There's Always Something There To Remind Me:
The Burt Bacharach Story
The year is 1964. LBJ grabs a second term by a landslide. Civil Rights supporters march and raise angry fists in protest. Beatlemania ignites with a kerosene whoosh. Teens dance to The Swim, The Monkey, and The Watusi. Superballs bounce and ricochet off suburban sidewalks. A sporty new car called the Mustang zooms like a red rocket on the highways and byways. Comic Lenny Bruce spews out streams of obscenities in his nightclub act and ends up in court. A brash young boxer named Cassius Clay TKO's Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Suave Agent 007 dodges laser beams and flying derbies in Goldfinger.
And on both sides of the Atlantic, transistor radios and hi-fi's blare a bevy of hits sung by such voices of the day as Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, and Dionne Warwick. These songs are written by a pair of Brill Building tunesmiths, who after seven years of collaboration have hit their full, glorious stride. These two modest New Yorkers have the uncanny ability to tap into the kinetic energy of the time and distill it into breathtaking three-minute rhapsodies: "Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa," "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "Walk On By," "Reach Out For Me," "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Wives And Lovers," “Wishin' And Hopin," "Kentucky Bluebird (Send A Message To Martha)," "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me."
This bumper crop comes from the piano and pen of composer Burt Bacharach and his lyric partner Hal David. While Hal's graceful, understated words provide an ideal complement, it is the restless, dynamic melodies of Burt Bacharach that are unlike anything that has come before.
A Bacharach melody is more than a series of dots and stems. It is a living, breathing thing. It pulses with staccato dabs of color, then pauses dramatically. It stirs, leaping gracefully, stretching, yearning up the scale, then worrying down.
It charges forward in a vigorous gallop then suddenly quiets to a demure whisper. Rousing itself from a double pianissimo hush, it builds and swells to a triple forte fullness, finally detonating in a dazzling display of emotional fireworks.
In the negative spaces around his rangy melodies, Burt the arranger paints colorful sound pictures teeming with sophisticated harmonies and textures. Guitars chink. Timpani boom. Piccolos toot. Flugelhorns flirt with string sections. Airy saxophones hover over burbling marimbas. Female choruses chase lead vocals through vibrant and hilly terrain. This arrangement style elevates already masterfully written songs into something greater, a new style -- what becomes known, first in England and America, then around the world, as the Bacharach Sound.
And everybody wants a piece of it. By the end of the '60s, the songs of Bacharach & David will be everywhere -- recorded by a veritable A to Z of musical illuminati (from Aretha Franklin to Zoot Sims), featured in several major motion pictures and television specials, as well as in the score of a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. They'll be wafting out of elevators, dentists' offices, grocery stores, cocktail lounges, and nightclubs. And along with the songs of Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, they'll have helped to define a golden age of pop music that has never been equaled.
For all the startling innovation and invention of the songs Bacharach & David wrote between 1957 and 1972 (though Burt would have hits with other lyricists, Hal remains his perfect foil), what's remarkable is how natural they sounded then and now.
Sure, musically inclined listeners can appreciate the complexity of a song such as "Promises, Promises," which shifts time signatures almost every other measure and requires olympic stamina and flexibility from any singer brave enough to tackle it. But the songs, because of their unforgettable melodies and unflinchingly honest lyrics, have always been able to reach into the hearts of the common man. They are songs everyone knows, even if they can't tell you how they know them. They have the timeless quality of the standards written by Gershwin, Porter, or Berlin. It's as if they've always existed -- as if they weren't written so much as plucked from the ether.
Of course, anyone acquainted with the creative process knows there are countless insomniac hours and an immense knowledge of craft behind all works of art that appear so effortless.
And Burt and Hal were craftsmen of the highest order, a fact that is becoming more recognized and appreciated in this decade of often shoddy, jerry-built songs and self-important artistes. When you talk to both men about their work, you don't get sensational stories about angst and demons and drugs. Nor do you hear any precious pseudo-mystical folderol about channeling voices or cosmic energy. They treated songwriting as a job, showing up at their tiny Brill Building office in the de rigueur uniforms of the day -- white button-down shirts and skinny black ties. They worked for hours on verses, choruses, bridges, and transitions. Then they went home and worked some more. And in their work, as they strove, in Hal David's words, "to do something original," their unique style as a songwriting team was born.
This collection is a celebration of the musical excellence and songwriting genius of Burt Bacharach's collaboration with Hal David, as well as other lyricists. It is a musical legacy that will surely reach far into the coming decades.
Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City on May 12, 1928. His father, Bert Bacharach, was a well-known syndicated journalist who wrote columns on household hints, as well as the menswear industry. His work soon took the family to Forest Hills, on New York's Long Island. Burt's mother, Irma, who once had aspirations to be a professional singer, was the musician in the family.
