Barry Mason obituary

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Songwriter whose hits included Tom Jones’s Delilah and Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)

Barry Mason in 1966; within two years he had written three UK No 1 hit singles. Photograph: Getty Images

The  Guardian-Adam Sweeting

When 1960s pop groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began writing their own material, the trend was often cited as the death knell for the traditional Tin Pan Alley songwriter who supplied songs to allcomers. But it was a trend bucked by the prolific Barry Mason, who has died aged 85.

Often in partnership with Les Reed, for whose music Mason wrote the lyrics, he crafted a long list of pop hits that have stood the test of time. They included Tom Jones’s jealousy-and-murder classic Delilah (1968), The Last Waltz, created for Engelbert Humperdinck, which topped the UK chart for five weeks in 1967, and, with Tony Macaulay, Edison Lighthouse’s 1970 chart-topper Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes).

Mason and Reed also notched up a UK No 1 in 1968 with I Pretend for Des O’Connor, while Mason was particularly chuffed to reach the top of the US Country chart – a rare feat for a British songwriter – with Jones’s recording of Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow (co-written with Roger Greenaway). He wrote Girl of Mine (1973) for Elvis Presley, composed several songs with Charles Aznavour, and enjoyed a bilingual hit with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize. The theme from the eponymous 1968 film, it was a success in English for Humperdinck and in French for Mireille Mathieu.

The teenage vocal group Our Kid, who won an edition of ITV’s New Faces in 1976, reached No 2 in the UK with Mason and Greenaway’s You Just Might See Me Cry, after Mason’s mother had first tipped him off about the group’s potential. Among many collector’s rarities from Mason’s catalogue was The Day Will Come, a lurid depiction of nuclear apocalypse in the vein of Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, recorded by Rod Stewart in 1965.

Mason was born in Wigan, and grew up in the nearby village of Coppull. His father, Cecil Mason, was a journalist on the Wigan Observer, and his mother, Phyllis, was that rare phenomenon, a British female motor-racer. Phyllis married an American GI after Cecil’s death early in the second world war, and Barry was sent to boarding school in Wales. He later attended Baines school in Poulton-Le-Fylde, Lancashire.

By the time he had finished his national service in the Royal Marines, his mother and stepfather had emigrated to Columbus, Ohio, and Barry went to join them, enrolling at Ohio State University. His mother’s marriage failed and she returned to Britain.

After a year at Ohio State, Barry recalled that “I hitchhiked down Route 66 to Hollywood, to try to make my name as a singer or an actor.” However, his California dream failed to materialise, and he returned to Britain. In 1961 he was recruited as Albert Finney’s understudy in John Osborne’s play Luther, at the Royal Court, but watching Finney’s expertise at close quarters convinced him that he did not have the wherewithal to make it as an actor.

He married Patricia Ellis, and set about trying to be a singer, though instead found himself managing Tommy Bruce, who happened to be living in the basement of the house where Mason lived. With funding from Mason, Bruce recorded the old Fats Waller song Ain’t Misbehavin’, and it reached No 3 on the UK chart in 1960. “Suddenly I was his manager, not knowing anything about the business,” Mason recalled. “But the important thing was, I was in the business.”

Struggling to find a follow-up, Mason was spurred to try his hand at songwriting, and his first effort, You’re My Little Girl (1960), became a B side for Bruce. He had more success with Don’t Turn Around, a Top 20 hit for The Merseybeats in 1964, and the following year he produced and co-wrote She Just Satisfies, the first solo single by future Led Zeppelin superstar Jimmy Page.

Mason had been introduced to Reed by a music publisher, and he always remembered one extraordinary day in 1967 when, having had their planned round of golf scuppered by rain, the pair of them went to Reed’s house and laid the foundations for a group of songs including The Last Waltz, Delilah and another imminent Jones hit, I’m Coming Home. “I had the energy in those days,” he reflected in 2014. “I’d start at 10 in the morning and leave at seven or eight at night having never stopped.”

He had some creative assistance from his second wife, Sylvan Whittingham, whom he married in 1972. She was the daughter of the screenwriter Jack Whittingham, whose long list of credits included the James Bond film Thunderball. Sylvan was an aspiring photographer, singer and songwriter who wrote Following You Around, the one-time theme tune for Morecambe and Wise’s TV show. In 1970 she and Mason released their jointly written single When You Do What You’re Doing as Barry Mason and Sylvan, and she claimed to have co-written several of Mason’s best-known songs including Delilah, Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Humperdinck’s hit A Man Without Love and others. This prompted a lengthy legal battle that was settled out of court in 1986.

Mason also made his mark in the sporting world, thanks to his theme for Leeds United football club, Marching On Together (Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!) and We Got The Whole World In Our Hands (an arrangement with John Fiddy of the African American spiritual) for Nottingham Forest. He had written his best-known songs by the early 70s, but made a comeback in 2002 when he wrote material for Declan Galbraith’s album Declan, including the Top 30 hit Tell Me Why. He won five Ivor Novello awards, and in 2020 was appointed MBE.

He is survived by his partner, Vanessa Martin, and by three children: Aimi, from his marriage to Whittingham, and Maggie and Tyler, from his third marriage, to Elizabeth Clifton.

John Barry Mason, songwriter, born 12 July 1935; died 16 April 2021

 

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