Skip to content

Legends: Burt Bacharach ~ melody maestro

August 13, 2011

This girl’s in love with you: Burt Bacharach and film star wife Angie Dickinson lounge about in 1969 as he works on one of his pieces – another cool chart-topper, no doubt (Bettman/Corbis)

He goes by the faintly ridiculous, utterly brilliant moniker of Burt Bacharach, back in the ’60s and ’70s he was handsome, cool and mixed with – and married – Hollywood royalty, and he wrote and produced hit pop record after hit pop record. For those reasons, and those reasons alone, he’d probably deserve his place in the ‘Legends‘ corner here at George’s Journal, but what seals it, what really seals it, is the fact he’s also one of the greatest songwriters/ composers of the last century. In short, Burt Bacharach had it all. And that makes him a bona fide legend.

Yes, penner of more than 120 Top 40 singles in the US and UK combined, a hit Broadway musical, film scores to a handful of cinematic classics and a serious inspiration to everyone from Brian Wilson to Steely Dan and Noel Gallagher to The Last Shadow Puppets, Burt is a pop culture icon whose talent has formed an indelible and important slice of the soundtrack of the last 50 years. Oh, and of course he’s also managed to collect Oscars, Grammys and a trophy wife or two along the way.

He was born on May 12 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri, but was never a Mid-Westener, having been brought up in the affluent, tradtionally Jewish neighbourhood of Forest Hills in Queens, New York City. Unsurprisingly, Bacharach is of German-Jewish descent, the son of Irma (née Freeman) and Bert (yes, that’s right, Bert with an ‘e’) Bacharach, a syndicated newspaper columnist. At the age of 12, at his mother’s instigation, Burt started studying the piano; he also learnt to play the cello and the drums. Perhaps ironically, though, he far from enjoyed his piano lessons and wanted to become a professional American Football player – a dream he was never destined to fulfil given his lack of height and size (he would grow to be only 5′ 8” tall).

Although, in a sign that he’s always had an eye for the ladies, he put his talents to use by starting a band at school, as he realised it would be a good way to meet girls. With Burt on piano, the band achieved relative success, getting booked for local dances and parties. And it wasn’t long before the teenaged Bacharach caught the jazz bug. Thanks to a fake ID, he’d often sneak into 52nd Street’s bebop nightspots to watch and listen to legends like Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker – their unconventional melodies and harmonies would leave a lasting impression on the young, enrapt fan.

Wishin’ and hopin’ (for hits): Burt and Hal David (l) and both with Dionne Warwick (r)

On leaving school, he enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University, where he took a music studies programme and claims he wrote his very first song, The Night Plane To Heaven. He then went on to study music composition at New York University’s Mannes School Of Music; the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center) in Lenox, Massachusetts; the New School For Social Research back in New York City (where he studied under the composers Bohuslav Martinu, Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud); and the Music Center Of The West in Santa Barbara, California, to which he won a scholarship.

The first fruit of all this musical academic labour, though, was playing piano at Governor Island’s officers’ club and at concerts at Fort Dix, as he served in the army between 1950 and ’52. He was billed as a concert pianist at the time, mind, even if he was only playing and improvising pop medleys. Still, his first proper professional gig came thanks to meeting singer Vic Damone while serving as an army dance-band arranger in Germany. Upon his discharge, Burt became Damone’s piano accompanist and, around the same time, accompanied other vocalists in nightclubs and restaurants, one of whom was a young unknown called Paula Stewart. She became the first Mrs Bacharach in 1953, but their marriage was to last only five years.

In 1957, though, Burt got his big break when he was employed by Paramount Pictures’ Famous Music at the veritable pop song sausage-factory that was the Brill Building in New York, for it was here that he first met and first collaborated with, as Juno might put it, the cheese to his macaroni, lyricist Hal David.

Make no mistake, if it weren’t for Hal David, the story of Burt Bacharach would surely be very different. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been as successful; he maybe wouldn’t have made it at all. Why? Simple – Bacharach and David were made for each other. Of all of Burt’s partners, surely Hal was the most important of his life; professionally and artistically he certainly was. And their partnership was successful right from the off.

“There’s always been this need to give music labels, especially in England. If people want to call Walk On By easy listening then fine, call it that. But hold it up to the light and you see it’s not easy at all. I don’t know: maybe those songs have lasted because of that, because it was sophisticated at the time and I took chances.” ~ Burt Bacharach

Within just a year of writing together, Burt and Hal had not one, but two chart hits on their hands. The first, The Story Of My Life, was recorded by Marty Robbins and achieved top spot in the US country music charts; the second, the fondly recalled Magic Moments, sung by Perry Como, reached #4 on the main US chart, the Billboard Hot 100. As if that weren’t enough, both songs (admittedly, in this instance the version of The Story Of My Life was sung by Michael Holliday) became back-to-back #1 hits in the UK – ensuring that Burt and Hal became the first ever songwriters to achieve this feat. They were unquestionably, rather spectacularly on their way.