"I always envied my mother because she could play piano by ear," Bacharach says. "She said, 'Keep studying and I'll teach you how,' but there is no teaching someone to play by ear. You either hear it or you don't hear it."
Though he started piano lessons early, there were no signs of budding genius from Burt. "To me, it was just kind of something I had to do, because my mother wanted me to do it. I had to take piano lessons, and I was very uninterested in it. It was a real effort to have come back from school and have to practice for half an hour before I had a chance to go out to play roller hockey or basketball or whatever. Really, it was something I never looked forward to."
Like any normal American boy, Burt's main interests were sports and girls. "But," he says, "I was too short for either."
I certainly wanted to become an athlete. I had my father as an inspiration. I looked at his scrapbooks. He was a football player for VMI -- all-Southern conference fullback. And he played basketball. But I didn't have the size to be an athlete.
There were also 3,000 kids in the school, and I couldn't find a girl I was taller than. It was very tough. I ate jars of peanut butter to try and grow taller."
But it was the piano, not protein, that finally increased his stature. "Music turned out to be a pretty good social thing for me in school," Bacharach recalls. "I started playing in a pick-up band with four or five kids, playing like dance jobs or something at the community center. Socially, it just opened things up. I met girls that way and things like that. Music made me belong."
As he was learning to win friends and influence people with a piano, Burt heard two musical sounds that would change his life.
"First was Ravel's Daphnis et ChloÈ Suite. I thought it was very beautiful and very different from the kind of classical music that I'd been listening to on drives back from Philadelphia with my parents -- Beethoven, Strauss, the heavier kinds of sounds. Suddenly I was hearing something that was really lyrical and beautiful. That turned my head around."
At the same time, with the aid of a fake I.D., Burt was sneaking into the jazz clubs on Manhattan's 52nd Street, soaking up the outrÈ sounds of bebop. "I heard Dizzy Gillespie's big band at one of those clubs, and Jesus, I'd never heard anything like that. Miles in front of what everybody else was playing. Hearing them, it was like a window opening."
With his growing fascination for music, his academic grades slipped. "I don't think I was a very good student at all," Bacharach says. "I don't quite understand why that happened, except maybe the stuff I was studying didn't interest me too much. But I was a very obedient kid. I wasn't rebellious. I didn't cut school or things like that. Without being aware of it, I didn't really get the full significance of how maybe bad I was as a student until I found out how hard it was to get into a college."
After high school, he enrolled at McGill University in Montreal where he studied music and wrote his first song. "It was called 'The Night Plane To Heaven,'" Bacharach says. "It was published and then died before it had lived."
To this day, Burt is a firm believer in a formal music education. "I think all the technical study, the solfeggio and learning how to be able to read music and write it down -- it's all very helpful. It's like the situation if I were hearing something in my head and I couldn't get to a keyboard to check it out, but I could take a scrap of paper in a hotel or a restaurant and just write it out. I think that's very important. I think you learn the rules so you can kind of break the rules."
His studies in theory and composition continued at Mannes School of Music under such renowned teachers as Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud. While he was immersed in the cacophonous world of the classical avant-garde -- "it was real fists-on-the-piano kind of stuff," Burt laughs -- his gift for melody-writing began to emerge.
"With Darius Milhaud, that was an important thing with me. He heard this one piece I was working on -- a sonatina for oboe, violin, and piano -- and told me that it was very good. It was very melodic and the rest of the class was writing very dissonant music. He really encouraged me to let the melody shine through. 'It's nothing to be ashamed of,' he said."
Next came an unconventional stint with Uncle Sam from 1950 to 1952 that found Burt sporting formal dinner wear rather than fatigues. "Somebody had the idea that I was a concert pianist, and they took me out of basic training and put me on the road playing army bases," Bacharach says. "I just didn't have the repertoire, and I had to really fake it. I pretended like there was one unpublished Debussy work that I kind of improvised. I was sure somebody was going to find me out and bust me. I felt so fraudulent in what I was doing. But I did get to play at Governor's Island, doing concerts. The officers' club head in Asia who was called back in the service heard me and he just figured, as long as he was back in the army and he had to give up the kind of life he liked, he would have a piano player in his club at night. So he got me requisitioned and I was playing in a tuxedo every night at the officers' club."
