The pure imagination of Leslie Bricusse: meet the man behind the world's favourite songs

Liza Minnelli And Leslie Bricusse
Liza Minnelli And Leslie Bricusse

Last week’s Washington DC inauguration concert for Joe Biden was a star-studded affair. The galaxy of all-American talents, marshalled by MC Tom Hanks, included Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Demi Lovato and, as the BBC reported it, “John Legend power[ing] through a big band arrangement of Nina Simone's Feeling Good”.

Except it wasn’t quite all-American, with Bon Jovi singing The Beatles' Here Comes The Sun. Meanwhile, another Brit with a less obvious but no less crucial key role on the bill was watching from the home on the French Riviera where, today (January 29), he is celebrating his 90th birthday.

“We watched every minute of it because we were very worried about what was going to happen,” says Leslie Bricusse, the songwriter to whom Feeling Good should actually be ascribed (with an equal nod to his frequent collaborator Anthony Newley). The double Oscar-winner and Evie, his wife of 62 years, were glued to their screens, unable to switch off lest a Trumpist mob crashed the presidential party.

“But thank God it worked out well. Then we had that very nice thing happen in the evening, with John Legend singing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And he got all the great reviews.

“It was the perfect choice, actually,” continues Bricusse of a song he and the late actor/singer/writer Newley wrote for their 1964 West End musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. “It was a very important song in the score. It was sung by a brilliant young Black opera singer, Gilbert Price. He was 18 and had the most incredible voice. He stopped the show every night. And it was about Black freedom, which is what the core of the song is: freedom is mine.”

But despite Simone recording the most well-known version the following year, other songs from the show became hits, indeed standards, long before Feeling Good broke out. Who Can I Turn To?, for example, was an American hit for Tony Bennett. Most recently, in 2016, the song enjoyed an odd afterlife when Barbra Streisand recorded a duet with Newley, then dead for 17 years.

Even despite Simone making the definitive recording of Feeling Good, in Bricusse’s view the song just “sat there for 35 years or so. Then Richard Branson used a Michael Bublé recording of it on a Virgin airlines commercial – they spent $10 million on a commercial,” he says, and I can hear his eyebrows raising in astonishment. “That made it take off. Then various groups like Muse did it. So it gradually grew out of nowhere, and now it’s a very strong copyright.”

Bricusse can lay claim to multiple “very strong” – that is, very in-demand and very lucrative – copyrights. The Pinner, Middlesex man born on this day in 1931 has written or co-written, amongst myriad other accomplishments, three James Bond songs; the songs and the screenplay for Doctor Dolittle (1967); all the great songs from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971); the book/music/lyrics to long-running 1992 stage musical Scrooge (based on the 1970 Albert Finney film, for which Bricusse wrote the music); and the lyrics to 1982’s Victor/Victoria. That Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews comedy gave Bricusse, alongside co-writer Henry Mancini, his second Academy Award, after Dolittle’s Talk to The Animals.

Who’s covered his songs? Better, perhaps, to say who hasn’t. Frank Sinatra did a few, Sammy Davis Jr did over 60, while others have been performed by everyone from Nancy Sinatra to Harry Secombe, Shirley Bassey to Diana Krall, Barry Manilow to Petula Clark to George Michael to the Pussycat Dolls to the cast of Glee. Fewer people have covered My Old Man’s A Dustman, the 1960 Lonnie Donegan smash for which Bricusse wrote the lyrics under the pen-name Beverley Thorn “because I was worried about it being downmarket”. An international Number One it remains, nonetheless, a special kind of 20th century popular music classic.

