BACK at the start of May, Don Black had what he now calls an “unwelcome visitor.” Feeling unwell, he was taken by his son Clive to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where Black senior learned he had contracted Covid 19.

For the next nine days Black was stuck in an isolated room without a window receiving constant treatment. “Funnily enough it wasn’t as tough as you would think,” he says. “It was tough enough, but I wasn’t on a ventilator.

“The NHS was so phenomenal. I know you’ve heard it all before. We all have. But they were so compassionate. They took all the terror out of it.”

By the time Black finally recovered the nurses had discovered who he was. And when it was time to go home some 20 nurses saw him off, applauding and singing.

The song they chose was the song Black had written the words for and subsequently won an Oscar for back in the 1960s.

“Born free, as free as the wind blows/ As free as the grass grows …”

At home in Kensington some weeks later, Don Black is remembering the moment. “That was amazing. I’ll never get over that.”

June 2020, and Don Black is much better, you will be pleased to know. “Thankfully, I’ve fully recovered,” he is quick to tell me. “I’m touching wood as I say it because you can never be sure, but I am back to my old self.”

It is the day after his 82nd birthday and Don Black, lyricist, Oscar winner, widower, wit, has set aside some time this morning to talk to me about all of the above and how they feature in his new memoir, The Sanest Guy in the Room. It’s a story that takes in Matt Monro and Michael Jackson, John Barry and James Bond, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Robbie Williams, his love of the great American songbook, wild success, and terrible grief. And now, he can add, surviving a pandemic.

“I still can’t believe where everything’s gone. The time. One minute you’re the new kid on the block, the next minute you’re the elder statesman,” he says at the start of our conversation.

“When you write a book about yourself you have to dig back into the past, which is not something I normally do, and I am amazed at myself for the success I had in the early 1960s with Matt Monro. I don’t know. I just kept my head down and kept writing songs until they mount up to over 2,000.”

You will know many of them. Thunderball, The Man with the Golden Gun, Diamonds are Forever, Tell Me on a Sunday, To Sir, with Love, On Days Like These, Love Changes Everything … The list goes on.

Black is simply one of the most successful lyricists in the country, someone who has written songs for cinema and musical theatre, and someone who has notched up long-time creative relationships with both Barry and Lloyd Webber.

And somehow in all of this he has maintained a healthy relationship to the world around him, those he works with and, it would seem, his own ego.

It was the commentator Mark Steyn who once suggested that Black was “the sanest guy in the room” and Black’s memoir does go quite a way to underlining that fact.

The question is, in all this, is why? Why was Black the emotional spirit level around which others bubbled up and down?

He has a simple explanation. “Because I was married to the sanest girl in the room,” he says, talking of his late wife Shirley.

Black met Shirley Berg at a social club when he was 16 and she was 17. They were married for more than 60 years until her death in 2018.

Plus, he says, it might have something to do with the way he was brought up in a loving family in the East End of London.

“I don’t want to bang my own drum because there’s nothing to bang really. I’ve always wanted to be successful and be regarded as good at what I do, but I’ve never been a one for the fancy lifestyle.

“When people ask me what car I’ve got I say a blue one. I’ve never had the angst. When you’re in a room and you’re doing a musical with choreographers, composers and designers everyone is so anxious. Emotional collisions are all over the place, you know.

“Obviously, I’m involved, and I give it all I have. But I’ve always come home to normality.”

Read More: Russell Watson on surviving the music industry (and two brain tumours)

It’s true that one of the joys of Black’s memoir is his close-up view of the abnormality of the people he has worked with. He has a sharp eye and turn of phrase. Of one of his most recent collaborators, Van Morrison, he memorably says, “when you first meet him, he does have the look of a man who has just learned his flight has been delayed.”

But then he adds, “when you get him into talking about music or philosophy, he can laugh like a member of a Jimmy Carr audience.”

The truth is Black is a forgiving host who gets on with everyone and as a result gets behind their public face. Take Lloyd Webber. Don, I say, did you ever see the side of him that earned the composer the label “the dictator”?