When his time as an enlisted entertainer ended, Burt played piano in nightclubs such as Nino's Continental on 53rd Street in New York City and The Bayview on Fire Island. This led to his professional apprenticeship in the mid-'50s -- pianist/arranger for Vic Damone, The Ames Brothers, Imogene Coca, Polly Bergen, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Steve Lawrence. He also played piano for singer Paula Stewart, who became his first wife. Burt told The New York Times in December 1968 how, during his occasional gigs in Las Vegas, the song pluggers would fly out to pitch songs to the acts he was working for. "I thought they were horrible. Songwriting sounded simple. I knew I could write better than that, so I told myself I should quit, go back to New York, and write a hit. I did, and for a solid year I couldn't get arrested. What looks simple and clear and inventive is very misleading. I couldn't get anything published. I was busted. I was working weekends playing for Joel Grey in the Catskills. Three shows a night. I was never home. My marriage was cooked by then. I finally got a song recorded by Patti Page. It was awful. I'd rather forget it."
In 1958 Burt was asked to fill in for Marlene Dietrich's regular conductor. In the same New York Times article, Burt recalled his first meeting with the legendary star this way: "I went around to see her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I had a cold. She said, 'Iz dot a cold?' in that great voice, and then she gave me some vitamins and some medicine and wowed the hell out of me. I was awestricken."
Dietrich championed the talents of her young musical director. "She called Sinatra once," Bacharach says. "I played her a song, and she liked that song and thought that Sinatra should record it. I think it was a Mathis B-side of "It's Not For Me To Say," a song called "Warm And Tender." But Marlene told Sinatra that he'd be sorry he didn't record it and that kind of thing. She was very supportive."
Intermittently over the next six years, Bacharach traveled the world with Dietrich (it was during his several visits to Brazil that he soaked up the bossa nova influence of composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Dori Caymmi), until he finally became too busy with his own songwriting career. He says, "It was a different kind of musical experience. It was a real kind of paradox to be writing R&B songs for The Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, and Dionne and conducting around the world for Marlene in a very old traditional style. I got to see the world with Marlene, some great places I never would've seen, and she taught me a lot about never settling for less. Going after what you want."
Though working with Dietrich was a galvanizing experience for Burt, the most fateful moment of his career arrived the year before he met her. The setting was 1619 Broadway in New York City. The Brill Building. Manhattan's musical marketplace of talent, tunes, and deals. And home to some of the greatest ampersands of song -- Goffin & King, Barry & Greenwich, Sedaka & Greenfield, and Mann & Weil. There were 11 floors of offices there, most of them home to music publishing companies. Inside the offices were writers' rooms -- stuffy cubicles, just about big enough for a piano and two chairs. In each one, songwriters were making their living -- pounding out chords, scratching words on legal pads, stomping out beats, warbling in search of the next hit tune.
It was reportedly Eddie Wolpin at Famous Music who introduced the 29-year-old Burt to a 36-year-old lyricist named Hal David (coincidentally, Burt had already collaborated with Hal's older brother, Mack, on "The Blob," a horror flick tie-in that was a minor hit). A soft-spoken New Yorker with a sweet-natured grin, Hal had written lyrics to a few hits already, including "American Beauty Rose," "Broken Hearted Melody," and "Bell Bottom Blues" and had earned enough clout to be working on a song-by-song basis with a number of different publishers. On an afternoon in the summer of 1957, Burt Bacharach and Hal David entered one of the Brill Building's cubicles for the first time and a partnership was born.
"You'd write with one composer in the morning and another in the afternoon," Hal David, now 77, recalls of these beginnings.
"I met Burt, we liked each other, we liked the songs we wrote, and that's how it began. We worked hard -- I was always writing lyrics, he was always writing melodies. We'd meet around 11 o'clock every day: 'What do you think of this? What do you think of that?' It was like show and tell. Either my lyric would spark him to write a melody or vice versa."
"It was a smoke-filled room with no view, a window that didn't open, and a beat-up piano," Bacharach says. "Your typical image of how songwriters wrote in those days."
And they were prolific.
"As we were working together on one song, he'd give me another melody or I'd give him another lyric, and very often we were writing three or four songs at a time," David remembers. "A song together, a song to his tune, a song to my lyric, and so forth. We kept a number of things going."
Once one of those things was finished, the duo would hawk their wares. "There were 11 floors in the Brill Building, and you'd start at the top and work your way down," chuckles David.
The wares of Bacharach & David, even in those first years, were strikingly different from the work of the teeny-bop-oriented competition. The music had a sophistication you would not encounter in the formulaic fare of the late '50s. It married unexpected rhythms with daring melodic leaps; it shimmered with rich, jazzlike changes and complex harmonies; it teased with its uneven form and challenged with its mild yet exotic dissonance. And of course, at first, it didn't fly with record company types.
"All those so-called abnormalities seemed perfectly normal to me," says Bacharach. "In the beginning, the A&R guys, who were like first lieutenants, would say, 'You can't dance to it' or 'That bar of three needs to be changed to a bar of four,' and because I wanted to get the stuff recorded, I listened and ended up ruining some good songs. I've always believed if it's a good tune people will find a way to move to it."