Along the way, meanwhile, Bricusse and Evie – under the name Yvonne Romain, she was an actress with many a glamorous role in Sixties films – met and became fast friends with a dizzying array of movie and music A-list talent. Working hard and socialising hard across the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and beyond, they had the best of champagne-level fun in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Palm Springs, Gstaad, the Caribbean, the Côte d’Azur and London’s stockbroker-slash- entertainment belt.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka - Alamy
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka - Alamy

Their, if you like, premier cru premier crew included Sinatra, Davis Jr, Mia Farrow, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire, Michael Caine, Rex Harrison, two James Bonds (three if you count David Niven), all four Beatles (although they only rented their South of France to one, McCartney) and two titanic grande dames in the shape of Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor – three if we include fellow Pinner-boy-made good Elton John, a near-neighbour in the South of France. Now residing for much of the year in Saint Paul de Vence, the couple even made the acquaintance of the artist Marc Chagall, then living out the twilight of his years in the French Riviera town famed for its art galleries (he would die there, aged 97, in 1985).

“We don’t have an inch of wall space anywhere,” Bricusse tells me. “I’m sitting in the room at the top of the house which has nothing but Chagall in it. He was a delightful old man, and there’s something about the poetry of his paintings that we absolutely adore.” Their value must help, too – the record for a Chagall at auction is $28.5 million. “So he’s the principal artist we have other than our son,” adds of their 56-year-old painter son Adam Bricusse. “So Adam is the equal to Chagall in this house!”

I’m talking to Bricusse via Evie. He has difficulty hearing me due to French telephone lines that have been playing up since last summer, and also due to him being “a little mutt [and jeff]”. But Evie, 83 next month, can hear me fine, so she relays my questions to him, then he comes to the receiver to unfurl yet another golden anecdote from a gilded life well-earned.

But even as he can do great impersonations of pals Sean Connery and Barbra Streisand, she, it transpires, is just as entertaining. When I mention My Old Man’s A Dustman, she interjects with, “that’s Mike Caine’s favourite song of Leslie’s! He says that anyone who can write My Old Man’s a Dustman and What Kind of Fool Am I? can’t be all bad. Oh, no, sorry, that was Elton John said that. Both of them, ha ha!”

I start with Feeling Good, specifically Newley. He was Bricusse’s most significant writing partner, with their collaboration striking paydirt immediately on their first musical, 1961’s Stop The World – I Want to Get Off, with Newley in the leading role. It also introduced Joan Collins into the writers’ world.

Anthony Newley and Joan Collins, who met through Leslie Bricusse - PA
Anthony Newley and Joan Collins, who met through Leslie Bricusse - PA

“Joan had just broken up with Warren Beatty and she came to see Stop The World… with Robert Wagner. This was on a Thursday. The next morning she called Evie – I don’t know how she got our number – and she said: ‘I understand that tomorrow is Newley’s birthday. I would like you to get 12 people together, and I’ll book a table at The White Elephant and we’ll celebrate his birthday.’

“So we all turned up at the restaurant and Joanie, like a fast moving truck, ran Newley over that night, and then moved in with him. He never knew what hit him.”

“That sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?” notes Evie playfully.

“|t was a wonderful marriage while it lasted,” continues Bricusse. “But Newley was not as responsible as he should have been – he played the field. Joanie wanted to settle down. She was a wonderful wife, she had a great persona, and it’s a great shame that it didn’t work.”

The Bricusse and Newley partnership was considerably more functional. They wrote the timeless Willy Wonka songs The Candy Man (which, in 1972, gave Davis Jr his only American Number One) and Pure Imagination. It gave Bricusse the title for his riotously entertaining and delightfully name-dropping 2015 memoir – a book with not one but six glowing and grateful forewords-cum-testimonials, by Elton John, Michael Caine, Julie Andrews, Roger Moore, Joan Collins and Liza Minelli.

