The comparative inactivity of Bart for many years tended to cloud the fact that he was one of the major songwriters of twentieth-century popular song. The former East-End silk-screen printer, was at the very hub of the rock 'n' roll and skiffle generation that came out of London's Soho club scene in the mid-50s. As a member of the Cavemen with Tommy Steele he later became Steele's main source of non-American song material. In addition to writing the pioneering 'Rock With The Cavemen' he composed a series of glorious singalong numbers, including ‘A Handful of Songs’, 'Water Water' and the trite but delightfully innocent 'Little White Bull'. Much of Bart's work was steeped in the English music-hall tradition, diffused with a strong working-class pride, and it was no surprise that he soon graduated into writing songs for full-length stage shows. Lock Up Your Daughters and Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be were two of his early successes, both appearing during 1959, the same year he wrote the classic ‘Living Doll’ for Cliff Richard. 'Living Doll' was a fine example of simplicity and melody working together perfectly. Bart could mix seemingly incompatible words such as 'gonna lock her up in a trunk, so no big hunk can steal her away from me', and they would come out sounding as if they were meant to be together. Bart was also one of the first writers to introduce mild politics into his lyrics, beautifully transcribed with topical yet humorously ironic innocence, for example: 'They've changed our local Palais into a bowling alley and fings ain't wot they used to be.'
As the 60s dawned Bart unconsciously embarked on a decade that saw him reach dizzy heights of success and made him one of the musical personalities of the decade. During the first quarter of the year he topped the charts with 'Do You Mind' for Anthony Newley, a brilliantly simple and catchy song complete with Bart's own finger-snapped accompaniment. The best was yet to come when that year he launched Oliver!, a musical based on Dickens' Oliver Twist. This became a phenomenal triumph, and remains one of the most successful musicals of all time. Bart's knack of simple melody, combined with unforgettable lyrics, produced many classics, including the pleading 'Who Will Buy', the rousing 'Food Glorious Food' and the poignant 'As Long As He Needs Me' (also a major hit for Shirley Bassey, although she reputedly never liked the song). Bart was a pivotal figure throughout the swinging London scene of the 60s, although he maintained that the party actually started in the 50s. Bart befriended Brian Epstein, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, became an international star following Oliver!'s success as a film (winning six Oscars), and, although he was homosexual, was romantically linked with Judy Garland and Alma Cogan. Following continued, although lesser, success with Blitz! and Maggie May, Bart was shaken into reality when the London critics damned his 1965 musical Twang!!, based upon the life of Robin Hood. Bart's philanthropic nature made him a prime target for business sharks and he lost much of his fortune as a result.
By the end of the 60s the cracks were beginning to show. Bart's dependence on drugs and alcohol increased and he watched many of his close friends die in tragic circumstances - Cogan with cancer, Garland through drink and drugs and Epstein's supposed suicide. In 1969, La Strada only had a short run in New York before Bart retreated into himself, and for many years maintained a relatively low profile, watching the 70s and 80s pass almost as a blur, only making contributions to The Londoners and Costa Packet. During this time the gutter press was eager for a kiss-and-tell story but Bart remained silent, a credible action considering the sums of money he was offered. During the late 80s Bart finally beat his battle with alcohol and ended the decade a saner, wiser and healthier man. His renaissance started in 1989 when he was commissioned by a UK building society to write a television jingle. The composition became part of an award-winning advertisement, featuring a number of angelic children singing with Bart, filmed in pristine monochrome. The song 'Happy Endings' was a justifiable exhumation of a man who remained an immensely talented figure and whose work ranks with some of the greatest of the American 'musical comedy' songwriters.
In the early 90s his profile continued to be high, with revivals by the talented National Youth Theatre of Oliver!, Maggie May and Blitz! (the latter production commemorating the 50th anniversary of the real thing), and the inclusion of one of his early songs, 'Rock With The Caveman', in the blockbuster movie The Flintstones, in a version by Big Audio Dynamite. In December 1994 Lionel Bart's rehabilitation was complete when producer Cameron Mackintosh presented a major new production of Oliver! at the London Palladium, initially starring Jonathan Pryce. In a gesture rare in the cutthroat world of showbusiness, Mackintosh returned a portion of the show's rights to the composer (Bart had sold them during the bad old days), thereby assuring him an 'income for life'. With Oliver! set to make its North American debut in Toronto, Bart died in April 1999 shortly after overseeing the first major revival of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, in England. He spent his last few years living alone in his apartment in Acton, West London and died after losing his battle with cancer. He had been able to experience a just and well-deserved reappraisal during his last years, with Oliver destined to continue in perpetuity.
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