The lyrics matched to those tunes were equally unusual: they were grown-up. Hal David focused on adult affairs and described in straightforward yet emotional language all the jealousy, vulnerability, longing, and loneliness that comes with the territory.
According to David, the three qualities he's always sought in his lyrics are: "Believability. Simplicity. Emotional impact."
Despite their fair share of flops, the team proved themselves with a pair of early hits -- "Magic Moments" by Perry Como and "The Story Of My Life" by Marty Robbins (both featured sprightly whistling solos and, in their jaunty rhythms, foreshadowed later Bacharach & David work). This was enough to quiet the Brill Building doubters and encourage the duo to continue their collaboration.
But for the next three years, Burt and Hal worked only intermittently together. Bacharach wrote "Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)," "Mexican Divorce," and "Tower Of Strength" with lyricist Bob Hilliard; collaborating with Mack David and Luther Dixon (writing as Barney Williams), he penned The Shirelles classic "Baby It's You"; and he moonlighted as an arranger for The Drifters on songs such as "Please Stay" and "Land Of Make Believe." David meanwhile provided words for various tunes, including Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk," "You'll Answer To Me," a hit for Patti Page, and Joanie Sommers' minor classic "Johnny Get Angry." Then, in 1962, fate brought the two maverick pop songwriters the perfect voice in the fetching form of a young New Jersey session singer named Marie Dionne Warrick.
“There was a Drifters session she was working on [with her trio the Gospelaires], and we had a song on the date," David recalls.
"She was dressed in jeans and sneakers, and she came over and said, 'Could I do some demos for you?' We fell in love with her right away, and she started to do all our demos."
The enchanting sound of the 22-year-old's voice on a demo of "It's Love That Really Counts (In The Long Run)" caught the ear of Scepter Records owner Florence Greenberg and Dionne was quickly signed. Her first choice for a single was Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself," for which she'd done the demo. When the authors told her the song had already been recorded by Jerry Butler, so the story goes, Dionne, feeling betrayed, shouted, 'Don't make me over, man' (slang for 'Don't try to con me'). By the time she'd cooled down a few days later, Burt and Hal had written her first single, the dramatic – you guessed it -- "Don't Make Me Over." ("She had to sing an octave and a sixth on that," Burt says, "and she did it with her eyes closed.") When the ballad was cut and pressed, a Scepter printing error made Dionne Warrick over into Dionne Warwick.
Dionne's voice, one of the most original of that decade, was a sensitive, soulful instrument with an incredible dynamic range that enabled her to whisper with the demure intimacy of Julie London or soar with the gospel bravado of Aretha Franklin.
And she understood nuance like few others. Where other vocalists stumbled awkwardly over a Bacharach melody (even Sinatra couldn't quite navigate the bumpy terrain of a song like "Wives And Lovers"), she floated nimbly, easily, accommodating odd bars in 5/4, digging deep in all the right places, and perfectly conveying the ache and tenderness of David's poignant lyrics.
"Even back then, she had elegance, grace, and the ability to sing just about anything," says Bacharach. "Dionne is just this magical voice. She has this remarkable understated thing that can be very explosive and immediately recognizable. The more that we wrote for Dionne, the more we saw what she was capable of doing, and then we'd keep stretching."
Their startling growth paralleled that of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and the Motown crowd, encapsulating the experimental spirit of the times: check out the smooth bossa strut of "Walk On By," the tympan-pounding glory of "Reach Out For Me," the breathless, hormonal rush of "I Say A Little Prayer," the intricate, spiral-staircase of a melody of "Alfie," and the ambitious, dynamic shifts of the often-overlooked "Check Out Time" -- these rank as some of pop's most exhilarating moments from the '60s.
Yet, Bacharach says now that he didn't feel plugged into the '60s scene. "We kind of did our work and paid a little bit more attention to what was happening at Aldon Music and Screen-Gems, with Goffin & King and Mann & Weil. We were more aware of those people. It was like the Brill Building -- it was all centered there. We went in and worked in an office, so it was more an awareness of that very closed little thing than of what was going on in Detroit or on the West Coast or in England."
Hal David agrees. "I had two young sons who played in neighborhood rock 'n' roll bands. So I was always aware of the rock 'n' roll influence -- it was right in my own house. I was certainly aware of the young people of the '60s and the '50s, but I don't think in terms of Am I writing for this age group or that age group? I wrote the way I wrote. I didn't write in the rock idiom. Whatever I was, I was."
