Some songs are so well known but never made the chart and you wonder why. Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, Eagles’ Life in the Fast Lane, Champagne Supernova by Oasis and Born Free by Matt Monro, which were all released as singles, are all good examples. The latter was written by, arguably the UK’s greatest lyricist, Don Black, the same man who wrote this week’s suggestion, To Sir with Love. The reason that song was not a UK hit, despite topping the Billboard Hot 100, was because it was relegated to the b-side of Lulu’s Let’s Pretend. Which bright spark at the record company decided that? The only version of the song to chart was in 2010 when the castoff Glee took it to the dizzy heights of number 60.
Don was born Donald Blackstone in a council flat in Hackney and the youngest of five children of Russian Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. “I realised very early on in my life that there are very happy people living in Hackney and some very unhappy people living in Belgravia and Hawaii.” Don once said. Don’s first hit as a songwriter was Walk Away, a hit for Matt Monro in 1964 who he also managed for over 20 years.
Lulu was born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in Lennoxtown, Stirlingshire 10 years after Don. Having got her break when her first hit Shout made the top 10 in 1964, she followed it with her original version of Here Comes the Night which was later a hit for Them. She had her own TV series as well as recording the 1974 James film theme The Man with the Golden Gun, another song written by Don Black and not a UK hit. From 1969 to 1973 she was married to Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees.
To Sir With Love was the title and theme song for the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier as a well-educated teacher with a calm temperament. In the film he had landed a job in an east London school full of unruly children where his patience was tested but he won the battle. Every single one of the kids were changed by learning from one man. The children, many from poor backgrounds with little appreciation for things were taught the worth and how to treat people. So much so that the key line in the song, ‘But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume’ stands out a mile along with the last pre-chorus line, ‘I know that I am leaving my best friend, a friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong, that’s a lot to learn. What, what can I give you in return?
Lulu was cast in a small role as one of the students and at this point the film had no theme. She got the job of singing the theme after the film’s director James Clavell saw her at a show where was supporting The Beach Boys. Clavell was impressed and as well as giving her a bigger role in the film he also asked her to sing the theme. Some songs were submitted but as Lulu told Billboard in a 1985 interview, “I hated them. I thought they were all poor choices. I said to my friend Mark London, ‘They’re going to make me sing these rotten songs and it will be awful. Why don’t you write the songs?'” London dismissed the idea believing he didn’t have a chance. Lulu insisted so the Canadian composer came up with the music in five minutes. The next day, Don Black was asked to write the words. “I was over the moon,” Lulu said. “I just knew it was going to be a great song.”
Black usually writes with a composer and usually adds his lyrics to a tune, but, “It’s one of the very, very few songs that I’ve worked on where I’ve written the words first,” he explained in The Sunday Times in 2008. “Normally, I may give the composer a title or suggest a couple of lines, but I don’t like to write the whole lyric first. If you write the lyric first, you tend to ramble. You want the structure there to work against it.”
The film version of the song had an extra verse which was edited out of the single. The missing second verse had the line, ‘Those awkward years have hurried by, why did they fly away? Why is it, Sir children grow up to be people one day? What takes the place of climbing trees and dirty knees in the world outside? What is there for you I can buy?’
In 2018, Don began writing his autobiography. At the time he admitted that he finds most autobiographies “too long, and full of boring pages about stuff I’m not interested in” and thus has done his memoir in the same way he writes his lyrics – by being spare, economical and trimming any excess fat. Not long after he started he was hit by tragedy, Sheila, his wife of over 60 years, passed away. But he continued with the book because, as he says, “It became my main motivation for writing it was to spend more time with her because every word brings her closer.”
Two years later, it was reported he Don had been hospitalised with Covid. Whilst there a nurse happened to notice his hands. “She said, ‘they’re very soft – what do you do?'” he told Weekend Magazine in The Mail, “I said, ‘I write songs – Google me’. And I thought that was it. Anyway, when the day came for me to leave, they put me in a wheelchair, the door was opened, and there were, I don’t know, around 20 nurses, all singing Born Free, and applauding me. It was so moving, as you can imagine.”