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Monty Norman, Composer of Iconic James Bond Theme, Dies at 94

Sean Connery James Bond From Russia with Love
Courtesy Everett Collection

Monty Norman, the composer behind the iconic James Bond theme, has died at the age of 94.

A statement posted on his official website said, “It is with sadness we share the news that Monty Norman died on 11th July 2022 after a short illness.”

Norman most famously composed the score for “Dr. No,” the 1962 James Bond film starring Sean Connery. His theme for James Bond, as arranged by fellow Englishman John Barry, would go on to become the theme for the entire franchise.

As Norman said on his site, “We recognized we needed a fresh, contemporary sound for the main theme, and in the up-and-coming young John Barry we found a wonderful arranger, so the whole thing worked very well.”

But controversy erupted decades later when Barry claimed authorship of the theme, resulting in Norman suing the Times of London for libel over a 1997 story (“Theme Tune Wrangle Has 007 Shaken and Stirred”) disputing Norman’s contention that he was the true composer. A jury in London’s High Court ruled in Norman’s favor in 2001, awarding him 30,000 pounds plus court costs. Norman later said he felt vindicated by the decision.

Norman was a former big band singer who turned songwriter in the late 1950s. He enjoyed a West End hit in 1958 with “Irma La Douce,” adapted from an earlier successful French musical. Producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, an investor in Norman’s short-lived 1961 musical “Belle,” called him to accompany the team headed to Jamaica in January 1962 to shoot “Dr. No.”

Norman wrote the songs heard on the “Dr. No” soundtrack, including “Under the Mango Tree,” which Ursula Andress sings as  she emerges from the ocean to see Connery for the first time. He also wrote “Kingston Calypso” and “Jump Up” on location. The James Bond Theme would only emerge months later as Norman struggled to write the dramatic score later in London.

As he often later said, he adapted a tune he’d written for an unproduced musical based on V.S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas.” The song “Bad Sign, Good Sign” (which he sang on an album many years later with sitar accompaniment) contained the seeds of the Bond theme.

Barry became involved when the filmmakers, including director Terence Young and editor Peter Hunt, felt they needed a harder-hitting, commercially viable theme than they heard at the score recording sessions. Barry came in, beefed up the arrangement to incorporate a twangy guitar (from his John Barry Seven rock ‘n’ roll days) and a jazzy midsection, and recorded a fresh, exciting version of the Bond Theme that became a hit single in England after the movie’s release in the fall of 1962.

Barry took over musical direction on the Bond films starting with the second one, “From Russia With Love,” in 1963. Norman was never asked back, although his theme continued to be used as 007’s musical signature in every subsequent film. He won England’s prestigious Ivor Novello Award from the Performing Rights Society in 1977 for the theme, which now ranks as one of the most recognized pieces of movie music ever.

Broccoli and his Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman did, however, ask Norman to score their Bob Hope comedy “Call Me Bwana” in 1963. His film career also included music for the 1960 Hammer horror film “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.” He also composed music for 1961’s “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” and themes for various British TV series including “Quick Before They Catch Us” in 1966 and the “ITV Sunday Night Theatre” in 1971. He composed the entire score for the 13-part 1976 miniseries “Dickens of London.”

His songs were also heard in the 1958 London stage musicals “Make Me an Offer” and “Expresso Bongo,” the latter reprised in a 1959 film version. His later stage musicals included the 1979 “Songbook,” which won an Olivier Award, the Evening Standard Award and an Ivor Novello as best new musical along a later Tony nomination for best book in the short-lived 1981 Broadway revival; the 1982 “Poppy,” another Olivier award winner as best musical; and a 1988 version of the Pinocchio story.

In 1989 Norman also received the Gold Badge of Merit for services to British music from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers & Authors (BASCA). In recent years he was often seen on British television regaling audiences with his story of writing the Bond theme and how proud he was to have contributed 007’s musical identity — arranged, refreshed and revitalized over the years by Barry and fellow Bond composers George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michael Kamen, David Arnold and Hans Zimmer.

Norman, who was born in 1928 in Stepney in London’s East End, sang in big bands led by Cyril Stapleton, Stanley Black and Ted Heath during the 1950s. He performed on stage with Benny Hill, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Worth and Tommy Cooper, among others. His first wife was Diana Coupland, who sang the original “Under the Mango Tree” on the “Dr. No” soundtrack; she died in 2006.

He is survived by his second wife, Rina Caesari, and a daughter.

English actress and singer Diana Coupland (1932 – 2006) with singer and composer Monty Norman in London, after the couple announced their engagement, 26th November 1955. Norman is best known for composing the signature theme tune for the James Bond films. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Hulton Archive