Maybe it was their lack of concern about the musical fads of the day that gave the records they produced a sound that remains fresh 30 years later. "I can't say it was a little ahead of its time, because it wasn't," Bacharach comments. "It was right in the time. It's like clothes maybe. Clothing gets outmoded. I'm not sure I know the reason why. Hairdos get outmoded. You look at them and you feel it's very off, because it is very off. It's just another time. It's the same thing with records.
"I think the . . . I don't want to say cheap songs, but less substance songs or more like rock 'n' roll or what was going on at the time or simplified songs have less of a chance to survive. Take The Beatles' "The Long And Winding Road." It was incredible then and it's incredible now. Maybe it's got something to do with a substantial song to start with. What the song says and how it's treated, and if it's not surrounded by a dated arrangement or just an arrangement that would work at the time. Maybe then it will hold up 30 years later. That's my only read on it. Ballads, ballads, you know? Up-tempo tunes, maybe because of the very framework they had to be in, maybe they didn't have the same chance to grow."
On all the ballads and up-tempo songs he cut with Dionne Warwick for Scepter Records (the sessions were engineered first by Eddie Smith and later by a young Phil Ramone), Bacharach acted as producer, arranger, pianist, and conductor, mostly out of what he has called "self defense." After his unhappy compromises in the early days, he insisted on complete control over his dramatic creations. His training in classical composition inclined him toward imagining the music's big picture.
"When I was doing songs with Dionne, I was thinking in terms of miniature movies, you know?" he says. "Three-and-a-half minute movies, with peak moments and not one intensity level the whole way through. I never liked hearing it and never liked writing that way, where there's one intensity from the singer, from the music content, from the tracks and orchestration -- it tends to beat you up.
"It's more about the peaks and valleys of where a record can take you. You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution. I think one-level records always made me a little bit uncomfortable after awhile. It's like a smile. If you have a great smile, you use it quick, not all the time."
Throughout their prime years, the consistency of Bacharach & David's work never seemed to waver: "The Look Of Love," "Alfie," "What The World Needs Now Is Love," "Trains And Boats And Planes," "What's New Pussycat?" "My Little Red Book," "The Windows Of The World," "This Guy's In Love With You," "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" -- the hits kept coming. Continuing to write in their lucky Brill Building cubicle as well as Burt's bachelor pad on East 61st Street in New York, the two hummed and clicked unstoppably. Burt delivered melody after glorious melody, each one full of unexpected pleasures and unforgettable hooks. His secret, then and now, is to write away from the piano.
"You can hear a long line that way. You can hear the whole song. You can hear it evolve, and not be as concerned with what the fingers and the hands are playing, where they're going. It's short term with my hands on the piano. It sounds really good for that one bar, but I'm trying to hear the whole thing and hear how it would sound just coming at you as a song, as a listener. If you get away from the piano and hear the melodic contour as well as the harmonization in your head, you're hearing a long vertical line.
"Certainly that applies to orchestration as well, to hear what comes in when," he continues. "I just get a better picture when I get away from the keyboard and just try to hear it that way. I mean, guys have written great songs and continue to do so while sitting at their instrument, whether it's guitar or piano. Not to say I don't sometimes start at the piano, then get away from it. But I get a sense of balance that I wouldn't get if I was sitting at the piano. I can't say enough about where your hands tend to go, because they've been there before. It's like writing orchestrations at the piano. You'll write what your hands can play instead of what an orchestra can play."
Burt's orchestrations often included introductory phrases and instrumental breaks that were hooks unto themselves. For example, the flugelhorn line on "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" or the organ riff on "Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)." He says, "Very often they came as part of the songs. Very often when I wrote those songs, I was hearing everything that went with it -- the drum pattern, the bass. I never liked to go into the studio with just a chord sheet and a rhythm section. I liked to write out a drum part, a bass part, a guitar part. At least it would be a framework, a structure so they would know what I had in mind. It would change, but at least it had a start. The drummer would know where I wanted a cross stick. For me, if I just went in with a chord sheet, it's too loose.
"When any instrumentalist would have a singular statement to make on a record, I'd write a lyric underneath, even if they didn't make any sense. It had a word and if you sung the word on your fl¸gelhorn, it would be more than just a note by itself.
I've always been a big believer in words with notes. I used to write for the trumpet players, or the reed players, so they'd be playing melody notation, but they'd try to speak the actual lyric through their instrument.
"People that I worked with in the studio who knew me didn't think it was so crazy, and whether they thought it was crazy or not was unimportant to me. There was a reason I did it. There are certain things that can't really be notated, I find in an orchestration. It's maybe two eighth notes, a sixteenth note, and another eighth note, and that's the way it should be notated, but that's not the way it totally feels. But if you put words with it, or even vowel sounds, it does make a difference."
Tailoring his lyrics to Bacharach's melodies, Hal David also believed in taking a long, careful look at the work. "The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music is saying to you. You should hear it talking to you.
