In a career that has spanned six decades, Oscar winning lyricist Don Black has produced an array of hits, including the title song to Born Free, Michael Jackson’s Ben and the themes for several James Bond films.
In addition to his work for the silver screen and legendary collaborations with some of the world’s most sought-after artists (Shirley Bassey, Quincy Jones and Lulu included), Black has become synonymous with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. His work on Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and Aspects Of Love, to name a few, has produced some of musical theatre’s most-beloved moments.
Black has received numerous awards internationally; in 2007 he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and in 1999 he was awarded an OBE. In 2009, PRS for Music presented Don, real name Donald Blackstone, with the Award for Extraordinary Achievement in recognition of his exceptional contribution to British music and culture.
Fast forward to July 2020 and Black has just released his memoir The Sanest Guy in the Room, despite the fact he was hospitalised with COVID-19 just a few months ago at the age of 82.
The Sanest Guy in the Room is a celebration of a life in music and a touching tribute to Black’s ultimate inspiration, his wife Shirley, who sadly passed away in 2018.
We spoke to Don Black, the man behind some of the twentieth century's greatest songs, to find out more about the book that has become a must-read for songwriters and music lovers alike.
'I was married to the same remarkable woman for 60 years. If I was the sanest guy in the room Shirley was the sanest girl.'
Hi Don, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. We’re sorry to hear that you were in hospital with COVID-19 in May. How is your recovery going?
Thankfully, I am now back home and fully recovered from my COVID-19 experience. I spent nine days in intensive care at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital. So much has been written about the NHS and their medical expertise but not enough has been said about their compassion and kindness. I felt that I was in the hands of my extended family.
Can you give our readers an overview of your new book, The Sanest Guy in the Room?
When Michael Grade interviewed me, he said the book is really three books; a third about my wife and family, a third about the amazing people I've worked and written with and a third about the ups and downs of a professional songwriter.
The meaning behind the title seems pretty self-explanatory, but we’re interested to know how often you have found yourself being ‘the sanest guy in the room’ whilst navigating the music industry.
I was married to the same remarkable woman for 60 years. If I was the sanest guy in the room Shirley was the sanest girl. Neither of us were hell raisers and, although we loved the opening nights and mixing with glittering stars, the family was always the most important thing in our lives. Shirley used to say: 'As long as we're all well everything will take care of itself.’
I've tried to live my life by being a hundred percent dedicated to whatever project I'm working on, but I've also tried to detach myself from it the moment I got home. Whatever drama came along it used to end with having a cup of tea in the kitchen with Shirley.
Was there anything in particular that made you decide to write a memoir?
Over many years people told me I should write a memoir. I began it in January 2018, Shirley read a few pages and laughed and said I should go ahead with it. After a holiday in Florida around the same time, she came down with a fungal infection in her chest. After battling on, this turned into sepsis and she passed away on 7 March 2018. I still can't believe I've written that last sentence. Friends of mine kept saying to me that the best way of dealing with grief is to work, work, work. That is when I decided to finish the book.
'I still believe that a great song will surface but it will happen a lot quicker if you're working with a household name.'
You’ve worked with everyone from Shirley Bassey to Michael Jackson. How do you approach collaborating with artists of that calibre?
In the book I go into detail about how I approach writing lyrics. However, there is no formula or road map that has to be followed. I was brought up listening to the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer which I think has helped me a lot in knowing just how good a song can be. It also helps in not coming up with the same lyrical ideas as they came up with many years ago. I can't exaggerate the pleasure I get when I hear a great song. I don't mind if it comes from Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim or Ed Sheeran. When you hear a great song, I feel you should be moved and changed in some way. I feel this when I'm listening to the best country music or folk music.
What do you think it takes to be a great songwriter in 2020 and how has that changed from when you began?
The music industry is unrecognisable to how it was when I started writing. These days if you're not writing with the artist or producer you will find it very hard to place your song. I still believe that a great song will surface but it will happen a lot quicker if you're working with a household name.
It has never been my nature to look back over my career but when you write a memoir you have no choice! I am very surprised at how much work I've done. So many films, so many songs, so many shows. I remember introducing the great film composer Elmer Bernstein when he received a Hollywood Star of Fame on Sunset Boulevard. He said to me: 'Don, if you keep doing it you'll get everything sooner or later.' I guess I've just kept my head down and kept going.
'When you are a songwriter disappointment is inevitable. If you can't take rejection try something else.'
In my book I write quite a bit about the difference between writing songs and writing for the theatre. Basically, in the theatre the songs have to further the story along, but a song can be about anything. I've always found that writing for the theatre is a little easier because you are given a situation to dramatise. Alan Jay Lerner once told me that he had never written a song that wasn't from a film or show.
Are you able to name the work you’re most proud of?
I think if I had to choose something I am most proud of, it would be the song cycle Tell Me On A Sunday that I wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was fun to write and challenging because there is only one girl on stage and she has to sing for an hour and take us through a torrent of emotions.
Your book contains a wealth of tips for aspiring songwriters, but if you could give an up and coming lyricist just one piece of advice, what would it be?
If I had to give songwriters one piece of advice it would be this: When you are a songwriter disappointment is inevitable. If you can't take rejection try something else.