Burt Bacharach, who has died aged 94, formed, with Hal David, the most accomplished American songwriting team since George and Ira Gershwin; David supplied the deceptively simple lyrics, Bacharach the piquant, angular and often complex melodies and lush arrangements.
heir successes were legion, and included songs such as ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’.
The singer with whom they were most closely identified was Dionne Warwick, for whom they wrote hits including ‘Walk On By’, ‘Do You Know the Way to San José?’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’.
Their sophisticated sound was perfect for an era that aspired to effortless glamour.
Bacharach and David were older than chart rivals like Lennon and McCartney, and their musical roots were in jazz and Broadway shows. Each song was a mini-drama laced with pathos and regret, with Warwick’s agile grace matched to Bacharach’s sleek arrangements.
These were heavily orchestrated, unconventional and complex, often with many changes of metre. They were carried by Latin rhythms and soaring strings, counterpointed by muted trumpet and elegiac piano.
Classically trained, Bacharach fashioned a musical style that drew on the work of 20th-century French composers like Poulenc and Satie, and studied under Darius Milhaud, another member of the group known as Les Six, and whose musical vocabulary also proved influential.
At the same time, he was listening to the popular sounds of 1940s bandleaders such as Harry James and the Dorsey brothers; jazz, bebop in particular, appealed to him, too.
The result, as his style matured, was Bacharach’s distinctive musical stamp of unexpected rhythms, flourishes, switches of time signatures and a rich harmonic palette which offered many more possibilities than the pedestrian formats usually employed in Tin Pan Alley.
“I just wouldn’t be able to write a song in three chords, simple vanilla G majors and that stuff,” he explained. “What, no suspension on the fifth? No seventh? I couldn’t do it.”
Frank Sinatra once joked that Bacharach “writes in hat sizes. Seven and three-fourths.”
Of all the many landmark numbers in the Bacharach songbook, perhaps none is more defining of its moment than ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, first recorded by Dionne Warwick and reaching the charts in January 1964, a couple of months after the Kennedy assassination.
With its recurring changes of time signature, restlessly shifting between five and four beats to the bar, nervy underlying triplets, and Hal David’s lyrics, with their sense of searing loss, the song — unwittingly, perhaps — caught the popular mood at a disturbing time in American history.
Cilla Black’s version reached No 1 in the UK.
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With ‘Make it Easy On Yourself’, a British No 1 for the Walker Brothers in 1965, Bacharach came as close as a composer of popular music can to embracing the techniques of opera: a majestic opening, reflective recitative, an elegaic, extended melodic line, and stylistic curlicues such as drawing the single word “through” over no fewer than nine grace notes.
He employed still more rubato in the title theme to the film Alfie (1966). With its unexpected slide into a minor key, the song was said to owe something to Shostakovich, although it proved a gruelling ordeal in the recording studio for Cilla Black, who disliked it at first (“I mean, you only call dogs Alfie!”).
But for his maestro’s bravura, Bacharach remained above all an unapologetic composer of melodies, declaring: “There’s nothing wrong with writing something people can whistle.”
His single Broadway score, with a book by Neil Simon and lyrics by Hal David, was Promises, Promises, which ran for nearly 1,300 performances in New York.
Again, Dionne Warwick had a chart hit with the complex title number, prompting the jazz critic Leonard Feather to applaud Bacharach for “drawing popular song away from the dreary old 32-bar format and away from the verse-and-chorus tradition. The title song bulges around its midsection with one bar each successively in 5/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/8, 4/8 and 4/4. Stop already!”
As well as his compositional skills, Bacharach displayed exceptional flair as an arranger; again, technical sophistication lent him an edge over other pop songwriters of the time. Many of the flourishes that characterised him as a composer were, in fact, evidence of his skill as an orchestrator.
Bacharach himself ignored the distinction, once explaining that writing a melody and deciding which combination of instruments went where was often, for him, a single, seamless process.
His songs had recently enjoyed a revival of interest, yet they were superior to the kitsch sounds of the easy listening music that they were often bracketed with.
His melodies had purpose beyond soothing, and it was his talent that made their appeal universal. “I wish I could say that he’s my composer,” remarked his sometime muse Marlene Dietrich. “But it’s not true. He is everybody’s composer.”
An only child, Burt Freeman Bacharach was born on May 12 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Bert, became a well-known fashion journalist and the family soon moved to Queen’s, New York.
Short and shy as a boy, Burt was forced to learn the piano by his dominant mother rather than play American football. Yet this allowed him to play in a school jazz band, making him of interest to the girls he had previously found unapproachable.
He studied musical theory at McGill University in Montreal and under Milhaud at the New School in New York. On military service in Germany in 1952 he met the singer Vic Damone, and endured an unhappy stint as his accompanist.
Bacharach was convinced that he could write better songs than those offered to the struggling acts he subsequently played with, and spent a fruitless year trying, in a rented office at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Then in 1957, with the lyricist Mack David, he wrote the theme to a low-budget science fiction film, The Blob, which became a hit for the Five Blobs.
