him. So that got in the way of what had been a good friendship and we gradually parted.”
No account of Black’s career can omit the fact that he wrote the words of songs for five James Bond movies – Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough.
So how did he come up with the sexy lyric for Diamonds Are Forever?
“A good lyric is dictated by the music and John Barry had written a marvellous tune. Because it was for Shirley Bassey I knew the words needed to be a bit provocative and suggestive: Shirley is great when she has a touch of theatrical vulgarity about her.
“So if you put all that together the lyric for once almost wrote itself. I remember Steven Spielberg saying to me he admired the word ‘lustre’ in the lyric because it fitted perfectly the title sequence. But there’s an element of chance to these things.”
Black has collaborated with composers from Van Morrison and Brian May to Jule Styne and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The new book acknowledges that a lot of work sinks straight into oblivion whereas a success can live on in the public’s affections for decades.
Unusually he’s succeeded in writing for the stage, the screen and for recording artists. He’s supplied words for at least 2000 songs. But he thinks that, except in the theatre, the job of song lyricist is gradually disappearing.
“It’s hard to make a living as just a lyric writer and sometimes I think it’s not advisable even to try. I’ve been lucky with the people I knew and worked with. It’s a sad development in the music business that unless you perform you’re unlikely to get your songs recorded – or not enough to make a career.
“For decades theatre had great lyricists such as Larry Hart and Alan Lerner and Yip Harburg who helped create the American Songbook. They had such crafted elegance. But the era has gone when those songs became pop hits too.
“Even in the 1960s and 70s there were great pop writers in Britain like Barry Mason and Tony Macaulay and the late Les Reed, who weren’t performers. But that’s now pretty well redundant as a career.”
The book is peppered with reminiscences of his wife of 60 years Shirley, who died in 2018. “But you can’t only look back: my sons make sure I listen to contemporary stuff because what’s required changes all the time.”
Black always has new projects in prospect.
“Before coronavirus I’d started work on what I think is a great idea. We were trying out a new version of Tell Me On A Sunday, the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote 40 years ago and I did the lyrics for. It was a hit in London and on Broadway.”
In 1979 it was a one-woman show about the romantic problems of a young Londoner living in the USA. The new version keeps the same basic era but makes the central character male and gay.
“We workshopped it in a rehearsal studio with Rebecca Frecknall as director. We knew immediately it could open up resonant new areas of the story.
“I’ll be so delighted if we can put it together. Also we’re making progress with a musical version of the film The Third Man and reworking a show from a few years back called Feather Boy.
“From experience I know of course that a new musical can take forever. But I still love the work: I feel so much better when I write.”