Burt Bacharach

September 15, 2015

By my count Burt Bacharach had about 35 hits. They were of a uniformly high standard, and a few are as good as song gets. Not for nothing did he receive honorary doctorates and the Gershwin Prize.

Classically trained by Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell and others, and inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, Bacharach spent his post-graduation (apprenticeship) years as musical director for Marlene Dietrich, accompanying her on her many tours around the world and guiding her in the studio. She had a small vocal range and she performed with all manner of ensembles so he had to become a musical jack-of-all-trades writing, arranging, accompanying and conducting for her. They worked together for over ten years, and whenever he had spare time he hung around the Brill building, collaborating with whomever he met there. Eventually he settled with Hal David, an established lyricist. They co-wrote for 17 years.

The first group of hits he wrote included novelty songs and purely commercial hits with little or no musical significance. In this category I would include: The story of my life (sung by Marty Robbins), Magic moments (by Perry Como), The man who shot Liberty Valence, Twenty-four hours from Tulsa and Only love can break a heart (all by Gene Pitney), and Blue on Blue (Bobby Vinton). All of these feature catchy tunes, competent construction and appropriate melody/lyric fusion. These are all fine commercial constructions, lightweight, yes, but that was what the market required, and even though Blue on blue is intolerably saccharine, nevertheless one can’t argue with success. Entire careers have been built upon less.

But Bacharach was not really a man of his time, more a throw-back to the earlier big-bands and jazzy crooners. He wrote torch songs with huge orchestral backings, punctuated with swelling strings and distinctive orchestral effects from flugel-horns, trombones and other unexpected arrangements (whistling on Magic Moments and Only love can break a heart). His genius was that he was able to blend the old romantic (escapist) crooner style with the more down-to-earth (realistic) rhythm-and-blues style that came to the fore in the 1960s. This was not entirely Bacharach’s doing. Hal David was, in Bacharach’s words, “a lot more political than me,” with a son eligible to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and the contemporary nuances in the lyrics came from him.

His turning point was the series of R & B-flavoured songs that included Baby it’s you (The Shirelles), Tower of strength (Gene McDaniels), Don’t go, please stay (The Drifters), Any day now (Chuck Jackson), and Make it easy on yourself (Jerry Butler). These are all very much sixties songs; Perry Como and Marty Robbins probably couldn’t have sung these songs credibly.

His mature style arrived with Don’t make me over (Dionne Warwick) and led to a string of similar hits mostly written with her in mind, or for voices somewhat similar to hers. I just don’t know what to do with myself, Anyone who had a heart and Walk on by were their best with Warwick through this period. Similar hits included Always something there to remind me (Sandie Shaw), What the world needs now (Jackie De Shannon), Wishin’ and hopin’ and The Look of Love (Dusty Springfield), Close to you (The Carpenters), and This guy’s in love with you (Herb Alpert),

Perhaps the key to Bacharach’s appeal in his best songs is the understated first line that seems to beg so many questions. “If you see me walking down the street…” and ”Anyone who had a heart….” and “I just don’t know what to do with myself…” are delicate, plaintive, questioning and pregnant with possibilities that set up the rest of the song. The rest of the melody is sometimes just a workman-like filling-in of the background structure – the chords and the implicit verse-chorus-bridge form – and too often he goes Hollywood (or is it Vegas, or even Disney) with the strings, but the fluidity of those first lines is infinitely seductive. Through my youth Bacharach phrases popped into my head daily for years.

To spell this right out, consider the first line to Walk on by: a minor key and a steady rhythm for “If you see me walking down the street,” then a gradual hesitating slide down the notes on “and I start to cry each time we meet” with just enough rhythmic variation (an absolute minimum) to retain interest and a span of only half an octave, then an octave leap up to “Walk on by-y-y…” at which point the key changes down a tone to another minor chord. The song begins almost with throw-away phrases, but then suddenly it springs to life with possibilities.

He also wrote quite a list of atypical songs that one might not associate with him just going by the style of his main output. My little red book, (Love) What’s new pussycat (Tom Jones) and the exquisite Trains and Boats and Planes (Dionne Warwick) are examples, as are the throw-back Wives and lovers (Jack Jones), and the hodge-podge Message to Michael (Dionne Warwick). I say a little prayer (Aretha Franklin) is also something of an oddity, but perhaps the most unlikely song he ever wrote was Do you know the way to San Jose (Dionne Warwick), with its’ “wo-wo-wo-wo” intro. Like Paul Simon’s Graceland, it is an unexpected masterpiece quite unlike everything else the artist produced, which goes to prove just how damn good these top artists really are. Their headline style is only part of their tool-kit.

Then there are some wayward oddities like A house is not a home (Luther Van Dross). Bacharach seemed to sometimes get lost in that faux late-night-cocktail shtick. Promises promises (Dionne Warwick) is very much a song for Broadway, which has its own razz-ma-tazz-jazz style. It works, but to my mind is too clever by half.