"Sometimes the placement of the title was not so obvious with Burt's melodies. For instance, the chorus section in 'I Say A Little Prayer' -- that's ordinarily where the title would fall, but it seemed to me that the title should come in the less obvious place in the middle of the verse after 'The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup.'1
"Sometimes I'd write against the mood. For instance, 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose' is bright and rhythmic, and because of that you'd think it was instinctively happy to most people. But it wasn't to me."
With a chuckle, David half-apologizes, "I do labor over these things. I spend inordinate amounts of time deciding whether and or but is the right word. To a certain extent, lyrics flow easily, but no matter how much they flow at a given time, by the time you get it together -- finished and refined to the best of your ability -- it's a lot of work."
All this attention to their craft made Bacharach & David, by the late '60s, perhaps the most respected American songwriting team since Rodgers & Hart. (An impressed Rodgers told Newsweek in June 1970: "I don't think Bacharach would have been possible in the '30s. He's not interested in the 32-bar form or in 8-bar phrases. And I think it's healthy.") Along with that respect, the offers and opportunities came pouring in. While Dionne maintained a steady chart presence, Burt and Hal lent their Midas touch to Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Jack Jones, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Jackie DeShannon, Cher, Bobby Vinton, B.J. Thomas, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Barbra Streisand, and many, many others (a song such as "What The World Needs Now Is Love" alone has well over 150 cover versions, from Al Hirt to Mahalia Jackson to Petula Clark). They wrote promotional songs as well as entire scores for films: Casino Royale, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Alfie, After The Fox, What's New, Pussycat?, Wives And Lovers, The April Fools, and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. They also penned what was arguably the first rock opera, On The Flip Side, a 1966 TV special that cast Rick Nelson as a pop star whose career was on the slide.
Bacharach, the epitome of jet-set cool with his suave good looks, twinkling blue eyes, and boyish charm (Sammy Cahn once said, "Burt's the only songwriter who doesn't look like a dentist"), became a star in his own right, recording several solo albums of orchestrated instrumentals for A&M, albums which are now much sought after by the thrift-store-browsing, easy-listening set. (Burt: "I don't think my music is particularly like elevator music. That's what I associate with 'easy listening.' If easy means 'easy on your ear,' melodic, I think, then, that is a good definition.") The composer would occasionally sing on these records, in what liner notes then described as his "earnest, rumpled baritone."
He says he had to be coaxed into being a vocalist: "I was very insecure about singing. It's different onstage. I can be insecure about that, but I'm really insecure about going on tape. It's one thing to do it in a live performance. It's like yesterday's newspaper. It's forgotten. It wasn't so good. But when you go onto tape, it's there forever. So I don't feel great about hearing my singing voice. I'll sing a little in the show, like I do now with Dionne or when I'm performing by myself. But careful, very little."
In 1968 Burt and Hal, along with comic playwright Neil Simon, penned the Broadway musical Promises, Promises, based on Billy Wilder's film The Apartment. Though it was extremely successful, earning a Tony Award and a lengthy run, it caused the first major ripple in the Bacharach/David partnership.
"Burt lost his enthusiasm for writing shows after that," notes David. "The experience was different from what he expected. He came out of a record-making background, where every time you play something it comes out the same. But in a show, there are so many variables: the tempo can be too fast, too slow, the singers can change lines or notes. If you're a perfectionist, it can drive you crazy."
What also drove Bacharach crazy was the inconsistency of the pit musicians. "That was the tough thing. For me to find out a week after the show opened that they had done a matinee performance -- David Merrick, the producer, called me and told me they had a substitute drummer, a substitute trumpet player . . . up to seven subs in the band. Of course, it's not the easiest music to play. Also, I got sick when we were out of town with that show. I got pneumonia and wound up in the hospital."
There were no further forays into theater for Bacharach & David. They closed out the final weeks of the '60s with their biggest hit yet, a simple, folky tune complete with ukulele accompaniment, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head."
Though their roles were clearly defined in the songwriting partnership, this was an instance when Burt actually came up with the title. "I kept singing that phrase. Even though Hal tried to change it, we never came up with a thing that felt as good.
It must have been born the same time from the movie [Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid], and it made sense in my head. Hal made it make sense overall, though he tried some other ways first, because it's not the most natural way maybe one would think to write that lyric. But that worked almost like a glove fitting. When I sang that first phrase. If I'd done that as an instrumental, I'd have put that lyric under the first phrase. It sang great, fit great."
