Burt Bacharach has a sound and song style like no other composer. One of the top five composers of the twentieth century? A strong case could be made for it.
I saw Bacharach in concert a concert a couple of years ago for my first and only time. He was quite frail and his stage presence showed definite signs of age, but the performance of his songs was timeless. Still touring in is his mid 80’s is quite a feat. Backed by a quality band and featuring several young, talented vocalists, Bacharach punctuated those classic songs with his piano, much like the legendary recordings.
Bacharach’s career reaches back to the early 1950’s when he worked as arranger for Vic Damone and then Marlene Dietrich. In 1957 he started working with lyricist Hal David writing songs, a partnership that would shift into high gear in the early 1960’s. They wrote a number of hits for a variety of popular artist before they met up with a singer that would change their careers: Dionne Warwick.
Later, Scepter Records offered them the opportunity to write and produce their own records, and off they went. Bacharach and David scored hits with other artists besides Warwick, but it was ability to wrap her distinct voice around their unique words and music that defined sophisticate pop music in the 1960’s.
Bacharach/David were the bridge between two generations: traditional pop and rock ‘n’ roll. Parents were listening to Sinatra, Perry Como, Henry Mancini, etc. Kids were grooving to the Beatles, Beach Boys and Phil Spector produced records. Bacharach/David were hit to each audience.
Although he has had artistic and commercial success in each decade, the 1960’s was the definitive period of his career. Bacharach/David tapped into the hip and sophisticated romanticism of the 1960’s, covering the heartache, optimism and elation of life, sometimes all in one three minute song.
Everyone sang of love in the 1960’s, romance was the thing and center in our culture. Hal David’s lyrics were direct and to the point, phrases that were expressive and stuck in our subconscious. Bacharach’s melodies were efficient, unpredictable and challenged pop music. Lyrics and music were greater than the sum of their individual parts, as the saying goes.
Bacharach was in demand to write music for movies, Broadway plays and even commercials. For the ten years covering 1961-1970, he had 50 top 40 hits, including number one songs “This Guy’s in Love With You”, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You”. He collaborated on Promises, Promises, the Tony and Grammy winning Broadway play, and wrote the music for Alfie, What’s New, Pussycat?, After The Fox, Casino Royale and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch Cassidy won Bacharach two Oscars and a Grammy, as he finished the decade.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Bacharach described his own music:
“It may be about what is the work to start with when you hold it up to the light,” Bacharach says, pondering on the enduring quality of his music. “It’s part sound, part sophistication – the different time signatures, different harmonies; maybe a little bit in front of its time. Maybe not too sophisticated, but sophisticated enough to have some durability. And not too sophisticated to have you just hear it by some piano-player in a bar.”
In 2012, Bacharach and David were presented with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Given to the most iconic of songwriters, this was the first time the prize was given to a songwriting duo. The Gershwin Prize is the ultimate honor for a songwriter.
“Was I ever trying to break the rules intentionally, trying to make it difficult? No,” Bacharach says of his meticulous compositions. “But I didn’t like rock-and-roll. I knew more than three chords.”
Bacharach’s chord structures have been compared with jazz stylings for their odd phrasings, shifts in meters, changing beats, elongated notes, and unusual featured instruments. For me, his songs could be miniature film scores, compacted into three minutes of the complexities of life.
In the 1970’s, Bacharach and David split, and each began writing with other partners. That also ended the partnership with Dionne Warwick.
In recent years, thanks to the Austin Powers films, and pairings with Elvis Costello and Ronald Isley for new songs, Bacharach’s music has been alive and finding new audiences.
My ten favorite Bacharach songs. Enjoy.
“Walk on By”
“What the World Needs Now”
“The Look of Love”
“I Say a Little Prayer”
“Raindrop Keep Fallin’ On My Head”
“This Guy’s In Love With You”
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”
“(They Long to Be) Close to You”
“One Less Bell to Answer”