“I’ve seen every side of him, and I have nothing but straight admiration for him for what he has achieved. I hope in the book I’ve brought out the schoolboy humour in him because he’s very funny and he’s always depicted as this dictator and he isn’t really. He’s very collaborative. He’s very protective of what he does.

“But he’s became part of the family really. I’m godfather to his son. When I’ve read things like, ‘He’s dreadful,’ it’s very upsetting.”

In many ways, though, the real star of Black’s memoir is his late wife Shirley. “When I had to proof-read it, I thought the book was just as much about Shirley as it was about me,” he admits.

Throughout, Shirley is the voice of reason. When Black is working with Lloyd Webber and AR Rahman on the musical Bombay Dreams, Black told his wife that Rahman is reckoned to be something of a genius. But when Rahman phoned Black at 3am, it was Shirley who pointed out: “If he’s such a genius why can’t he tell the f****** time?”

Inevitably, we talk about grief. Both of us are widowers. How can we not? “Of course, it will never be the same,” Black admits. “It’s the hardest thing. If I want to break my heart all I’ve got to do is open a drawer or open a cupboard and see a dress or read her handwriting. I mean, It’s very easy to well up.”

After her death he threw himself into work, writing the book and working on his weekly Radio 2 show. But then he has always worked, starting as an office boy at the NME, before moving on to become a song plugger. He even had a turn as a stand-up comedian, performing five shows a day at the Panama Club in between the strippers. He didn’t go over well, he admits.

“I could have been Bob Hope, I still wouldn’t have got any laughs,” Black points out. “They’re not there to laugh.”

Along the way, though, he met Matt Monro and John Barry. Both were to be instrumental in his future.

“I was writing songs before I met Matt Monro, but nothing happened with them. And then I met Matt and I used to talk a lot to Matt and John Barry about songs. We were all hanging out together. And Matt recorded a couple of songs of mine, but they didn’t mean anything. Then he came up with this Austrian melody that he loved and that changed everything.”

Black, who was managing Monro at the time, put words to the melody (which Munro had heard at the 1964 Eurovision contest) and the result was Walk Away, which became a top 10 hit. Black suddenly had a new career.

You say in the book, Don, that you think Matt Monro was the best singer ever to come out of this country.

“No question about it. Maureen Lipman, who is a big Matt Monro fan said to me the other day, ‘With the others it’s all show, with Sinatra, Tony Bennett, with all the other great singers. But with Matt there’s no pretence in it. It is what it is.’

“He just sang beautifully. He didn’t exaggerate it. There was no veneer to him. He didn’t show off with his voice.

“As soon as he starts singing you know it’s Matt. It’s instant recognition. And I always thought he had three lungs, because his breath control was unbelievable.”

Monro was also, Black suggests, very down-to-earth. “Matt Monro loved a game of cards, loved a drink. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but he was a bus driver when he started, and he was a bus driver mentally when he finished. He just happened to have a God-given talent. Nothing impressed him. If I said to him, ‘We’re going out for a curry tonight,’ he’d be so happy.”

It was John Barry, meanwhile, who invited Black to provide the lyrics for the Bond theme tune Thunderball, sung by Tom Jones, the first of five Bond songs Black would provide lyrics for.

In his memoir, Black suggests that Bond theme songs should always have “a whiff of the boudoir about it”.

Others thought so too. When Shirley Bassey was trying and failing to nail the vocal for Diamonds Are Forever it was Barry who told her she should think of the diamond in the song as a penis. Tell me, Don, was that in your mind when you wrote the lyric?

“Absolutely not. It was obviously a very important item. I didn’t realise how important it was. John was like that. Basically, he was saying, ‘Just get on with it.’ It was his way of saying, ‘Just sing the bloody song.’”

Barry, of course, was one of the great film composers, providing scores for Bond, The Ipcress File, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa and a host of movies from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. In the book Black suggests that he was Barry’s only true friend. It’s a striking line, Don.

“I suppose it is, but what I mean is he didn’t suffer fools gladly. There was a typical Yorkshire bluntness about John. He didn’t like anything artificial about people. He would tell many directors to eff off if he didn’t agree with them. Now, most composers who write for films are terrified they’re going to be dismissed, you know or get replaced.