But almost as soon as they’d got started, Burt was prised away for an enviable assignment – between 1958 and ’61 he served as musical director on screen legend Marlene Dietrich’s stage tours across America and Europe. Even so, he still enjoyed hits in this period, including The Shirelles’ Baby It’s You (whose lyrics, incidentally, were  co-written by Hal’s brother Mack).

And as the early ’60s progressed, so did Bacharach and David’s (Hal, again of course) pop compositions. One of which was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which somewhat oddly didn’t feature in the hit western of  that year with which it shared its name, but was suggested to them as the title of a tune after the movie came out. That song was recorded by a young Gene Pitney, as was another hugely popular hit in the shape of Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa, released the following year. 1962 also saw the first recording of another standard-to-be, Make It Easy On Yourself sung by Jerry Butler, which reached #20 in the States, but when re-recorded by The Walker Brothers in ’65 hit #16 in the US and the top spot in the UK.

Indeed, Make It Easy On Yourself truly proved the ticket to make Bacharach and David a mint, as it was the song that, albeit indirectly, introduced them to the most prolific and enduring interpreter of their work, Dionne Warwick. Around this time, they were producing a lot of material for soul/ R&B all-male group The Drifters – Burt was also arranging horns and strings on their tunes – and it was at a Drifters session that they met New Jersey-native Dionne (who incidentally is a cousin of the much-later-to-be-famous Whitney Houston).

A backing vocalist back then, Warwick had a terrific ear for and ability to interpret their songs (navigating her way through Bacharach’s often complicated melodies and tempos like nobody they’d yet met) and had cut a demo of Make It Easy On Yourself. This, it seems, led her to believe that Burt and Hal would give her first dibs on the tune, not knowing they’d already promised it to Jerry Butler. Angry with them then, she apparently retorted ‘don’t make me over, man!’. They didn’t; in fact, the first song they did give her was named Don’t Make Me Over. Released later in ’62, it reached #21 in the US and was her first hit.

Having found Warwick, the floodgates now opened for Bacharach and David – if they hadn’t already. Over the next 10 years, they wrote 20 US top 40 hits specifically for or re-recorded by her, seven of which broke the top 10. And practically every one of those seven proved unforgettable: Anyone Who Had a Heart (1963, #8), Walk On By (1964/ US #6, UK #8), Message to Michael (1966, #8), I Say a Little Prayer (1967, #4), Do You Know the Way to San Jose (1968, US #10, UK #8), This Girl’s in Love with You (1969, #7) and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again (1969, #6).

And their successful collaborations with Warwick led to further – often just as – successful collaborations with other music artists at the top of their game. Throughout the ’60s, new and emerging singers made original Bacharach-David songs hits or made existing songs they’d written hits all over again and, with it, made themselves stars. How’s this for a roll-call? Dusty Springfield (I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, 1963/ Wishin’ And Hopin’, 1964); Tom Jones (What’s New Pussycat?, 1965); Aretha Franklin (I Say A Little Prayer, 1968); Sandie Shaw (There’s Always Something There To Remind Me, 1964); Cher (Alfie, 1966); Cilla Black (Anyone Who Had A Heart, 1964/ Alfie, 1966);  Herb Alpert (This Guy’s In Love With You, 1968); Adam Faith (A Message To Martha, 1964); Jackie De Shannon (What The World Needs Now Is Love, 1965); Manfred Mann (My Little Red Book, 1966); Bobbie Gentry (I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, 1969); Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas (Trains And Boats And Planes, 1965); The Fifth Dimension (One Less Bell To Answer, 1970); and, of course, The Carpenters with (They Long To Be) Close To You in 1970.

But just why were Burt and Hal’s songs so popular? Why did the public on both sides of the pond buy them up in the ’60s like they were going out of fashion (which they clearly, most assuredly were not)? Well, as a – if you will – sub-genre of the pop song, Bacharach-David compositions have over the decades come to be looked on as the epitome of ‘easy listening’ music. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, you may say; but the labelling of their work in this manner has been arguably dismissive. Its laid-back, jazz-inflected, aspirational, frankly groovy sound was, back in the day, most definitely where it was at (if you weren’t a rebellious hippie or die-hard blues-rock man, that is). Yet, that type of sound, perhaps really because of its lesser competitors and imitators, soon was out of vogue – even derisively referred to as ‘elevator music’. And was that doing Bacharach and David a disservice? Was it ever.