B.J. Thomas, who sang the Academy Award®-winning smash from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, says he wasn't the first in line for the vocal: "Burt had originally composed the melody to fit Bob Dylan. In subsequent years Burt has denied it, but this is what I understood at the time. Burt really admired Bob Dylan and the way he phrased. When Bob for whatever reason didn't do it, I was his second choice. What's funny is that I actually had laryngitis and was barely able to eke out the thing for the soundtrack. But there's maybe only two or three times in my career when I felt like I'd recorded a hit record, no doubt, and that was one of them."
"Raindrops" was also an example of Burt's increasing need for control over all aspects of record-making. "I actually did stop it from coming out," he recalled in the February 1980 issue of Songwriter. "It was set for release, but I turned down the pressing. I had been torn between two takes -- one that sounded comfortable, one that had a lot of energy. I went with the comfortable. But what I wound up doing was making an edit right in the middle of the song and picking up the fast one in the break. That's how it was finally released."
Without breaking momentum, Burt and Hal greeted the 1970s with a brace of potent dreamy-listening hits: "One Less Bell To Answer" by The 5th Dimension and "(They Long To Be) Close To You" by the Carpenters. While neither seems to remember much about the writing of particular songs -- David laughs, "People always ask me what inspired such and such song, and most times I'm not sure" -- Hal does recall the source of "One Less Bell To Answer": "Burt and I were in London working on a project, and I was invited to a dinner party. The hostess said to me, 'When you arrive, don't ring the bell, just come in. It'll make one less bell for me to answer.' I was wise enough to know it was a good title!"
As for "Close To You," David admits, "I didn't think it was a hit when Jerry Moss at A&M sent over the record of the Carpenters.
Not that Karen Carpenter didn't sound great. I just thought it didn't have what it took to really catch on. It shows that nobody, myself included, knows a hit until it becomes a hit."
Burt reflects on "Close To You": "You know, I made the first record with Richard Chamberlain and it was a terrible record.
I had a terrible arrangement and a terrible concept. I think the concept that Richard Carpenter and Herb Alpert came up with, the flow on that record, was very different than the way I had thought of it, and much more appealing. And Karen had this voice that was just a voice for all times. It was clean, understated, very present. It just walks off a record at you."
Despite the success of these singles and a decade of continuous good fortune, trouble was brewing. While he was spending more time pursuing his own career with TV specials, personal appearances, and concert tours, Bacharach's high profile marriage to actress Angie Dickinson ended. And it's not hard to imagine that Burt's continuous presence in the limelight was by now irking his less flamboyant writing partner -- their work started to be referred to as "Burt Bacharach songs."
When he and David got together in 1972 to compose songs for a musicalization of the Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, their chemistry faltered. The soundtrack, sung by a cast including nonsingers Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, and Charles Boyer, was roundly panned.
Newsweek called it "excruciating." From there, the reviews just got worse. Even Bacharach, at the time, dubbed it "a lumpen disaster." Despite a heavy push, the dippity would-be hit from the movie, "The World Is A Circle," failed to click with anyone.
Bacharach says, "Lost Horizon is just a picture whose very premise should never have been made. You know, it's just a crazy idea to go and do an original musical, and you can't take it out on the road and fix what doesn't work. You do it as a film you're stuck with it. You can't reshoot a whole scene because it didn't work. You can do that with a Broadway musical out of town. You can take it out, fix it, and work on it, put it in the next night.
"But I like the score. I have no problem with a lot of that music. But when somebody comes up to me and says, 'Oh, we have the movie at home and we watch it all the time, it's so great, it's the best,' I don't know what they're talking about," he laughs. "I don't understand it." In the aftermath of Lost Horizon, apparently frazzled by the extremely negative response to their work, Burt and Hal were hardly speaking to each other. To compound the problems, lest she be sued by her record company, Dionne Warwick was forced to file a $6 million suit against the songwriters for failing to provide songs for her upcoming album. David then sued Bacharach over a publishing dispute. Bacharach filed a countersuit.
They parted, and it wouldn't be until 1979 that the tangled suits were settled out of court. "A part of me wanted to go all the way to court, but it wasn't a big enough part," Bacharach told Songwriter in February 1980. "So I pushed to settle it because it was draining my energy. By moving to settle it I wound up paying considerably more than Mr. David -- he would have gone all the way to court."
When the smoke cleared, Hal David eventually went on to collaborate with several different composers, turning out MOR hits such as Ronnie Milsap's "It Was Almost Like A Song" and the Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias duet, "To All The Girls I've Loved Before." From 1980 to 1986 he was president of ASCAP and continues to serve on the board of directors. The eldest of his two sons, Jim, manages Casa David, Hal's publishing company. "Nowadays I'm writing songs with a few different people," David reports. "Pop songs with Archie Jordan and Kenny Hirsch, and theater songs with Charles Strouse." Somewhat wistfully he adds,
"Lyrics seem to be less important than 30 years ago. I wish I didn't think so. Very often the melodies seem less important. The sound and the production seem to be more important."
