Monty Norman: Composer behind James Bond’s signature music

Monty Norman and the actor and singer Diana Coupland announce their engagement in November 1955 (Getty)
Monty Norman and the actor and singer Diana Coupland announce their engagement in November 1955 (Getty)

Monty Norman was a prolific singer-songwriter, best known for composing the iconic theme to the James Bond movie franchise.

Norman, who has died aged 94, composed the music for 11 films and contributed to the soundtrack of more than 120, but it is for the memorable Bond signature tune that he will always be remembered.

Monty Noserovitch was born in Stepney, east London, in 1928, the only son of Latvian immigrant parents, Annie, a seamstress, and Abraham Noserovitch, a cabinet maker. His passion for music was inspired by his mother, who gave him a guitar at the age of 16, and developed during National Service in the RAF, where he began singing.

Norman had started his musical career as a singer, taking part in shows at the London Palladium with stars including Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. However, after writing a number of songs for artists including Frankie Vaughan and Rusty Draper, Norman had an epiphany, as he later recalled: “When the cheques started rolling in the penny dropped: maybe there was more money to be made from other people singing my songs than me singing other people’s songs.”

It was in the early Sixties that he first became involved in writing theme tunes for movies, including The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960) and the British science fiction disaster film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).

What is now universally known as the “James Bond theme” had initially been commissioned by the producer, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli for Dr No (1962), the film based on Ian Fleming’s eponymous spy novel. Broccoli had been impressed by Norman’s score work for stage musicals, having already collaborated with him on Belle, or the Ballad of Dr Crippen.

Norman, who was already busy on other projects, had at first been sceptical, but on being invited to visit the filming location in Jamaica with his wife, all expenses paid, soon changed his mind.

The Dr No theme owes its origins to an adaptation of a tune that Norman had already worked on, titled “Good Sign, Bad Sign” for a production of A House for Mr Biswas, a novel by VS Naipaul about the life of an Indian family in Trinidad. Replacing the sound of the sitar from the original with an electric guitar part, played in the final version by Vic Flick, added a notably dramatic impact. This, together with the orchestration and jazz arrangement by John Barry, brought the theme its characteristic twang and upbeat pace, for which it is now so well recognised.

The eternally popular theme, together with the now-famous shots of the gun barrel and 007 firing back, has accompanied every Bond film since. “His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness. It’s all there in a few notes. And obviously, the world agrees,” recalled Norman.

Barry would continue his collaboration with the Bond franchise until 1987, modifying the main theme slightly for every production, in line with each film’s location and plot. Yet Norman remained protective of his primary role in his creation of the theme tune. So, when The Sunday Times incorrectly suggested in a 1997 article that John Barry had written it, Norman sued for libel, winning £30,000 in damages. Commenting on the successful outcome of the case, he said at the time "I am absolutely delighted – and vindicated.”

Another Bond-fan favourite, titled “Underneath the Mango Tree”, would also emerge from the Dr No production. Norman remembered: “It all began when Cubby Broccoli asked me to write something for the first moment we see Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder coming out of the sea like some gorgeous mermaid, while being observed by Sean Connery's James Bond. The scene has taken its place as one of the great moments in cinema history and I am proud to have been a part of it.”

During the Seventies Norman returned to writing music for stage productions, including Deliver (1972), So Who Needs Marriage? (1975) and Songbook (1979), as well as for the popular television mini-series Dickens of London (1976).

Norman received a special Ivor Novello award in 1977 for the Bond theme and in 1989 was recognised with a Gold Badge of Merit for services to British music by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

The current Bond producers, Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, paid tribute, telling The Independent: “We are tremendously grateful to Monty Norman for his contribution to the Bond films, for which he will forever be remembered.”

Norman was married twice: first to the actor Diana Coupland, whom he wed in 1956. They had one daughter, Shoshana. He subsequently married Rina Caesari, who survives him.

Monty Norman, musician and composer, born 4 April 1928, died 11 July 2022