Baby, it’s you: Burt was also a hit-maker with glamorous girls – with (clockwise from top left) Angie Dickinson at the ’69 Oscars, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Bayer-Sager and Jackie Onassis 

The truth of the matter is that, like The Beatles and The Beach Boys at exactly the same time, Burt and Hal were pushing back the boundaries of the pop song. Thanks to the combination of Hal’s pitch-perfect, often full-of-longing lyrics (he sure could turn a phrase) set against Burt’s seductively smooth yet melancholic melodies, their ballads were utterly irresistible. Just listen to Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa, what with Gene Pitney’s outstanding delivery, its a three-minute epic paean to love lost in the face of love found. Now that’s what you call melancholia.

But the true genius of Bacharach-David’s work goes deeper still – thanks to the awesome, experimental talents of Burt the classically trained musician. Like the works of the great composers he studied and admired, Bacharach had total control over his tunes; he arranged, conducted and co-produced many of his hits – and practically all of the best ones. And, like Lennon, McCartney and Wilson, boy, did he experiment.

Unusual chord progressions, syncopated rhythmic patterns, frequent modulation, unpredictably changing meters and irregular phrasing appear throughout his tunes and, from a clever-clever musical point of view, are what make so many of them so damn  good. One of many such examples is Anyone Who Had A Heart. In Bacharach’s own words, the melody of  this song “changes time signature constantly – 4/4 to 5/4, and a 7/8 bar at the end of the song on the turnaround. It wasn’t intentional, it was all just natural. That’s the way I felt it.” This song also holds the distinction of featuring the first use of polyrhythm (two or more rhythms appearing simultaneously) in popular music.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, given Burt and Hal’s success and the former’s truly outstanding talent,  pop songs alone soon weren’t enough for them – at least they weren’t for Burt. Owing to the circles in which he was now moving, Bacharach was hired by friend and Hollywood titan Charles K Feldman to write the score for the latter’s new film, the madcap comedy What’s New Pussycat? (1966), starring Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Woody Allen and a menagerie of ’60s female sex symbols (the movie initially was to star Warren Beatty; deriving its title from the phrase Beatty used to answer the telephone). Not only did his involvement in the flick establish another string to Burt’s bow (film scoring), it also spawned another chart hit for him and David, the unforgettable song that shares the film’s name, sung by Tom Jones, and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

“I feel fine about covers. I don’t feel fine if it’s a new song and the first time they hear it is somebody else’s arrangement. I’ve heard some great versions and some terrible and I’ve heard versions that top what I did. Say A Little Prayer is a prime example. I recorded it with Dionne and, even though it was a big hit, Aretha Franklin made a much better record. It’s not about the vocal, it’s about the way it feels.” ~ Burt Bacharach

As if underlining the fact Bacharach was now gravitating towards Hollywood, around the same time he met the film star Angie Dickinson and they fell for each other. So much so that she agreed to accompany him to London while he composed What’s New Pussycat‘s score. It was a whirlwind romance – ten weeks later they were married in a simple ceremony in Las Vegas, attended by a select few including Feldman (see husband and wife in a wonderfully cheesy Martini ad from the mid-’70s in the video clip above). Although Burt’s first film score had been for the cult ‘B-movie’ horror The Blob (1958), it was now that his association with Hollywood properly got underway.

Following his work on Pussycat, he and David came up with the title song for the Michael Caine-starring Swinging Sixties classic Alfie (1966) and he scored and – with David – provided the title song for less-than-successful comedy After The Fox (1967), featuring Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland. Then he provided the score and – with David again – the smooth-as-silk song The Look Of Love (performed mellifluously by Dusty Springfield) for the chaotic Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Produced by old friend Feldman, Casino Royale‘s production turned into a nightmare – it went through half a dozen directors – but turned a moderate profit and Burt’s brassy, playful score (including a marvellous title track performed by Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass) and the aforementioned The Look Of Love were all, well, loveable indeed.

