Monday, July 23, 2012

Michele Monro Talks with the Cafe about "The Singer's Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro"

Michele Monro, daughter of British singer Matt Monro, sat down recently to chat with the Cafe about her new biography of her father. Famous for 1960s hit records such as "Portrait of My Love" and "My Kind of Girl," Matt Monro was also widely known for singing on the soundtracks to films like Born Free, From Russia With Love, and The Quiller Memorandum.

Cafe:  Your father was born Terence Edward Parsons  How did Terry Parsons come to be known as Matt Monro?

Michele Monro:  Less than six weeks after signing his recording contract, Terry was booked in at the studios to cut his debut album Blue and Sentimental with The Malcolm Lockyer Orchestra.  Decca Records soon decided Terence Edward Parsons needed a different name for his recording career and it took a matter of minutes to choose. ‘Matt’, taken from Matt White, an Australian Fleet Street journalist who worked for the Daily Sketch at the time and had written a centre-page spread of adulation about the singing bus driver, and ‘Monro’, from pianist Winnie Atwell’s father, Monro Atwell. Matt Monro was born. In later years, Matt’s name was legally changed, but the constant misspelling came to irk him; it was either spelled Munro, Monroe or even Munrowe, sometimes as many as three different ways within the same article.

Cafe:  Most film fans remember Don Black as the lyricist of classic  movie songs like "Born Free" and "Diamonds Are Forever." What  different job did he perform for Matt Monro?

Michele:  Don Black met Matt Monro while working as a music plugger in Tin Pan Alley and they immediately became firm friends. Matt encouraged his friend to write at every opportunity and even recorded a plethora of the budding lyricist’s songs in order to give him a boost. When Matt hit it big with "Portrait of My Love," he asked Don to leave his job and come on board as his manager. It was a successful relationship and the job role gave Don ample opportunity to continue writing.

Cafe:  What role did Peter Sellers and producer George Martin (of  Beatles fame) play in Matt's career?

Matt Monro in concert.
Michele:  In autumn 1959, George Martin rang Matt’s wife  Mickie and told her about a small job he had which would require the singer to record a take-off of Frank Sinatra. A song had been written for the opening track on the second Peter Sellers album he was working on and the intention was that Sellers should sing it with a voice as near as possible to Sinatra’s. Although Peter couldn’t sing terribly well, it was thought he could use his great powers of mimicry so that it would actually sound like someone doing an impression of Sinatra, adding comic significance to the title of the LP, Songs for Swingin’ Sellers. However, Sellers was doubtful that he could pull off the task, admitting that he could manage ordinary impressions but not vocal ones. Although he wanted to phrase it like Sinatra would, he didn’t know how to achieve the effect. George’s solution was to look for someone who had a voice like Sinatra--he didn’t want an impression but to hear it sung the way that Sinatra might sing it.

Matt did the job and he did it well and upon hearing the recording, Sellers--a master of impersonation--admitted he could never approach Sinatra’s style so accurately or do such justice to the song. He thought the test number was great and suggested they use Matt’s version as the opening track on the album under the guise of a pseudonym – Fred Flange. Released at the end of 1959 with the memorable album cover featuring a body hanging from a tree, it caused something of a furor in professional circles. Parlophone Records was besieged with phone calls and letters, with record buyers and press wanting to know who the mystery singer was. Once the true identity of the impersonator got out, the industry tabloids were awash with admiration and offers to give Monro work flooded in.

Cafe:  Matt met a dozens of other big stars during his frequent television  appearances on television series like The Ed Sullivan Show. Who were some  of his favorite singers?

Tom Jones and Matt Monro.
Michele:  Matt adored working with his mentor Winnie Atwell. She had a certain  funk going on that he loved and of course Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis ranked highly on his list. He loved them as people and to him that was important because they gave their music heart and soul. He would have given his right arm towork with Sinatra, but something always conspired to get in the way. He actually had the opportunity of  signing with Reprise and he would have jumped at the chance had it not been for his advisors. They read more into it that just an innocent  offer--had my father signed with the company they could in fact have prevented him from recording at all. Some thought they wanted this so Sinatra had no competition--but like so many rumors--they were without substance.

Cafe:  The Oscar-winning song "Born Free"--written by John  Barry & Don Black and sung by Matt-- was cut from the movie at one point. What's the story behind that?

Michele:  Matt’s first single for Capitol was one of the songs he will forever be associated with. Producer Carl Foreman had partnered with Columbia to film Born Free, a simple tale about lions in captivity and John Barry and Don Black were chosen to compose the music

Foreman disliked the finished song immensely, feeling the lyrics should centre around and encompass the lions themselves. However, Barry somehow persuaded the producer to stick with his vision. It should have gone smoothly from then on, but Foreman kept changing his mind on whether the film should even have a title song and thought Don’s lyrics were too much of a social comment.  Barry and Black fought their for corner vigorously and thought they had won the battle with the producer, but they were in for an unpleasant surprise.

Matt attended the Royal première of Born Free at London’s Odeon Leicester Square and it wasn’t long before Don received an anguished call from the singer telling him they’d cut the song from the final cut of the movie.  Carl Foreman had approached Matt in the lobby after the film’s closing credits and apologised for the omission. He explained that they’d dropped the first reel of the movie and fractured the film so the soundtrack couldn't be used. But the truth was that he thought it was in the film’s best interest to drop the song and he’d gone back into the cutting room and re-edited the film, removing the song and replacing it with an orchestral version for the opening.

The trio were apoplectic, but Foreman was adamant that his decision wouldn’t be reversed. However, as it transpired "Born Free" had rocketed up the American charts and the Roger Williams orchestral version, complete with backing choir, was now sitting in the number one position. Carl Foreman couldn’t justify his decision any longer--he had to reverse it. For a song to be eligible for an Academy Award, it had to be featured in every print of the film. The heads of Columbia, the publishers, Screen Gems and the producers all clamoured to reclaim every piece of celluloid that had been distributed, so as to put the song back in, spending vast sums of money on an Oscar campaign to promote the new version. In 1966, both the song "Born Free" and John Barry’s score won Academy Awards.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on Wednesday.

Black & white photos are from The Singer’s Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro © 2012 Michele Monro. Titan Books provided a review copy to the Classic Film & TV Cafe.


  1. Rick, this is a fascinating interview! I have always loved Matt Monro's smooth, beautiful voice. It was really interesting reading about the influence of the Peter Sellers album. And I was very surprised to hear about the "Born Free" story. They almost cut "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz" as well. Both songs took home well deserved Oscars. I look forward to the next installment of this interview. Thank you, Michele, for sharing with us about your dear father!

  2. Rick,

    Great interview! I remember Matt Munro's version of BORN FREE from those long ago days. The Peter Sellers connection was fascinating. Looking forward to Part Two.

  3. Rick, I've always loved "Born Free" and Matt Monro's rendition of the theme song- so glad it wasn't cut from the film. Learned a lot about Mr. Monro with this interview (including the correct spelling of his name!). Most interesting.