It became one of the most recognisable theme tunes in the history of cinema, but the James Bond theme started off as the music for a comic song in a stage musical about Asian immigrants in the West Indies – a stage musical that never even made it to the stage. And it was originally played on sitar – and even featured sneezing.
John Barry is the composer most readily associated with James Bond, especially in the early years. And he even claimed to be the author of the famous tune. But it was actually composed by Monty Norman.
Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hired John Barry to rework it and he introduced the distinctive twangy guitar sound, though Norman was officially credited as sole composer and would receive hundreds of thousands of pounds in royalties over the years – plus damages whenever anyone suggested he did not write it.
An only child, he was born Monty Noserovitch in the East End of London, in 1928. His father was a Latvian-Jewish cabinet maker and his mother made clothes for her sister to sell at a local street market.
It was a musical family, Norman’s mother bought him a guitar and he took lessons from Bert Weedon, a renowned guitarist and author of several books on how to play.
Norman worked as a barber, both in civilian life and during National Service in the RAF, where he served alongside Vidal Sassoon.
After National Service, Norman styled himself as The Singing Barber, appearing in variety shows with top acts including Benny Hill and The Goons. He was on radio and television, where he met his first wife actress Diana Coupland (future star of ITV sitcom Bless This House) on the BBC show Hit Parade, and he worked with several jazz bands and major dance bands.
He also began writing songs and an association with David Heneker and Julian More took him towards musical theatre. “Within a year we had two major hits in the West End with Irma La Douce and Expresso Bongo,” he said.
Irma La Douce was an adaptation of a French stage show - later filmed with Shirley Maclaine – while Expresso Bongo was described by Time Out magazine as “the first rock and roll musical” and was filmed with Cliff Richard as the rising young pop star.
Norman fared less well with Belle, a musical about the murderer Dr Crippen. Described in the press as “a sick joke with music”, it ran for only six weeks.
Norman spent two years composing songs for A House for Mr Biswas, an adaptation of a novel by VS Naipaul, a Trinidadian novelist of Indian descent who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
When the project collapsed he was left with a drawer full of unused songs, including one called Bad Sign, Good Sign. Then Cubby Broccoli, one of the financial backers on Belle, offered him the chance to compose songs for a secret agent caper which, coincidentally, was also set in the West Indies. He could finally put his song Bad Sign, Good Sign to use in this new film, an adaptation of a novel by Ian Fleming called Dr No.
Norman got an expenses-paid trip for himself and his wife to the Caribbean.
“That was the clincher for me,” he said. “I thought, even if Dr No turns out to be a stinker at least we'd have sun, sea and sand to show for it.”
The familiar James Bond melody is immediately apparent in the song Bad Sign, Good Sign, which is on youtube, but Broccoli brought in John Barry to provide an alternative arrangement in a flashier, more jazzy style with twangy guitar and various fancy motifs.
Elements of both arrangements can be heard in the film, which also featured several Monty Norman songs, including Three Blind Mice, from the beginning of the film, and Underneath the Mango Tree, which Ursula Andress's character sings in the famous scene as she emerges from the sea – the voice actually belonged to Diana Coupland.
The songs are now largely forgotten, as is the case with most of Norman’s output. But the theme tune was to become a regular part of the James Bond series, one of the most successful series of films ever, accompanying the iconic gun barrel sequence at the start of the movies. Barry worked regularly on the Bond films and co-wrote several notable theme songs, including Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, while Norman returned to musical theatre, winning the SWET award (forerunner of the Oliviers) for best musical in the early 1980s for Poppy.
He also worked in television and composed the music for two films, the Hammer horror film The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and the Bob Hope film Call Me Bwana, while all the time receiving royalties as the man who originated the theme tune for a series that exceeded all expectations.
And when the Sunday Times suggested he was not that man he sued and received £30,000 from them too. On another occasion it was suggested in Melody Maker that neither Barry nor Norman wrote it, but that Norman bought the melody from a Jamaican for $100. Norman won three court actions in total.
Monty Norman is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He subsequently married Rina Caesari, a social worker, who also survives him.
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