Leslie and his wife Yvonne with the actor Michael Brandon, in 2015 - Getty
Leslie and his wife Yvonne with the actor Michael Brandon, in 2015 - Getty

“It was a very nice experience – it only took six weeks to write the six songs,” he says pointedly of the Wonka job, perhaps still rankled that he wasn’t allowed by the film studio to write the full 10 songs he and Newley wanted to write. “Pure Imagination was fortunately sung by Gene Wilder. The only thing we hated was the guy [English actor Aubrey Woods] who played the shopkeeper, who sang Candy Man in the film. He did the worst version of it possible. Newley offered to go in and play the shopkeeper for nothing, but they wouldn’t let him. So it remains the worst song in the film.”

The beloved children’s movie could have been different in other ways, too. A couple of years after its release, Bricusse was at home in Los Angeles playing a game of late-night pool with his Beverly Hills neighbour Fred Astaire. At one point, the great song and dance man, then in his early seventies, stopped and asked: “‘Leslie why do you suppose it is they didn’t want me to play Willy Wonka?” At the time, Bricusse thought this would have been a much better idea than casting the then-38-year-old, not majorly-well-known Gene Wilder

Now, though, he says, “I was wrong about that. Fred was a gigantic hero of mine, and Gene Wilder was very new – we’d seen him in Bonnie and Clyde but that was about all. But in fact when I look at it today, they were right to use the younger man. It worked out well. But it was obviously very much on Fred’s mind. I wish they could have made two movies and we could have compared them!” he chuckles.

He acknowledges actual miscasting with Doctor Dolittle, in which Newley played “the most unlikely Irishman in the world – he had a terrible Irish accent. I tried to get him to speak better but he couldn’t do it. But it worked out because he sang the songs beautifully.”

Even more challenging was working with leading man Rex Harrison. In his memoir Bricusse describes the actor – repeatedly – as “formidable and ferocious”. Why did he have such a bad reputation?

“Because he deserved it,” the songwriter shoots back. “He worked very hard on having a bad reputation. He was an impossibly difficult man, very arrogant. And amazingly, we spent a lot of time where Rex lived at that time, in Portofino [in Italy], which is the most beautiful place on earth. He was a very confused man,” he sighs. “In the end we actually became great friends – to the extent that he built the house next door to us here in Saint Paul de Vence. Peter Sellers had bought the piece of land, but Peter being Peter, he didn’t do anything with it. So he sold it to Rex.”

Rex Harrison in Dr Dolittle - Rex
Rex Harrison in Dr Dolittle - Rex

Speaking of irascible legends, what was Sinatra like when the camera was off, the spotlight elsewhere and the microphone silent? Bricusse begins by explaining their friendship. On first arriving in Hollywood, one of their first friends was Mia Farrow. “She invited us to her 21st birthday, which Frank gave her at a restaurant called Chasen’s. Then they got married and we became part of their group. Frank allowed four people from our [and Mia’s] generation – the other two being Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.”

Years later, “one Christmas, Roger Moore invited us to stay with them in Gstaad in Switzerland. And Frank also came that week. That’s when I used to keep Frank up – well, he used to keep me up, all night, talking about the MGM musicals, which I grew up on and are the reason I’m in the business. And of course had been in a lot of those early films like On the Town.”

So was Frank Sinatra, despite all rumours to the contrary, a pussycat really?

“Um, a sort of pussycat,” Evie replies carefully. “But he was quite frightening at moments. If there were photographers outside, I’ve never seen anyone so furious. I thought he was going to kill them! So there were definitely the two sides to him. But he could be absolutely lovely, your best friend. And he loved Leslie for some reason.”

Another friendship that straddled music and film was with composer John Williams. Together he and Bricusse wrote You Only Live Twice, sung by Nancy Sinatra for the 1967 007 film, and Goldfinger.

“I always said that Shirley Bassey should have sung every single James Bond song. That dynamic in her voice made Goldfinger work,” he says of their 1964 theme for the third Bond movie. “She also song another song that John and I wrote for a Bond film. Because Bond was a huge success in Japan, where he had the nickname Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, John and I wrote a song with that title. It’s the best of the three Bond songs we wrote. But then they decided not to use it, and I wasn’t available to write the replacement song, which was called Thunderball. But I realised years later, if at the end of every stanza, I’d put in ‘Bond, James Bond’ in Sean’s voice, that would have make it work. But it was too late.”

