Mark London moved overseas from Montreal in 1965. It was there that he was approached with the opportunity to compose the music for To Sir With Love – the catch being that he had less than a day to do it. London sat down to the piano that night and wrote the song in about forty minutes.
The title was taken from E.R. Braithwaite’s 1959 autobiographical novel. Pop singer Lulu played tough London high-school girl Barbara Pegg; Sidney Poitier portrayed teacher Mark Thackeray. The film traces his students’ transformation to maturity under his guidance amid black-white racial and economic tensions that were easily understood by British and American audiences alike. The song, sung by Pegg at the year-end dance, is the graduates’ gift to their teacher.
Lulu’s single was released in North America on the Epic label, bookended by a shimmering string arrangement by John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and omitting the third verse (“Those awkward years, have hurried by…”) heard in the film. Her heartfelt singing in the newly popular “blue-eyed soul” style ensured the song’s success. The song also began a long creative partnership between London and Lulu, who was managed by London’s wife Marion Massey.
To Sir With Love shot from No. 22 on September 30, 1967 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart to No. 3 on October 14, and reigned at No. 1 for five weeks from October 21 to November 18. It dropped to No. 2 for another week but did not leave the top ten until December 16, becoming Billboard Year End No. 1 single and Cashbox’s No. 5. It was Canada’s No. 2 record for 1967 (in the era before Canadian content regulations), besting The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, and received a BMI award. Billboard also ranked the song No. 23 on its Top 50 Movie Songs of All Time (as of 2014), and No. 21 of its Top 50 “Love” Songs.
The soundtrack was nominated for a 1968 Grammy for best original score, and was runner-up for the Ivor Novello Award for Britain’s International Song of the Year. Ironically, the song failed to make the top ten in the UK, where Columbia released it as the B side to Let’s Pretend.
To Sir With Love appeared on various Lulu albums and has over 600 cover versions to date, notably Jann Arden (on “Happy?”, a Canadian top ten album) and Chaka Khan (a jazzy version with the London Symphony Orchestra). Soul, funk, reggae and instrumental versions exist. Versions have been popular in Australia and New Zealand. A line from Black’s lyrics became the title for Lulu’s 1994 album “From Crayons to Perfume: The Best of Lulu.”
The song was first sung on television by Lulu on “The Ed Sullivan Show” October 22, 1967 and has since been featured on “King of Queens,” “Golden Girls,” “Boy Meets World,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Ally McBeal,” “Glee,” and “American Idol,” and in the film “Pirate Radio: The Boat That Rocked.” Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe sang it as an alternative-rock duet at US President Bill Clinton’s MTV inaugural ball in 1993. Lulu’s recording appears on numerous British Invasion and 1960s compilations.
To Sir With Love was Mark London’s greatest song-writing success. In a February 2, 2015 interview with The Canadian Press’ Music Reporter Nick Patch, London said, “I would imagine it’s played a few times every day, because the royalties I get from BMI in America – it’s quite a bit. They keep having new versions coming out constantly. Everyone knows it… . The funny thing is, young people don’t know it. If you’re like under 30 or so, most of them haven’t heard the song.”
London has written and co-written countless other hits and had a multifaceted career as an actor, manager and producer. Although he lived in Great Britain for decades, he recently moved back home to Montreal.
Don Black has created lyrics for James Bond movie themes and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is in the US Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Order of the British Empire, and is a BMI Icon.