Reviewed: Wrestling With Elephants

Sunday, 08 June 2003 12:56

The Biography of Don Black 
Author: James Inverne, Don Black
Foreword: John Barry

Format: Hardback
(222 pages, plus 16 pages of separate b & w photos)
Published: Sanctuary Publishing
02 Jun 2003
ISBN: 1-86074-468-0
List Price: £16.99


Don Black - Wrestling with Elephants"Born a working-class East End boy in the 50s, over 40 years Black went on to write hundreds of songs for some of the most enduring hits of film and stage, such as "Born Free", "Diamonds Are Forever", "Sunset Boulevard" and "Out of Africa". He picked up a weatlh of accolades along the way, including Academy Award nominations and five Ivor Novello Awards, as well as collaborating with musical legends such as John Barry, Michael Jackson, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Quincy Jones. This biography covers the true rags-to-riches story of Don Black, up to his successes with "Bombay Dreams" and "Romeo and Juliet". "

Review by Geoff Leonard:
08 June 2003

Black Goes With Everything

Or so they say. It was certainly the name of an excellent musical I saw a few years ago, in Bromley, Kent, when around 30 of Don Black's songs were performed by a variety of talented artists and dancers in a two-hour show. The show hasn't yet found a home in the West End of London and doesn't get a mention in James Inverne's compelling biography, Wrestling With Elephants - The Authorised Biography of Don Black, just published by Sanctuary Publishing. However, it appears to be about the only thing which doesn't get a mention in this fascinating 'rags to riches' tale, which chronicles both successes and failures in an illustrious 40 years plus career in the music, film and theatre business.

Inverne clearly got plenty of help from his subject and his immediate family, as he did from several of Black's collaborators and singers of his songs, like John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elaine Paige and Lulu. This is a big advantage for a biographer and not only does it create a feeling of integrity, it also gives the impression of frankness and honesty throughout - a refreshing change for a musical biography.

Black himself comes across as a very modest fellow. Proud of his success, yes, but never boastful, and always prepared to admit when something hasn't worked out and keen to establish the possible reason. So, we are entertained and thrilled by stories of his Oscar win for Born Free or his first, massive, stage musical hit, Billy, but can empathise with him when Budgie, which appeared to be a perfect idea for a musical, unaccountably failed to attract an audience. We can laugh along with his stories of John Barry offering to fight John Phillips of the Mamas & Papas, or his own beginnings as a stand-up comic (Don Black - A Living Joke), whereas we can share his sorrow and frustration as manager of Matt Monro, a wonderfully talented singer who could not stop drinking. Monro was obviously a very close friend of his, it was much more than manager and star relationship, and for the first time Black talks about how he fought to hide Monro's alcoholism from the public.

Overall, though, this book is about a successful career and having a lot of fun along the way. It's also a story of a man who is a bit of workaholic - he worries if he hasn't written anything for three weeks, for example. It's about a man who cherishes lyrics and cares deeply about every word he writes. To this end, he goes further than many of his contemporaries by explaining in detail why he takes a certain route in writing a song and even presents his 'Ten Golden Rules of Lyric Writing'!

Black is never one to dwell too long in the past and is always looking for a new challenge. In this respect, John Barry fans will be pleased to hear that Brighton Rock, the stage musical he is writing with Barry, is still going to plan. He even relates an amusing story of telling JB that the ten melodies he had sent were all melancholy and they couldn't possibly have ten sad songs. To which Barry retorted "It's not a ****ing picnic, it's about hell."!!

The book contains some rare photos of Black, his family, friends and collaborators taken throughout the course of his life and career. It also contains a moving foreword by John Barry, in which he talks of a deep mutual respect, trust and loyalty. It's easy to see why the two friends have worked together so happily for almost 40 years.

I recommend this book unreservedly to one and all. I'm about to read it again!!

Geoff Leonard, June 2003.

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