So, if you’ve conquered pop music and movies, what next? Musicals. In 1968, Broadway producer David Marrick called on Burt and Hal to work with major playwright Neil Simon on a musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder comedy The Apartment (1960). The result, Promises, Promises, was yet another hit – running for nearly 1,300 performances on Broadway before it transferred to the West End. It also won two Tonys, a Grammy for Best Cast Album and spawned the classic tune I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. But it was the following year when Bacharach and David were truly to hit the heights.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969) is a much-loved movie that’s remembered for many things: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, that unforgettable freeze-frame finish, the cliff jump, William Goldman’s wonderful, witty dialogue… and, yes, of course, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, performed by country-pop-crossover B J Thomas. Surely one of Burt and Hal’s most fondly recalled hits (US #1 for four weeks), Raindrops features in one of the film’s most fondly recalled sequences (Butch and Etta’s bicycle ride, see video clip below). For me, the marrying up of these two aspects – beautiful music and beautiful visuals – sums up the movie. It and Bacharach-David were simply made for each other. And the public (the flick, of course, was a huge box-office hit) and the critics agreed; the following year, Burt and Hal accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Raindrops, while Burt alone also collected the Oscar for his scoring of the film, which although somewhat minimal was simply perfect film score work. No question, Burt was now on top of the world… on the downside, there was only one direction in which he could now head.

The break-up of Bacharach and David came in the wake of their work on the movie Lost Horizon (1973). Seemingly ill-fated all-round, the film was a musical remake of the 1937 Frank Capra classic, but ended up a commercial and critical disaster. The difficulty of the project led to acrimony between Burt and Hal and, following its release, the pair decided after 16 years together to go their separate ways. And the fall-out got worse. Owing to them not just being her writers but also her producers, as well as her being under contract to produce new material for Warner Brothers, Dionne Warwick decided she had no alternative than to sue them both for their split and, thus, effective split from her. This resulted in Hal suing Burt and the latter counter-suing the former. It was all very messy, as was, in fact, Burt’s personal life by now. For, owing to more than one affair he’d had over the years, his marriage to Angie Dickinson had hit the rocks. The second separation in this era of Bacharach’s life then came in 1975; he and Dickinson would formally divorce in 1980.

If the ’70s had been hard on Burt, though, things perked up considerably in the early ’80s. Not only did he remarry, but he also wrote a new chart-topper with his new wife, lyricist Carole Bayer-Sager (who had previously hit it big co-writing the song Nobody Does It Better for 1977’s Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me). Featuring on the soundtrack to the smash-hit Dudley Moore and Liza Minelli comedy Arthur (1980), which he also scored, (Arthur’s Theme) Best That You Can Do, performed by Christopher Cross, not only returned Bacharach to the US #1 spot for the first time in 11 years, but also won him (along with his new wife) another Oscar for Best Original Song.

Things were good again and Burt’s sound was most definitely back in vogue. As the decade progressed, he wrote hits for Neil Diamond (Heartlight, 1982, US #5), Roberta Flack (Making Love, 1982, US #13), Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald (On My Own, 1986, US #1, UK #2) and Dionne Warwick – as well as Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder – (That’s What Friends Are For, 1985,  Us #1 for four weeks). The latter was actually a cover of a tune first recorded by Rod Stewart for the film Night Shift (1982), re-recorded as a charity single that benefited the American Foundation For AIDS Research. It also, obviously, marked a reconciliation between Bacharach and Warwick.

The music industry and the styles and trends of the content it produced, of course, changed dramatically during the ’70s and ’80s, but by the end of the latter decade and into the next, Bacharach’s music – perhaps unexpectedly – began to enjoy what appeared to be a renaissance. Class may age, but will forever remain class. In August 1990, Scottish rock band Deacon Blue released a four-track EP entitled Four Bacharach & David Songs, featuring I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, The Look Of Love, Are You There (With Another Girl) and Message To Michael. The first of the quartet was released as a single and reached #2 in the UK charts.

The look of love: Burt’s face on Oasis’s Definitely, Maybe album cover (l), meeting Kate Moss and Noel Gallagher during Britpop’s mid-’90s high (m) and collaborating with Elvis Costello (r)

This wasn’t a rare blip, more chart-affecting proof that a new mood was calmly and – fittingly – smoothly spreading through the UK music scene, as melody-driven artists brought up on Bacharach-David began to assert themselves; their most successful exponents being the bands Swing Out Sister and, spectacularly, The Beautiful South. But it didn’t stop there, as the ’80s became the ’90s and British music found for itself a winning identity and/ or formula once more in the shape of ‘Britpop‘, Bacharach himself became a recognisable face for punters throughout the land again. Even if they didn’t actually know who he was.

Granted, Britpop was far more about swaggering rock music than melodic pop balladry (although, at its best, it was certainly satisfyingly melodic), but with the appearance of Bacharach’s face on the cover of monster band Oasis’s monster of a debut album Definitely, Maybe (1995), his relevance to the ‘movement’ was clear. For this was a direct reference to Burt’s inspiration on the songwriting of Britpop’s arguable leader, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher. Indeed, that inspiration became crystal clear when Gallagher later performed a live duet with Bacharach of This Guy’s In Love With You (indeed, the former admitted he stole elements of that song for his own song Half The World Way from the aformentioned album). Yet, in a decade so obsessed with retrospective – and in particular with ’60s culture – this labelling of Bacharach as influential (along with the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards and Ray Davies of The Kinks) on the new music of the time, didn’t just make Burt relevant again, it made him cool again.