After what he calls the "giant bust" and a period of "hiding out," Bacharach weathered the worst drought of his career. Between 1973 and 1981 he was absent from the charts, while releasing two forgettable solo albums, Woman (a 40-minute pop symphony recorded live with The Houston Orchestra) and Futures. Then in 1982 he married lyricist Carole Bayer Sager and the two collaborated on a string of successful, if somewhat schmaltzy hits: "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," "Heartlight," "On My Own," and "That's What Friends Are For," a GrammyÆ-winning #1 for Dionne & Friends.
Did Bayer Sager's lyrics bring out different kinds of tunes from Bacharach than Hal David's had? "I'm not sure. I think it's very possibly a different time as well," Burt says thoughtfully. "They're both great lyricists. Carole is one of the fastest lyricists I've ever seen. Too fast for me, the way she writes, just because I'm that far behind. I'm still working on one note or something like that, and she's basically got the song done. Hal was more like the one who would take it home, work on it, bring it back the next day, and we'd look at it. Then he'd go back and I'd go back and we'd work alone a lot. Then together. If you look at Hal, then you listen to the lyrics, you've got to be stunned at the insight he has. Brilliant stuff.
And Carole too. I was lucky to have worked with them both."
By the '90s Burt had made a kind of peace with Hal and they got together once more at Dionne Warwick's request. Working at Burt's home in Del Mar, California, they attempted to rekindle the old magic. The result was one song, "Sunny Weather Lover," a disappointingly flaccid track on Dionne's 1993 album Friends Can Be Lovers.
Currently, when he's not spending time with his family (he has two children, Ollie and Raleigh, by his fourth wife) or indulging his passion for racing horses ("It's a good bounce off for me to go to the racetrack, go see my horses, or to read the racing form instead of Billboard"), or touring his show around the world, Burt chooses his projects carefully. "I still want to keep writing and have hits, but I find it very hard now, because it's just a different kind of scene. It's such a self-contained market. There are so many acts that write their own music, and that's closing the doors a bit. I look for the opportunity to write a song for a specific purpose rather than saying, 'Let's see, what do we write today?' and me sitting down with John Bettis or whoever, writing a song then peddling it. I find that not so appealing at this time in my life."
Bacharach has two musicals in progress that are eventually bound for the stage, one a modern musical retelling of Snow White, the other a romantic comedy called Manhattan Girl. Perhaps most encouraging is his recent collaboration with Elvis Costello, who Burt calls "one of the greatest songwriters in the world." Their first song together, "God Give Me Strength," written for the film Grace Of My Heart, is a minimasterpiece -- a swelling, melodramatic ballad of the type that could've been a signature song for Dusty or Dionne 30 years ago.
"Elvis is terrific, a very good musician," Burt says. "He had a musical input as well as lyrical. We never got together in person, we just did it over the phone, answering machines, fax machines, and speaker phones. And it sounds great."
So great that the two songwriters have continued their collaboration and are planning a full length-album in late 1998, followed by a tour.
Meanwhile, the Bacharach revival continues around the globe, with new generations of fans discovering his songs through hit movies such as Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery and My Best Friend's Wedding, as well as tributes from hip new bands such as Blur and Oasis. "I think it's terrific that it happened. I'm not sure I know why it happened," Burt says. "It started in England, with some of the younger bands and artists, like Noel Gallagher. It's fun. Last year Noel came on and sang 'This Guy's In Love With You' with me and the symphony orchestra. I think it started for me in England the first time 30 years ago. First time around, I was more successful there than in the States.
“So are they missing melody? These kids that like these songs, this music, they weren't even born when it came out, so it's not like they're rediscovering it. They're hearing it for the first time. Is it a need for a melody? I think so. For melody, for romance, for love songs. Most of the songs I write and have written are love songs, romance songs. So however it happened, it started again in England, then came to the States, and they're kind of rediscovering me."
This year, Burt Bacharach turned 70. It's hard to believe. Especially when you the meet the man. He's tan, trim, energetic, and looks a good ten years younger. Despite accomplishments that would make it easy to rest on his laurels -- how many songwriters alter and shape the course of pop music, after all? -- he keeps striving and looking forward into the future.
What does he see?
"It's maybe a little harder to crack through with a good song now or make a standard. I have no idea where music is going or where radio's going. I think it's way more difficult now for more legitimate writers who write for artists who don't get played as much as they used to. It's a very youth-oriented and rap-oriented scene at the urban level. Those cracks are a little bit harder.
"But no matter what," Bacharach concludes, "I have to believe there'll always be room for a good song."
– Bill DeMain