Monty Norman, who composed the James Bond theme song, dies at 94

Enlisted to write the theme song for “Dr. No,” the 1962 spy movie that brought James Bond to the big screen, composer Monty Norman struggled to capture 007 in music. The song needed to be menacing but also a little sexy, like the pistol-wielding, martini-drinking secret agent himself.

Mr. Norman wrote an early version of the theme song that was recorded by jazz pianist and bandleader Count Basie. It wasn’t bad, he later said, but it didn’t sound sinister enough, and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were pushing for something different.

Searching for inspiration, he found it right under his nose, in an unused song in the bottom drawer of his desk.

The tune was called “Bad Sign, Good Sign,” and had been written by Mr. Norman about a year earlier for an unproduced musical adaptation of VS Naipaul’s novel “A House for Mr. Biswas.” The song had a “slurred, Indian-style melody,” as Mr. Norman later put it, and a sniffling East Indian protagonist (“I was born with this unlucky sneeze,” he sings, “and what is worse, I came into the world the wrong way round”) who seemed to have little in common with 007.

Yet the song also had a mysterious quality that Mr. Norman realized he could work with. He tweaked the melody, splitting it into separate notes, and moved the riff from the sitar to the guitar. Immediately, he knew he had his theme for 007. “His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness — it’s all there in a few notes,” he said.

With its instantly recognizable “dum dada dum dum” guitar riff, the song became one of the world’s most recognizable tunes, a staple of the 007 series through six different Bonds, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. Mr. Norman was listed as the theme’s sole author, although composer John Barry arranged the song for “Dr. No” and was widely credited with shaping its propulsive fusion of jazz and pop.

“Sound-wise, it represented everything about the character you would want,” said composer David Arnold, who scored five Bond films, in a 2008 interview with Variety. “It was cocky, swaggering, confident, dark, dangerous, suggestive, sexy, unstoppable.”

Mr. Norman was 94 when he died on July 11 at a hospital in Slough, England, just west of London. His wife, Rina Norman, said he died “after a short illness” but did not give a specific cause.

In a musical career that spanned more than half a century, Mr. Norman sang with British big bands in the 1950s, performed at variety shows alongside comedians Benny Hill and Peter Sellers, and helped adapt the French musical “Irma la Douce” into a hit English-language stage show, receiving a Tony nomination in 1961 for co – writing his book and lyrics.

But he remained best known for writing the theme for Bond, a project that he almost turned down. He was working on two stage shows when he was invited to score the film by Broccoli, who was adapting Ian Fleming’s 007 spy novel for the big screen and had been impressed by Mr. Norman’s theatrical work. As Mr. Norman told it, he accepted the job only after Broccoli and Saltzman offered to fly him and his wife to Jamaica, where the film was being shot on location.

“That was the clincher for me,” he recalled in an interview on his website. “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.”

After a 20-hour chartered flight to the Caribbean, he began writing some of the movie’s calypso-influenced music, including “Underneath the Mango Tree,” which Bond’s love interest — the improbably named Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress — sings on the beach, after emerging from the water with a pair of large seashells. (Her vocals were dubbed by Mr. Norman’s wife at the time, singer and actress Diana Coupland.)

Filmed on a relatively small $1 million budget, “Dr. No” became a box-office smash, making $60 million worldwide. Mr. Norman’s theme song played over the opening title sequence, which showed 007 from inside the barrel of a gun, and was used again after Connery lit a cigarette and delivered one of the character’s signature lines for the first time: “Bond, James Bond.”

The movie’s commercial success, and the enduring appeal of the Bond franchise, helped spur a years-long debate over Mr. Norman’s role in writing the theme. Some critics said that the primary credit for the song should have gone to Barry, who went on to score nearly a dozen Bond films and whose orchestra recorded the song for the movie. Barry claimed authorship of the track, which Mr. Norman dismissed as “absolute nonsense.”

When the Sunday Times of London suggested in a 1997 article that Barry was the theme’s real composer, Mr. Norman sued the newspaper for libel and won. He was awarded 30,000 pounds in damages.

“There’s an old saying in showbiz,” he later told the Scotsman newspaper: “Nobody argues over a flop.”

An only child, he was born Monty Noserovitch in London on April 4, 1928, and grew up in the city’s East End. His father was a cabinetmaker, and his mother sewed children’s dresses. The family had a musical streak — some of his uncles performed in amateur opera — and when Mr. Norman was 16, his mother bought him his first guitar, a 1930s Gibson that he held on to for decades.

After the family moved north of London to the city of St. Albans, Mr. Norman began taking guitar lessons from Bert Weedon, a versatile musician who later wrote a best-selling “Play in a Day” instruction manual. With encouragement from Weedon, he started singing with jazz groups, eventually joining big bands led by Cyril Stapleton, Stanley Black and Ted Heath.

Mr. Norman launched a solo career as a singer before turning to songwriting in the 1950s, building a career on London’s West End while collaborating with figures including writer Julian More and theater director Peter Brook, with whom he worked on “Irma la Douce.” His other musical credits include “Expresso Bongo,” a music-industry satire that was adapted into a movie starring Cliff Richard, and “Make Me an Offer,” about the antiques trade around Portobello Road.

He also composed music for movies including “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll” (1960) and Broccoli’s “Call Me Bwana” (1963). Returning to the stage, he won Olivier Awards in 1979 and 1982 for composing the musicals “Songbook” (he also received a Tony nomination for the show, which opened on Broadway as “The Moony Shapiro Songbook”) and “Poppy,” a pantomime -style comedy set during the First Opium War between Britain and China.

His marriage to Coupland ended in divorce. In 2000, he married Rina Caesari. In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Shoshana Kitchen; two stepdaughters, Clea Griffin and Livia Griffiths; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Norman said he had modest expectations for “Dr. No” and was surprised when one of Broccoli’s assistants pulled him aside after he signed on to the project, telling him, “See if you can do a good theme, because I reckon we’re going to get two films and a television series out of it.”

“That sounded like a lot,” Mr. Norman told the Scotsman in 2012. “It’s impossible. It’s amazing the franchise has gone on for 50 years. And it’s amazing that I’m still here.”

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