Monty Norman passed away this week at the age of 94. If you don’t recognize the name, don’t feel bad because he wasn’t exactly a household celebrity. But the entire world can name his most famous composition in less than two seconds.
In 1962, Monty, a big band singer and a writer of musicals and scores for film, was asked to write a theme for a movie that was set largely in the Caribbean. To get inspiration, the producers few Monty to Jamaica (all expenses paid!) where he soaked up some local sounds. He found a few things but when he presented some samples to Terrence Young, the movie’s director, he wasn’t all that keen, to put it mildly.
This was one of the things he dug up: a song called “Good Sign Bad Sign,” taken from a musical he started but never finished called A House for Mr. Biswas. The singer was envisioned to be an Indian man from Trinidad.
Monty took the melody from that song–in essence plagiarizing himself–and mated it to a twangy guitar instead of a sitar and sent it to Young. He hated it.
Contractually obligated to do something with Monty and under time pressure, Young hired another composer named John Barry to come up with a more exciting arrangement based on what Monty had written. He came up with this.
That theme has been used in ever single Bond film and is probably the most recognizable piece of movie music of all time. And because Barry was so closely associated with Bond music for decades, it was assumed that he’d written it. Not so. It was Monty Norman.
When the Sunday Times ran an article in 1997 claiming that Monty had falsely taken credit for writing the theme, lawyers stepped in and extracted a healthy settlement of £30,000. A nice payday to be sure, but Monty was raking somewhere around a million dollars a year in royalties between 1976 and 1999.
Monty died on July 11 at age 94 after a short illness.