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The Sedona International Film Festival will screen three of your movies: Diamonds are Forever (title song, 1971), To Sir, With Love (title song, 1967) and Born Free (title song, 1966). Talk about your work on those projects.
Diamonds are Forever was one of my favorite Bond projects. When the producer, Harry Saltzman, heard it for the first time, he didn’t like it. He thought it was too ‘filthy’ as he put it. I’ve always thought Bond songs should be seductive and have a whiff of the boudoir. The other producers loved it, but there were moments when it was in the film then out of the film… It’s one of those songs that keeps coming back in various guises. Kanye West sampled it a few years ago. To Sir With Love is unusual because it was the first song where I’d written the lyric without music. James Clavell was the director for that film, and he said the lyric was so important that I shouldn’t worry about the music but just write it like a poet. He loved it. We sent it out to about 10 people to write the music for my lyric, which is a very unusual thing to have happen. With Born Free, again, it was another situation where Carl Foreman, the presenter, wasn’t enamored with the song at all. He thought it was a social comment, and he wanted it to be about the jungle and cages and animals. I didn’t agree with that, and neither did John Barry. There’s a nice ending to that story. When I got the Oscar, Carl Foreman came up to me and said, ‘Well, [the song] grows on you.’
You also wrote the title song for 1972’s Ben, which was a hit for Michael Jackson. Did you work with Michael directly?
Yeah, I got to know Michael very well during that period of time. He was lovely, and he loved that song. He said so in his biography. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and he would come to my house and play with my sons. He was a lovely, innocent child of 14. I got a call from his father one day saying if I wanted to speak to Michael, I had to go through him. He made it very difficult because here we were just having a game of pool with my kids. The father was very dominant and protective. So I didn’t speak to him for probably 15 or 20 years. Then I went to see him again, and we hugged each other. I wrote a bunch of songs for him that never came out. I don’t know if he recorded them or not.
You’ve also done theater work with luminaries such as Andrew Lloyd Webber. Can you compare and contrast writing songs for theater and films? Do you have a preference?
Unfortunately in today’s world, in movies, the kind of songs that I wrote don’t exist. When is the last time you heard a beautiful song in a film? You hear songs at the end of films, but you don’t hear The Way We Were. Those days are gone where the title song sums up the movie. I like both because I like writing – it’s just one of those things. In a way, theater is somehow so satisfying because you’re illuminating the character. You can be funny, you can be sad, you can be anything. I’m doing Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway right now – we’re in previews. You’re dealing with so many emotions from killing to heartbreak. You’ve got a wider wordscape to play with. And you can make changes with each show. There’s always little things you want to change – bits and pieces.