The Big, Astonishing, Gloriously
Human Bacharach Sound
The songs you hear on this box set were recorded with and by hundreds upon hundreds of musicians at quite a few different recording studios; it would certainly be difficult, if not impossible, to list them all. Yet there was a central group of musicians and engineers Burt Bacharach kept turning to when he recorded his music in New York City between 1958 and 1972.
Bacharach did most of his producing at a handful of Manhattan studios, each within a few blocks of the Brill Building, slightly north of Times Square. Song demos were usually laid down at Associated Studios, with a small rhythm section and a "demo singer" (e.g. Dionne Warwick). For finished masters, "we recorded a lot at Bell Sound," says Burt, "and then moved over to A&R Studios.
That was Phil Ramone's studio, at 48th Street and 7th Avenue." Burt's recording engineer at Bell Sound was Eddie Smith. Eddie previously worked as a musician and engineer at Cincinnati's King Records. After moving to Manhattan, around the time of "Don't Make Me Over," Eddie started recording Burt Bacharach songs in Bell's Studio A -- their biggest room.
"We would start at night," remembers Hal David, "and we'd just keep recording. We tried to do two or three songs at every recording session, and they were very, very exciting."
Eddie Smith remembers that "everybody'd file in at 7:00, and then they'd have rehearsal. They weren't really rehearsals, they were run-throughs. Because those guys didn't need to rehearse. I mean, they'd been playing the stuff for him for years."
It was at Bell that Burt acquired his core group of musicians -- and held onto them for dear life. "I always tried to use the same rhythm section, which was Russ Savakus on bass, Bill Suyker on guitar, Paul Griffin on keyboards or piano, Gary Chester on drums, and George Devens on percussion. Not only was I used to them, but they were used to me. That was important."
If you think that's Burt himself playing the piano, you're only partially right. "I think something happened when Burt played piano," remembers Phil Ramone. "A lot of times Burt didn't want to play the piano, because he was more interested in making sure the whole arrangement worked. I used to constantly badger him. I said, 'The rhythm section comes to life when you're playing,' and he'd say, 'Well, I don't always play in time.'
"Things like that were things I always felt you could ignore, because that wasn't the question. It wasn't about metronomic feel. It was about a feel! -- and God knows he had a feel playing."
"Burt is a good piano player," says Paul Griffin -- the pianist and organist who was booked for countless Burt dates. "He would sit down and play the first couple of rehearsals with the band. I'd sit there and watch him, and the only thing I could think of in my mind is What in the world am I doing here?"
Yet Burt, more often than not, left the piano playing to Griffin -- one of the busiest sessionmen in town. Paul was often joined by a second pianist, like Derek Smith or Artie Butler -- a guy who had started out as Eddie Smith's "button-pusher" (i.e. assistant). "You did it for shading, maybe with one guy playing one figure high and one guy low," says Artie. "Or one guy might be playing with the brass." Eddie Smith loved hearing the two pianos: "For stereo, it was great, you'd put it on both sides. It's a big, full sound."
In an interview in Electronic Musician, Burt revealed his method for recording background vocals. "I'd often use Dionne's background vocalists, who were her sister Dee Dee, Cissy Houston, and Myrna Smith, and combine them with a group of white session singers. Typically, it was three singers on one mic and three singers on another mic, and everyone cut their parts at once. You see, the white singers would soften the R&B sound of Dionne's group, and the timbre of the R&B vocalists would make the session singers sound hipper."
"And the combination of the sound was, apparently, most incredible," says Dionne. "If you listened to the records, you would hear my group above the white girls. They would be sort of the ethereal part of the sound.
"There was a gal named Lois who had range that was not to be believed. She would do things vocally that were just almost impossible; dogs could hear it. And there was Linda November, Marilyn Jackson, Valerie Simpson, Maretha Stewart . . . "
In 1966 Burt started to use A&R Recording more frequently -- with sessions engineered by Phil Ramone. "They couldn't get in [to Bell Sound] that week, or something, and they heard about me. I was the new, young engineer in town. And they tried a session with me.