Another one that got away was the original choice for the singer of You Only Live Twice: Aretha Franklin.

“Quite simply, Harry [Saltzman] and Cubby [Broccoli] the producers turned down Aretha because she was ‘not known’. They had made a point of using whoever was hot, whether they were suited to the film or not. And Nancy had just had her biggest hit with These Boots Are Made for Walking, and she’d recorded a duet with her dad called Something Stupid. And Aretha Franklin had not yet happened,

“So they gave it to Nancy. But when the next Bond song came around, they offered it to Aretha, who told them what they could do with it!”

Leslie Bricusse and actress Gina Lollobrigida in 1981 - Getty
Leslie Bricusse and actress Gina Lollobrigida in 1981 - Getty

Over half-a-century on from those early career highlights, Bricusse remains busy and in-demand, both professionally and socially. To mark today’s 90th birthday, old pal and neighbour Elton John offered to host a South of France party in his honour. “But the next day there was all this lockdown everywhere, so he called and said he couldn’t do it,” sighs Bricusse, dejected but pragmatic. “So we’re going to do it in a few months when everything has calmed down.”

An easing of lockdown will also see the couple at some point back in London, where they retain a flat by the River Thames. They’ll mark their return with an old tradition. “We always have dinner with Mike and Shakira on our first night back in London at our favourite restaurant The River Café.” By all accounts Caine also puts on a fantastic Sunday lunch. What are the constituent elements?

“Mike has all the ingredients to be a great chef because he was also a great gardener. He kept the most wonderful vegetable garden at his house in Leatherhead. He’s an expert, for example, on potatoes. They do a big Sunday roast every week and he can tell you 18 varieties of potato and which ones make the best roast, and which ones make the best chips. He’s always been a great foodie.”

As for the work, it keeps coming. Sammy, his theatrical tribute to the old friend who was the greatest interpreter of his songs, will have a delayed London opening this summer, theatreland’s Covid protocols permitting. The Scrooge film is being made into a cartoon for Netflix “as we speak. In fact, I’ve got to write a song for it next week. But they haven’t changed it much, and I’ve got a nice new Christmas song at the top. But it takes such a long time to make those things. It’s about halfway through and it’ll come out next Christmas but one – 2022.”

The songs, he says, arrive as easily and readily as they ever did.

“Fortunately, yes. I’ve never had trouble with songs, except once, in Goodbye Mr. Chips.” That 1969 musical, starring Petula Clark and Peter O’Toole, was based on the 1934 novel that was also adapted for the 1939 film for which Robert Donat won the Best Actor Oscar.

“I wrote 18 songs for one spot [on the soundtrack] and could not get it. So MGM, because they were starting to shoot the picture, brought in a man called Rod McKuen, who was the world’s best-selling poet at the time. And he had the audacity to write 10 songs in one weekend. They were all, fortunately, as bad as each other. He wrote one called Mr and Mrs Chips Esquire, which was a particular dilly.

“I was so angry, on the Monday I wrote the song we needed. So it ended well.” Indeed: for their trouble Bricusse and co-writer John Williams landed an Academy Award nomination, one of eight Bricusse has received alongside his two wins in an extraordinary, near-seven-decade career.

Amidst all those treasures and tales and triumphs, though, if push comes to shove, is there one composition that stands out as his personal highlight?

“Favourite song?” relays Evie, getting straight to the point with hubbie.

“Pure Imagination,” comes Leslie Bricusse’s equally swift reply, “because it says what I wanted to say. But personally, Someone Nice Like You,” he says of the song from his very first musical, “because it’s for Evie. There’s an Evie song in every score I’ve ever written. That’s 37 of them. So far.”

“Well, I came out of that very well, didn’t I?” chirps Evie.