Was it any coincidence then that Burt’s music and, yes, he himself popped up in surely the most ’60s-retrospective-friendly movie of the era, the marvellously mocking spy hokum that was Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1997)? Was it eccers like. The protagonist’s, a composite parody of Swinging Sixties icons, mantra may have been the out-moded ‘what the world needs now is love(-making)’, but the presence of Bacharach’s music and the man himself (see video clip below) reinforced that nostalgic, affectionate and – yes, even here – cool connection with the ’60s that the film strove to attain. And, let’s not forget too, that Bacharach-David tunes featured heavily the same year in the well received and watched Julia Roberts romcom My Best Friend’s Wedding, including a cast sing-along of I Say A Little Prayer.

“What really set it apart was its score … Bacharach introduced to Broadway not only the insistently rhythmic, commercial-jingle buoyancy of 1960’s soft-core radio fare, but also a cinematic use of Teflon-smooth, offstage backup vocals.” ~ The New York Times on the Bacharach-David musical Promises, Promises

In an occurrence that was seemingly kismet, it was around this time that I got into Bacharach (I loved Britpop, I loved Austin Powers and I loved Bacharach – they all seemed to fit each other) and it was also around this time that, riding the wave of this career resurrection, Burt decided to release a brand-spanking-new album – a collaboration with versatile musician Elvis Costello. Featuring something very much like the melancholic-melodic sound he produced with Hal David, the resultant album Painted From Memory (1998) was an absolute gem – in fact, for me, one of the best albums of the ’90s; a decade jam-packed full of great albums. Song after song on that record oozes smooth cool, complex melodies, jazzy pianos, flugelhorns and unapologetic romantic longing, all enhanced superbly by Costello’s searingly emotional vocals. If you haven’t heard any of it (you may have heard I Still Have That Other Girl, which won a Grammy), I seriously urge you to do so.

As the ’90s drifted into the ’00s and, indeed, up to the present day, Bacharach has both very much remained in the public firmament and made very firm his position as an iconic deliverer and innovator of pop music – sort of the chart ballad’s Mozart. Basically, he’s looked on and up to as exactly who he is for exactly what he’s done. Although, admittedly, his image now is less playboy songwriter, more avuncular pop godfather. Mind you, in 2005 he released the album At This Time, which came with self-penned lyrics, a collaboration with rapper Dr Dre and controversy thanks to its political message. Clearly, he still likes to mix it then. In his personal life, he’s remarried, had more children and lost a child (his and Angie Dickinson’s tragically troubled but gifted daughter Nikki, for whom he wrote a song in 1969 that became the theme to ABC’s Movie Of The Week on US TV).

But dare one say it, after all those years of success, all those following years in the relative wilderness, all those hits, all those downs both professionally and personally and both those comebacks in the ’80s and ’90s, yes, after all of that, one gets the feeling that Burt is now a man contented, perhaps like never before. He scaled the pop summit once, he did it a second time and now with a family happily around him once more (and friendships with his best collaborators renewed), he can look out on all he surveys with an air of satisfaction. Indeed, if that air were to be put to music, how would it sound? Cool, smooth, easy, yet complex and brilliant, of course. Because class may age, but will forever remain class. 


Playlist: Ten of Burt’s best

CLICK on the song titles to hear them

Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa ~ Gene Pitney (1963/ US #17, UK #5 )

Walk On By ~ Dionne Warwick (1964/ US #6, UK #8 )

What The World Needs Now Is Love ~ Jackie DeShannon (1965/ US #7)

The Look Of Love ~ Dusty Springfield (1967/ US #22)

I Say A Little Prayer ~ Aretha Franklin (1968/ US #10, UK #4)

This Guy’s In Love With You ~ Herb Alpert (1968/ US #1 for 4 weeks, UK #3)

Do You Know The Way To San Jose? ~ Dionne Warwick (1968/ US #10, UK #8 )

I’ll Never Fall In Love Again ~ Bobbie Gentry (1969/ UK #1 )

(Arthur’s Theme) Best That You Can Do ~ Christopher Cross (1981/ US #1)

I Still Have That Other Girl ~ Elvis Costello (1998/ from the album Painted From Memory)


Further reading:

An insightful article on Nikki Bacharach and her autism (


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: