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'Willy Wonka' Composer Leslie Bricusse Is Still Busy At Age 90

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fifty years ago this summer, an eccentric candy mogul first sang one of the sweetest, most memorable movie songs of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")

GENE WILDER: (Singing) Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a...

CHANG: The movie, of course, was "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory." Tim Greiving has this story about the imagination behind the music.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: No one really noticed "Pure Imagination" in 1971. "Willy Wonka" was a box office dud. Even the author, Roald Dahl, hated it. The L.A. Times called the songs perfectly, instantly forgettable. Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the songs with his musical partner Anthony Newley, was a little worried himself when he visited the set in Munich.

LESLIE BRICUSSE: The chocolate river set was up. It was real chocolate, by the way. And on the next soundstage, they were shooting "Cabaret." And I thought how wonderful it was. And I was a bit nervous about the amateur style of our show compared with the professionalism of Bob Fosse.

GREIVING: The one song from "Wonka" that did stick at the time was "The Candy Man," thanks to a chart-topping cover by Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CANDY MAN")

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (Singing) Who can take the sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate...

BRICUSSE: He had the No. 1 song. And the song that's come through is "Pure Imagination." But it didn't come through for, like, 25 years. It just sat there. And suddenly, I think probably because of Gene Wilder's performance and as people got to know the film better, they became more familiar with it and liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")

WILDER: (Singing) If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.

GREIVING: "Pure Imagination" has been Bricusse's life motto. He was born in 1931 in London. And during World War II air raids, he entertained his friends with made-up stories. As a teenager, he fell in love with movie musicals, and he began writing his own shows at Cambridge. He hooked up with Newley, and they created West End hits with songs that got covered by everyone from Judy Garland to Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO CAN I TURN TO?")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?

GREIVING: Bricusse went to Hollywood and wrote songs for lavish movie musicals like the original "Doctor Dolittle" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." He also wrote the lyrics for three James Bond songs with composer John Barry, including "You Only Live Twice" and...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDFINGER")

SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) Goldfinger.

GREIVING: But funnily enough, his most lasting legacy may be the 50-year-old song that nobody cared about at the time. "Pure Imagination" has been covered by everyone from Lou Rawls to Maroon 5. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek put it on her new album, "Under The Pepper Tree."

SARA WATKINS: There have been times in my life when I felt really alone or maybe at a low point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")

WATKINS: (Singing) Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you'll see into your imagination.

And out of nowhere, there'll be these little jewel songs that will just percolate through the floor and offer me a memory of how I felt at a different time and - reminding me that, oh, that was a really happy feeling or, I remember, like, there is joy, there is happiness or there is imagination or there is this world outside of just this heavy feeling that I have right now.

GREIVING: That's something songwriter Leslie Bricusse had in mind when he wrote "Pure Imagination."

BRICUSSE: It's a good thought for people, especially young people, to carry with them through life. You'll be free if you truly wish to be at the end is, to me, the most important line in the film. It's a reflective thought on how to make a life work.

GREIVING: And it seems to have worked for Bricusse, who at 90, is still busy writing songs.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF EELS SONG, "SWEET LI'L THING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.