Bacharach has said that Alfie (Cilla Black) is perhaps his favourite song, and he mentions Miles Davis saying that it was a really good song (I’m not sure Davis was an authority on song), and Bacharach describes the opening lyric (again by Hal David) as “one of the best lyrics anyone has ever written.” The verse reads:

What’s it all about Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?”

While I agree that it’s a fine lyric (though I’m not sure it’s that good) I suspect that it also expresses something deeply personal for Bacharach. The prosaic ambiguity of several of his best opening lines, the apparently obvious statement that reveals unexpected layers, the cluster of close notes followed by a leap (“What’s-it-all-about-Al-fie?”), show him seeking the beyond in the midst of life (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). One might be merely “walking down the street” not knowing “what else to do” when the uncanny suddenly appears, a deep question or a deeper love perhaps, pregnant with possibility. This is the heartfelt message of Bacharach at his best. He and David understood each other well; it’s no accident that he was less successful when working with other lyricists.

All of which is all very well, but to me his two best songs are the utterly uncharacteristic Raindrops keep falling on my head (B. J. Thomas) and I’ll never fall in love again (Bobby Gentry).

The lyric of Raindrops keep falling on my head could potentially go anywhere from its opening words; gloomy, dark, stoic even (just think of Rainy night in Georgia by Brook Benton), but in fact there’s a joyous bounce right from the start. This shows how closely David and Bacharach understood each other; it’s a Singing in the rain kind of lyric that was clearly conceived as such by both of them right from the start (in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which contains the song, the particular scene in which it occurs is a very sunny day). The accompaniment is understated (ukulele it sounds like), and when it comes the orchestration is not excessive or eccentric, and the goofy up-tempo tag at the end, which adds nothing to the song (the song itself is actually over) but reiterates that happy-go-lucky flavour in the song, almost seems to parody the earlier brassiness. But it’s the unpredictably bouncy melody that has all the charm; each line seems to bend unexpectedly and end surprisingly. The bridge is appropriate, and the final punch-line “because I’m free, nothing’s worrying me” makes it just about the happiest song going.

I’ll never fall in love again has that same questioning beginning of several of his best songs: “What do you get when you fall in love?” Again it could go anywhere, but the immediate answer (David’s answers are usually not so instantaneous) of “A guy with a pin to burst your bubble,” reveals the same unpredictable and bouncy mood as Raindrops, except that that’s not the real answer. The verses cover catching pneumonia and not being phoned and pain and sorrow, there’s an appropriate bridge, and then comes the final line – “So until tomorrow I’ll never fall in love again” – which is the real answer to the opening question, revealing it to be ironic rather than tragic. For some reason Bacharach doesn’t even mention Bobby Gentry’s version in his autobiography, and the difference between her and Dionne Warwick’s version (presumably produced by Bacharach) clarifies the limits of his approach. The Warwick version is smooth to a fault, imbued with a kind of mock-sophistication that sounds cool but contrived. Gentry’s version is the definitive one.

These two melodies have an uncanny quality; they are simple yet smart, bouncy but not dumb, happy but aware of the possibility of unhappiness. It’s nice that someone whose main style was of poignant questioning sadness could also write among his absolute best songs two of the happiest melodies ever written.

To me the main problem with several of Bacharach’s songs is the derivative, formulaic orchestration. He loved writing novelty orchestration and it certainly is effective often; we can’t argue with success. The silliest is on Trains and Boats and Planes by Dionne Warwick, where some kind of scratch-board comes and goes; to my mind the definitive version of this song remains to be done. His orchestration reminds me of Nelson Riddle’s work with Frank Sinatra during the Capital recordings. How can anyone improve on that and why would they try? Bacharach is one songwriter (Elton John is another) whom I often wish would just put out a simple unadorned version of each of his best songs with only piano accompaniment. Beautiful!!! But the orchestral arrangements are intrinsic parts of many of his songs, they seem to build to it, so stripping them away might actually diminish the songs. (If you really want to hear a truly grotesque orchestral accompaniment (not by Bacharach) seek out Serenata [original single version] by Sarah Vaughan on Youtube; an exquisitely beautiful song and superbly sung, but make sure you have a bucket handy.)

His masterpieces include I just don’t know what to do with myself, Anyone who had a heart, Walk on by, The look of love, Trains and Boats and Planes, This guy’s in love with you, Close to you, Raindrops keep falling on my head and I’ll never fall in love again.

When most people think of the great songwriters of the modern period they typically mention John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Brian Wilson. Why is Bacharach ranked slightly lower than them? I believe it’s not the song-writing itself but the underlying message. All of those others addressed contemporary concerns, and society was in turmoil back then. Bacharach certainly shared those concerns; from reading his autobiography that becomes very clear. He was probably better-informed, or at least better connected than any of those who did write protest, but he had other priorities. If only he’d written a Blown in the wind or a Sounds of Silence, or an Imagine. He and Hal David could have easily done it, but they never did, and that’s why – erroneously, I believe – he is ranked just beneath these others, whose collective musical knowledge he far surpassed.

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