Don Black’s life in lyrics – the famous showman behind iconic musicals | Theatre | Entertainment

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Don Black at his desk (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

Don’s incredible contribution to the arts have now earned him a CBE in the New Year’s Honours list, and at 85 years young he has no intention of slowing down.

One of his latest projects is the hotly anticipated new musical Rehab, which arrived in the West End on Friday. Don is a co-producer, while son Grant who is also a lyricist is the show’s co-writer and his other son Clive is the producer.

Don has wor-ked with many of the biggest names in the industry, including Andrew Lloyd Webber. He co-wrote tracks with the late composer John Barry for James Bond films Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With The Golden Gun. He also wrote the
lyrics for the title track to the 1966 film Born Free, which earned him an Oscar.

Yet despite all the accolades, Don insists the secret to his success is failure. His autobiography The Sanest Guy In The Room details his humble beginnings, growing up in Hackney, east London.

He took a job on the New Musical Express, became a stand-up comedian and then a music manager, before becoming one of the world’s most successful songwriters.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Express, Don revealed how he gets ideas by listening to conversations and writing them down in his many notebooks.

“I listen to people, especially if it’s two women or a man and a woman. And if I look at the play or a movie, I think to myself, ‘What would she sing about’. It’s just how my brain works.

“A good example is when Andrew Lloyd Webber played me a melody and I thought, ‘Yes we’ve got a title for this’. Then I thought, ‘Forty years ago I wrote in a notebook the words ‘Love, changes everything’ – that’s a good title.”

Modest and quietly spoken, Don faced heartbreak in 2018 when Shirley, his wife of 60 years, died.

He lost his brother Michael in the same year.

And in 2020 he nearly died when he was hospitalised with Covid. Now he insists he has no intention of ever retiring from the “best job in the world”.

“There’s no reason to retire, thank God. If I’m healthy and I can do what I do…it’s a wonderful job, it’s the best job in the world.

“I’m always busy, but that’s the way I like it. At my age I should be on the park bench, you know, but I’m so happy when I’m working because I love my work.

“If I hated my job that would be a different thing, of course, but I’m busy with various projects, two or three musicals simmering.

With Christopher Hampton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Close before Sunset Boulevard

With Christopher Hampton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Close before Sunset Boulevard (Image: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images))

In the 1960s Don stepped away from managing singer Matt Monro to concentrate on writing lyrics. His advice to new songwriters is they must accept that rejection and failure is part of the job if they want to succeed.

“The advice I always give to people is, ‘If you can’t take rejection you are in the wrong business’.

“Everyone, even Andrew Lloyd Webber, they’ve all had failures.

“Everyone has failed and a lot of people can’t take failure. I know many songwriters who have tried to write today, and they haven’t stayed the course, you know, just because it’s a different world and they just can’t adjust.

“You’re going to be terribly disappointed and you must get over that and keep going.

“And then I say, listen to all the great songs that have been written in the past. Even though it’s a different generation, soak up those great people, like Rodgers and Hammerstein, because you’ll find out how good a song can be. That’s your homework.”

He said he regards his 2020 autobiography as his greatest achievement: “I had the happiest childhood ever, and I’ve been blessed in my life. There is no question.

“I had 60 years of flawless marriage, unrivalled happiness, and yet you lose someone. That’s something else. Grief is another thing.”

As well as detailing his life, Don says the book was “just as much about grief – and men don’t write about grief. I’ve received letters from people telling me how much they love the book. They zero in, not on James Bond, or my shows, they zero in about Shirley and the boys… it’s a human story and I think that’s exactly right.

“If I look back, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of glittering awards over my life, I still think my biggest achievement is my book, because it came at the saddest time in my life.”

Looking back at the happier times, Don recalls working with Barbra Streisand. “There are people who come along once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. She is very funny and very normal.

“She’s the best singer for a generation and to spend the day so close to women like that, with her sitting on the couch with you, and she’s singing in your ear as we’re going over a song… it’s a day you don’t ever forget.”

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With lyricist Charles Hart and Andrew Lloyd Webber

With lyricist Charles Hart and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Image: Mario Ruiz/Getty Images)

He describes working with his two sons as being like “the three Musketeers” and he is delighted that their collaboration opened at Neon 194 in Piccadilly on Friday, starring Keith Allen and Mica Paris.

Don still gets a kick out of watching the audience interact with his shows. When Rehab ran at a small west London theatre last year, a star-studded crowd – including the late great comic Barry Humphries – turned out to hear the catchy songs and enjoy the funny and heartwrenching tale of a young pop star spiralling into a world of addiction and exploitation.

He smiles: “Well, I’m looking at Barry Humphries and he was laughing his head off, absolutely hysterical at some of the things.

“Tim Rice was in. He came up to me and said, ‘Don, it’s bloody marvellous’. I saw Damien Hirst, all these unusual people raving about the show. It’s very heartening.”

Don Black’s book The Sanest Guy In The Room is out now.

Rehab The Musical tickets available from


Keith Allen and Mica Paris are starring in Rehab

Keith Allen and Mica Paris are starring in Rehab (Image: Humphrey Nemar)

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