The History of the James Bond Theme
With its blaring horns and twangy surf guitar, the theme music used at the start of every James Bond movie is as much a part of the franchise's iconography as exotic locales, beautiful women and shaken-not-stirred martinis. But its start was inauspicious, based on a few bars of music lifted from an unproduced musical.
When looking for someone to create the score for Eon Productions' first Bond film, Dr. No, producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli turned to Monty Norman, a composer for the stage with whom he had worked a few years earlier on the musical Belle or the Ballad of Dr. Crippen. As Norman explained in a segment on BBC 1's The One Show in 2014, he knew of Ian Fleming's novels but hadn't read any of them. However, the promise of a trip to Jamaica, where the movie was being filmed, proved too good to turn down.
Instead of being inspired by the island's sounds and rhythms for the score, Norman pulled out the music for "Good Sign, Bad Sign," which he'd written for a shelved theatrical adaptation of A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul's novel about an Indian family living in Trinidad.
"His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness," Norman said. "It's all there in a few notes. And obviously the world agrees."
Watch Monty Norman Talk About the James Bond Theme
Still, Broccoli and Saltzman felt it needed more work and hired an up-and-coming composer named John Barry, whose work they'd heard in the 1960 movie Beat Girl, to finish it. He gave the theme a hard-swinging jazz arrangement for his group, the John Barry Seven, and an orchestra. The famous guitar part was played Vic Flick.
"The combination of his writing for brass and my guitar playing kind of brought the thing to a conclusion," Flick told NPR in 2012. "And everybody seemed to be quite happy. It's followed me now for 50 years, so it couldn't have been too bad."
Flick added with a laugh that he was paid $15 for his work, although he began receiving royalties in the mid-'90s. Norman was given full songwriting credit, with Barry taking less than $350, figuring that the exposure would help his burgeoning career.
In what would become cinematic tradition, Norman's theme was used in the opening of Dr. No, as Bond is seen walking through the barrel of a gun, only to have 007 turn and fire first. The screen then turns red around the barrel as it transitioned into the movie's opening credits.
See the Opening Credits to 'Dr. No.'
For the follow-up film, From Russia With Love, Broccoli and Saltzman turned to Oliver! composer Lionel Bart for the score, but he got only as far as the Matt Monto-performed title song. Barry wound up writing the rest of the score.
Barry went on to create the soundtrack, including the music for the theme song, to nearly every James Bond film made by Eon up through and including 1987's The Living Daylights (the exceptions include Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only). Over the years, he would slightly tinker with the arrangement to reflect the primary location of the film or shifts in musical tastes. That practice continued even after Barry moved on.
His continued involvement with the Bond series caused many to believe he had written the music. A 1997 article in the Sunday Times concluded that Barry composed it based on Norman's idea. Norman sued the paper for libel. In 2001, a jury ruled in his favor and awarded him more than $40,000 in damages.
And Barry's gambit to take a small fee paid off. He became one of the most famous film score composers in history, winning five Oscars for such films as Born Free, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves, and four Grammys before his death in 2011.
Hear Monty Norman's 'Good Sign, Bad Sign'
The theme's influence became so synonymous with the intrigue and danger of life as a spy that it was appropriated by P.F. Sloan for the theme of an American broadcast of Danger Man, a British series licensed by CBS.
That work morphed into "Secret Agent Man," which gave Johnny Rivers a No. 3 hit in 1966. The mixture of brass and surf guitar was also referenced by Morton Stevens in his theme for the police series Hawaii Five-O, with the Ventures' recording reaching No. 4 in 1969.