Collaboration with David’s younger brother, Hal, proved even more successful, producing the million-selling ‘Magic Moments’ for Perry Como in 1958. Meanwhile, at the Brill building, Bacharach was learning the art of production and record-making from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, writers of classic 1950s numbers like ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Yakkety-Yak’.
The partnership with Hal David lay fallow until 1962 while Bacharach toured with Dietrich. His arrangements then, and during her triumphant appearances later in the 1960s, granted her an Indian summer of success.
Watching Leiber at work in the studio made Bacharach “think differently and hear differently”. He started placing his songs with R&B artists such as Chuck Jackson, Jerry Butler and the Shirelles.
“You start working with non-white singers and it’s a different tone, there’s a soulful thing about it. And that influences what I’m composing and the way I’m working,” he said.
It was in August 1961, while rehearsing with the Drifters on a song called ‘Mexican Divorce’, that Bacharach was struck by the “regal elegance” of a young pig-tailed girl with a high voice, singing backing vocals: Marie Dionne Warrick. Bacharach knew at once that he had found the woman he would describe as “our artist and our flagship”.
Warwick (her surname was incorrectly printed on a record label, and it stuck) came from a musical family; she could read music, and she could effortlessly navigate the complex melodic lines and shifting time signatures of Bacharach’s music. He described her voice as having “the delicacy and mystery of sailing ships in bottles”.
It was a combination that registered 33 US chart entries between 1963 and 1971 and sold more than 15 million records.
Besides the material Bacharach and David wrote for Warwick, they composed songs for numerous other artists, among them ‘Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa’ for Gene Pitney, ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ for Herb Alpert, and ‘Close to You’ for The Carpenters.
Others hastened to cover their tunes, notably Aretha Franklin on ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, while in Britain Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield all prospered on the opportunities for emotive singing their compositions offered. Only the songs of Lennon and McCartney rival theirs in the popular canon.
Their versatility extended to writing songs and scores for 10 films, among them The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Alfie, What’s New Pussycat? and Casino Royale, from which ‘The Look of Love’ was Oscar-nominated. In 1969 they did win an Oscar, for ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The same year they achieved their ambition of writing a Broadway musical. Promises, Promises was a long-running adaptation of Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, and yielded ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’.
Then in 1973 the trinity was acrimoniously dissolved following the failure of a musical remake of the film Lost Horizon for which Bacharach and David had written the score. Bacharach felt the workload was unequal. “I felt like I really worked my tail off while he played tennis in Acapulco,” he said later. The two quarrelled and summoned their lawyers. Bacharach also stopped writing for Warwick.
Bacharach spent the next decade appearing in television spectaculars and giving occasional concerts. The cool critical reception given the indifferent interpretations of his own songs offered on albums like Woman in 1979 was cushioned by the estimated $40m he had earned from record royalties, sheet music and elevator companies.
Less easy to bear as his own profile declined was the sudden success of his actress wife Angie Dickinson in the television series Policewoman. They divorced in 1976.
In 1981 he won his second Oscar, for ‘Arthur’s Theme’, sung by Christopher Cross. It was co-written by Carole Bayer Sager, whom he married in 1982, and with whom he wrote two more US No 1s, including ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, the song written to raise funds for Aids research which reunited him with Warwick.
Bacharach continued to enjoy success. He made guest appearances in all three Austin Powers films, gently lampooning his position as the king of Sixties smooth, and in 1998 collaborated with Elvis Costello on the Grammy-winning album Painted From Memory.
In 2011 Bacharach and David were awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, bestowed by the Library of Congress, the first time a songwriting team had been given the honour. In 2015 he played the Glastonbury Festival, and he toured into his 90s, last playing Ireland in 2019.
An exacting perfectionist, Bacharach was also a perpetually hopeful romantic.
“I’ve done things like see a girl on a street in Copenhagen and gone back to that corner the next day at the same time, hoping to see her,” he confessed.
He retained his athletic good looks, marrying his fourth wife, Jane Strauss Hanson, a ski-instructor 32 years younger than him, in 1993. Their second child was born when he was 67.
Bacharach was also a successful breeder of racehorses. His horses competed in the Kentucky Derby and the Dubai World Cup.
Of his music, he once said: “The biggest thrill for me is being able to make a dent, even a small one, in somebody’s life. The reward is when someone tells you one of your songs means something special to them. It might be the memory of a good time, or a love affair, or when their baby is born.”
Bacharach himself married four times, and had four children. His first marriage, in 1953, to a singer, Paula Stewart, ended in divorce five years later. In 1965 he married Angie Dickinson, with whom he had a daughter, who took her own life in 2007. He married Carole Bayer Sager in 1982, and had a son with her before his third divorce in 1991. With his fourth wife, Jane Hansen, he had two further children.
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