Barry suffered a rupture of the oesophagus in 1988 following a toxic reaction to a health potion he had consumed. The incident rendered him unable to work for two years and left him vulnerable to pneumonia.
Barry has been married four times. His first three marriages ended in divorce: Barbara Pickard 1959-63; Jane Birkin 1965-68; and Jane Sidey 1969-71. He married his current wife, Laurie Barry on 3 January 1978. Barry has three children, one each from his first, second, and fourth marriages.
Barry was employed by EMI Records from 1959 until 1962 arranging orchestral accompaniment for that label's recording artists. From 1962 Barry transferred to Ember Records where he produced albums as well as arranging them.
These achievements caught the attention of the producers of a new film called Dr. No who were dissatisfied with a theme for James Bond given to them by Monty Norman. Barry was hired and the result would be one of the most famous signature tunes in film history, the "James Bond Theme". (Credit goes to Monty Norman, see below.) When the producers of the Bond series engaged Lionel Bart to do the next James Bond film From Russia with Love, they discovered that Bart could not read or write music. Though Bart wrote a title song for the film, the producers remembered Barry's arrangement of the James Bond Theme and his composing and arranging chores for several films with Adam Faith. Lionel Bart also recommended Barry to producer Stanley Baker for his Zulu (film). Bart and Barry worked together in the film Man in the Middle.
This would be the turning point for Barry, and he would go on to become one of the most celebrated film composers of modern times, winning five Academy Awards and four Grammy Awards, with memorable scores written for The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Born Free, and Somewhere In Time.
Barry is often cited as having a distinct style which concentrates on lush strings and extensive use of brass. However he is also an innovator, being one of the first to employ synthesisers in a film score (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and to make wide use of pop artists and songs in Midnight Cowboy.
Barry is also known for the famous score he wrote for the theme tune for TV series The Persuaders!, also known as "The Unlucky Heroes", in which Tony Curtis and Roger Moore were paired as rich playboys solving crimes. The theme went to be a hit single in some European Countries and has been re-released on collections of 1970s disco hits. The instrumental recording features Moog synthesisers. Barry also wrote the scores to a number of musicals, including Passion Flower Hotel (lyrics by Trevor Peacock). the successful West End show Billy (lyrics by Don Black) and two major Broadway flops, The Little Prince and the Aviator and Lolita, My Love, the latter with Alan Jay Lerner as lyricist.
During 2006, Barry was the executive producer on an album entitled Here's to the Heroes by the Australian ensemble The Ten Tenors. The album features a number of songs Barry wrote in collaboration with his lyricist friend, Don Black.
Barry's orchestration very often combines the horn section with the strings in a way that makes his music immediately recognisable. By providing not just the main title theme but the complete soundtrack score, Barry's music often enhances the critical reception of a film, notably in Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves.
October 2007 saw John Barry announce a deal with Universal Music France for 2 albums scheduled for early 2008. These will be his first solo works for 7 years, and are expected to be a jazz based album and another concept orchestral album along the same lines as The Beyondness of Things and Eternal Echoes.
In his tenure with the film series, Barry's music, variously brassy and moody, appealed to film aficionados, as witnessed in the sales of the soundtrack albums. For From Russia With Love he composed "007", an alternate James Bond signature theme, which is featured in four other Bond films (Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker). The theme "Stalking", for the teaser sequence of From Russia With Love, was covered by colleague Marvin Hamlisch for the The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). (The lyrics for From Russia With Love's title song were written by Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver!)
In Goldfinger he would perfect the "Bond sound", a heady mixture of brass, jazz and sensuous melodies. There is even an element of Barry's jazz roots in the big-band track "Into Miami," which follows the title credits and accompanies the film's iconic image of the camera lens zooming toward the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
As Barry matured, the Bond scores concentrated more on lush melodies, as in Moonraker and Octopussy. Barry's score for A View to a Kill was traditional, however his collaboration with Duran Duran for the title song was contemporary and one of the most successful Bond themes to date, reaching number one in the United States and number two in the UK Singles Chart. Both A View to a Kill and the Living Daylights theme by a-ha blended the pop music style of the artists with Barry's orchestration. In 2006 a-ha's Pal Waaktaar complimented Barry's contributions "I loved the stuff he added to the track, I mean it gave it this really cool string arrangement. That's when for me it started to sound like a Bond thing".
David Arnold, a British composer, saw the result of two years' work in 1997 with the release of Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project, an album of new versions of the themes from various James Bond films. Almost all of the tracks were John Barry compositions and the revision of his work met with his approval — he contacted Barbara Broccoli, producer of the upcoming Tomorrow Never Dies, to recommend Arnold as the film's composer. Arnold also went on to score the subsequent Bond films: The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Industry trade papers reported during the late 1980s that the studio decided to go for "a new sound", coinciding with Timothy Dalton assuming the role of James Bond (replacing the departing Roger Moore). This occurred after The Living Daylights, Dalton's first film in the series, which was Barry's last Bond score-to-date.
In court, Barry declared he had been handed a musical manuscript of a work by Norman (meant to become the theme) and that he was to arrange it musically, and that he composed additional music and arranged the "James Bond Theme". The Court also was told that Norman received sole credit, because of his prior contract with the producers; Norman won the lawsuit and was awarded damages. Nevertheless, on 7 September 2006, John Barry publicly defended his authorship of the theme on the Steve Wright show on BBC Radio 2.
Contemporary research indicates that it seems to have been John Barry who more or less composed the theme to the bigger part. This is, among other things, based on the theme's strong resemblance to his previous music, like the song Bee's Knees, and the fact that no other music in "Dr. No" sounds like the "James Bond Theme".
John Barry was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1998.