His lyrics to Les Reed tunes brought hits to Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and others.
Barry Mason, who passed away at the age of 85, was the author of some of the most recognisable pop ballads of the 1960s.
The most dramatic of these was Tom Jones’ 1968 hit ‘Delilah’, where Mason’s lyrics combined with the melody of his longest-serving collaborator Les Reed told the story of a man killing his lover in retaliation for her infidelity.
“I was inspired by ‘Jezebel’, an old Frankie Lane hit,” he said of the 1951 song, first recorded by the American singer before the record charts even existed. “I loved ‘story songs’ as a kid.”
In another interview, Mason said the song was based on a Welsh girl called Delia, with whom he had an affair in Blackpool during the holidays when he was 15, but before returning home she told him she had a boyfriend. “I was sick with jealousy,” he added.
But Sylvan, his girlfriend – and later wife – who claimed to have written the lyrics with him, denied the story. She said Reid had suggested a contemporary story of Samson and Delilah, but he and Mason switched to the plot of the 1954 film Carmen Jones, where Harry Belafonte – seething with passion, jealousy and rage – strangles his adulterous lover.
The song ‘Delilah’ reached No.2 in the UK, charted around the world, earned Mason and Reid the Ivor Novello award for best song of the year and became the anthem of Welsh rugby fans.
Dozens of bands have since performed the song, and none have been more theatrical than The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, who brought it back to the top ten in the UK in 1975. Their mock version had dramatic pauses and staccato keyboards.
An even bigger hit for Mason and Reid was ‘The Last Waltz’, which brought Engelbert Humperdinck’s song to number one in 1967 – for five weeks in the UK and nine in Australia. It also reached the Top 30 in the US and became a staple of closing dance evenings.
Humperdinck had hits with other Mason-Reed songs when the pair wrote “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize” for a British short film of the same name in 1968 and “Winter World of Love”, No 1 in the US the following year.
The song “I’m Coming Home” was another success for Jones in 1967, reaching No. 2 in the UK, while Des O’Connor topped the charts with “I Pretend” in 1968.
The writers worked to a schedule, meeting on Sundays at Reid’s home in Surrey, who played tunes on his piano. The two of them would come up with ideas and Mason would write the lyrics there or at home.
Their formula of providing material for mid-tempo ballads seemed counterintuitive at a time when many young music fans were gyrating to rock and roll and screaming to the sounds of The Beatles and other 1960s bands.
They actually wrote hits for two beat bands: “Here It Comes Again” by The Fortunes (1965) and “Everybody Knows” by Dave Clark Five (1967), but the latter was a far cry from the sound that had inspired dancehall listeners to stomp their feet years earlier.
By the late 1960s, Reed had developed wider interests as a producer, arranger and bandleader and had started his own record label.
After that, the pair wrote only a few new songs together. The song ‘Girl of Mine’, recorded by Humperdinck as an album track in 1972, was reworked by Elvis Presley in country style on his Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake record the following year.
Mason had already started working with other tune-writers. With varying degrees of success, his singles included Des O’Connor’s ‘One, Two, Three O’Leary’ with Michael Carr (No 4, 1968); Cilla Black’s ‘Where Is Tomorrow’ with Humberto Bindi (No 39, 1968); and Edison Lighthouse’s ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ with Tony Macaulay (No 1, 1970). With Roger Greenaway, he wrote The Drifters’ ‘There Goes My First Love’ (No. 3, 1975) and Tom Jones’ ‘Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow’, which reached the top 40 in 1977.
John Barry Mason was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1935 to Phyllis (née Hart), racer and sister of international speedway racer Oliver Hart, and Cecil Mason, journalist.
When he was six the family moved to his maternal grandfather’s farm in the nearby village of Coppull, and Mason went to boarding school in Prestatyn, Flintshire, before going to Baines Grammar School, Poulton-le-Field.
After his father died in 1944, Mason’s mother ran an inn in Blackpool. Five years later she married an American soldier and moved to Ohio.
After national service in the Royal Marines, Mason moved to the United States and studied English literature and American history at Ohio State University.
Then, intending to perform, he dropped out and hitchhiked down Route 66 to Hollywood. “I spent three years there trying to become a singer or an actor and failing,” he recalls.
Returning to the UK, he headed for London, where he met a neighbour, singer Tommy Bruce. That man agreed to be his manager and financed a demo recording of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, which was then released as a single and reached No. 3 in 1960.
Mason’s first writing experience came when he teamed up with the Bruisers of Birmingham and wrote ‘My Little Girl’, which became the b-side of the single.
He then wrote the song “Don’t Cry” with Peter Green, lead singer of the Bruisers, which appeared as the b-side to Bruce and the band’s second hit “Blue Girl” in 1963. The following year they wrote The Merseybeats’ top 20 single “Don’t Turn Around”, and Green (also known as Peter Lee Stirling) went on to achieve some success as a singer under the pseudonym Daniel Boone.
Mason even teamed up with Jimmy Page to co-write with the future Led Zeppelin star his first solo single “She Just Satisfies” in 1965.
Meanwhile, a music publisher introduced him to Reid, who was looking for a lyricist and had already worked with Tom Jones – as musical arranger on his recordings and author, along with the star’s manager Gordon Mills, of the number one single “It’s Not Unusual”.
Mason-Reed’s first hit was The Fortunes’ single ‘Here It Comes Again’, which reached No 4 in 1965.
Their only outright flop was “Who’s Doctor Who?”, a novelty song recorded in 1968 by Fraser Hines, who starred in a science-fiction programme as Time Lord companion Jamie McCrimmon.
The duo also wrote the football song “Leeds Leeds”, also known as “Marching on Together”, which was released on the “B” side of Leeds United’s 1972 hit single. It continued to be played at the club’s stadium before matches and was re-released as an A-side in 2010, briefly returning to the top 10.
Mason later wrote lyrics for Barbra Streisand’s 1988 composition Why Let It Go; two albums by David Hasselhoff Looking for Freedom (1989) and Crazy for You (1990); and for the 2002 hit Tell Me Why, written by baby star Declan Galbraith.
He was awarded the MBE in 2020.
Mason’s three marriages – to Patricia Ellis (1961), Sylvan (née Swilven) Whittingham (1972) and Elizabeth Clifton (1982) – ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner Vanessa Martin and his children, Aimee from his second marriage and Maggie and Tyler from his third.
Barry Mason, songwriter, born 12 July 1935, died 16 April 2021