“There was a certain arrogance about John, but it wasn’t nasty, it wasn’t unpleasant. He was a very private man. And that’s why, when it came to the end, I was the only friend there. He didn’t want to know a lot of people. He knew how to meet people, but he didn’t want to have any ongoing relationship with them.”

Black's story takes in so many famous names. He even met a teenage Michael Jackson after writing the lyrics to one of his singles, Ben. “He was unbelievably innocent at that time. My son was the same age. He became part of our family. We played pool a lot with him, we swam with him. My wife painted with him and he couldn’t have been lovelier and more innocent.

“As they years went by we know what happened to him, which is an absolute tragedy. I just wish I had spent more time with him through the years because he was so marvellous when we were together and we had such a great time.

“But his father put a stop to that and he wanted to control who he met who he talked to. And I think that was a big mistake.”

We should talk about what Black does, shouldn’t we? Is writing lyrics a craft or an art? “I think it’s a bit of each. I think at the beginning, it’s more of an art. As it goes on it does become a craft. I could write a song about anything. You could say, ‘Can you write a song about this interview?’ I suppose I could because the craft comes in.

“So, yeah, I suppose it is craft. But I prefer to think of it as art.

“If you ask any songwriter how they do it, they don’t really know. I get a tune … usually. I get a melody … And I stare out the window and I walk around the park and it seems to come together.”

Down the years Black has worked with anyone and everyone. He wrote the lyrics for Michael Jackson's hit Ben, and even had a go at helping Robbie Williams with lyrics. Not necessarily an easy task.

“I must say I’ve grown to love the guy. But when I first met him it wasn’t the kind of writing I was used to. He wrote his own lyrics and a lot of them in those days were very hard to understand. They weren’t logical. They were good. They were good enough for him. He sang them. No one else sang them. That’s why I think they suited him.

“But now his songs have got so much better with the passing of the years. Well, when I say better, they appeal to my generation more because you can grasp everything about them.”

Black’s not sure that’s always the case these days. He fears that we will see the death of the Great American Songbook, that songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin will simply disappear from the public memory. Surely not?

“I do fear that. My programme on Radio 2 is probably the only programme – I know other people play a song or two – that plays these wonderful songs by wonderful people; Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone and great songs by Porter and Berlin.

“I can’t see them surviving because the generation today don’t know them. They don’t really know what you’re talking about when you say what a great song The Way You Look Tonight is.

“It’s a generational thing. It’s very sad. I say in the book, I wish when they teach music in school, they would also let you hear the Great American songbook just to show how well crafted songs were.

“And I feel very strongly about that. No question about it. You switch on the radio and the songs today are nowhere near as good and the singers are not easily identifiable. When you hear Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald you can tell who is singing within a bar or two. And a lot of the singers today are a variation of each other.”

Ask Don Black which song he wishes he had written, and he’ll tell you Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight. Ask him which of his own songs he’s proudest of and he’ll say Born Free, “because it was life changing and as the years go by it has a message that is so universal around the world.

“It’s become a symbol of freedom around the world.”

His own too, now of course.

Time to go. But, before he disappears he says a few final words to me, widower to widower.

“Just think of the good times and she’s in you. She’s not gone completely.”

Don Black may well be one of the sanest guys in the room. He’s one of the kindest too.

The Sanest Guy in the Room, by Don Black, is published by Constable on Thursday, priced £20.


Born Free, Matt Monro, 1966

Written for the 1966 film of the same name. It picked up an Oscar for “Best Original Song.”

To Sir, with Love, Lulu, 1967

Written for the Sidney Poitier movie of the same name.

Diamonds are Forever, Shirley Bassey, 1971

The best of Black’s Bond lyrics.

Take That Look Off Your Face, Marti Webb, 1980

From Tell Me on a Sunday, written with Andrew Lloyd Webber, it became a top 10 hit in 1980.

Love Changes Everything, Michael Ball, 1989

Written for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Aspects of Love.