"There was a difference in the way we made records. We'd have to quiet down the control room like you were in a nightclub. 'C'mon, everybody, cool down now, we gotta get this record' -- but when it smelt or felt good, the people just went nuts. The playback, the orchestra used to get excited. The rhythm section particularly. Because . . . everybody loved Dionne, everybody loved Burt and Hal."
Despite being "just" the lyricist, Hal David's role in the recording studio next to Burt Bacharach was essential. "Y'know, Hal's the quiet guy," says Phil Ramone. "But the production was a team effort. In the control room, Hal could hear objectively the whole other picture, which had to do with the reading of the song, along with us worrying about the musical accompaniment."
Phil continues about Burt: "I'd watch him getting this response from the orchestra, and at the same time he was coaching Dionne and getting her to phrase things in the way that only Burt could. Nobody came close to doing the things that he did." Gene Pitney: "He was always caring with me, quietly coaxing. He is a very warm man. He could be almost shy at times. When he conducted, you couldn't help but notice the respect the musicians had for him. When the baton went up, you could hear a pin drop. They gave him their all, because he respected them and their abilities."
"Burt not only conducted the entire song," says Paul Griffin, "he conducted the dynamics. I still don't know how he did it. Burt could make a tune expand in the middle, or just before the climax, and it wouldn't lose a step."
"Sessions were usually a dozen strings, eight violins, two violas, and two cellos," says Gene Pitney. "The amount of strings and horns depended on the song and arrangement. They weren't there just to have them." The players -- including Gene Orloff, Max Pollikoff, Harry Lookofsky, Julie Held, to name just a few -- "were very well-schooled classical guys who could really play and read," says Phil.
Recording horns on a Bacharach session was, somewhat obviously, extremely important. Guys like Don Hammond, Marky Markowitz, Bert Collins, and Joe Shepley were not only often responsible for the tune's hook -- they also played an essential role, in tandem with the strings, with the song's shading. "We had a really tight sound on the horns," says Eddie Smith. "I had to keep telling them 'Move in, move in.' I wanted that close, tight sound."
Lou Johnson remembers the authority Burt carried in those sessions. "Burt could stand up in that room amongst that mass of confusion and spot one string member, one voice that flatted or sharped, one note, anywhere in the progression, during that tune. That's how well he wrote his charts and that's how well he knew them. You couldn't slip nothing by him. If you missed the note, Mr. Bacharach knew it."
Bacharach was living in Los Angeles by the late '60s, yet he still recorded primarily in New York City until 1972 or so; nowhere else did they make his music just the way he wanted it to be. (Larry Levine, the architect of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and A&M's resident engineer, did record the Butch Cassidy and Lost Horizon soundtracks.) Yet, as 4-track recorders upgraded to 8-track, 16-track, and 32-track, the need to have a studio full of people playing, singing, and engineering all at the same time subsided. Later still, in the '80s, synthesizers controlled by computers made the idea of live musicians seem old-fashioned.
"Here's a chance for you to make as near a perfect, clean, nonmistake, perfect-taste record imaginable," says Burt, speaking of the MIDI revolution of the '80s -- which he most certainly was a part of. "If you've got a keyboard figure that you really like, even though you're not a great player, you play it well once and you quantize it. You type a note in that may be missing, you correct your mistakes, and you've got a perfect part.
"Before, you'd go in and everybody plays, and that's basically what you've got. If they made a mistake in the string section, and you didn't have time for another take, you're stuck with it, because it leaked into the other microphones.
"You hear some of those old records, they start at one tempo and wind up at another tempo. Sequencing with MIDI is appealing, because it's perfect time; everything is solid. Is it antiseptic? Is it a little bit without heart? Yeah."
An encouraging sign for fans of the big, astonishing, gloriously human Burt Bacharach sound is the fact that "God Give Me Strength" -- the most recent song on this collection -- was recorded live, with Elvis Costello singing, with the orchestra playing, with Burt playing piano and conducting. Brilliantly. It doesn't get better than that.
-- Alec Cumming