No raindrops are falling on his head

At age 85, Burt Bacharach brings his timeless collection of classic pop songs to Israel.

June 5, 2013 22:28
Burt Bacharach.

Burt bacharach 370. (photo credit: Courtesy PR)

If it wasn’t for Burt Bacharach, the humming quotient in the world would probably be way down. His melodies, whether bursting out of radios, films or elevators, are aural ambrosia that define an era of classic songwriting which is unlikely to return.

A short list of the more than 50 Top 40 hits he’s created, most with his primary lyricist Hal David, reads like first-class guided tour down Tin Pan Alley: “Walk on By,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “I Say A Little Prayer for You,” “Close to You.”

At 85, rather than resting on his lofty laurels, Bacharach is in the midst of one of the busiest periods of his illustrious and varied career. He’s released an extensive CD box set, The Art of the Songwriter: Anyone Who Had a Heart – The Best of Burt Bacharach, and has also penned a long-awaited autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, which candidly discusses his “swinging 60s” past, and was described by the Daily Telegraph as “a world of broads, highballs and frequent dinners at Italian joints ‘where Sinatra liked to hang out.’” And most pertinent to his music, he’s still performing, heading off soon on what he whimsically calls his “You Have to be Kidding” tour, in which he’s leading a full orchestra and a group of singers on lush renditions of his most well-known songs.

The show stops in Binyamina on July 2 for a gala performance at the Zappa Shoni Amphitheater, Bacharach’s first appearance here since 1960, when he conducted German-American singer and actress Marlene Dietrich’s orchestra in historic shows in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.

“I was her musical director for that tour, which began in Germany,” said Bacharach last week in an early morning gravelly voice from his home near Los Angeles. “She was not accepted so well in Germany [where many Germans thought she had betrayed the country for her anti-Nazi stance and emigration to the US].

“So when we got to Israel, and she received a spectacular reception – it was a real emotional roller coaster ride. She performed all these songs in German, which since the establishment of Israel had never been used to the best of my recollection. The promoter asked her not to sing anything in German and she said, ‘I won’t do one, I’ll do nine songs in German,’ and she did. The audiences were very moved and many were crying. They gave her a standing ovation for a half hour. Onstage, we just got swept up in the scene and it’s something I’ll never forget. It was one of the most spectacular things that ever happened to me onstage.”

Bacharach was already a successful songwriter when he signed on in 1958 to work with Dietrich, after being employed in a similar position by singer Vic Damone. In 1957, Bacharach collaborated for the first time with lyricist David, whom he met as co-workers in New York’s legendary songwriting factory the Brill Building.

Bacharach’s arrival there followed years of music lessons forced upon him by his mother at their home in Kew Gardens, New York.

By the age of 15, he had fallen in love with jazz and would often sneak into Manhattan night clubs to see bebop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, whose unconventional harmonies and melodies became a major influence on the soon-to-be composer.

After attending music studies program at McGill University, Bacharach went on to study theory and composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York City and at the Berkshire Music Center. But even with the strong foundation, it took him a while before he wrote a hit song.

“I thought songwriting would be an easy thing, but when I started writing with different people in the Brill Building, I went through a long period of writing what I thought were commercial songs and kept having them rejected,” he said. “I waited a long time, over a year, before I had song even recorded, and it took another year before a song of mine became a hit.”

That was “The Story of My Life,” which reached No. 15 on the charts in 1957 performed by Marty Robbins, followed the next year by Perry Como singing “Magic Moments,” which reached No. 8. The songwriting success grew in the beginning of the next decade with hit songs for Gene Pitney ( “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) and The Drifters (“Mexican Divorce”) “It was a wonderful time when I was working at the Brill Building. In the elevator, you would see Lieber and Stoller or run into Phil Spector. It was a building full of music,” said Bacharach, adding that there was goodnatured competition among the songwriting staff to produce bigger hits and better songs.

But there was also a fair share of nurturing and mentoring going on.

“Jerry Lieber became a good friend. I learned about making records by watching him in the studio. It was a real education for me to see how he translated to a large group of musicians what he was looking for in the arrangement without knowing how to write the music down himself, just by moving his shoulders or something.”

The experience proved handy, as Bacharach began to produce and arrange the string and horn sections for many of his songs, primarily those he was writing for The Drifters. During one of those recording sessions, he met a background singer named Dionne Warwick, who would end up over the course of 10 years making them both household names by recording 20 Top 40 hits written by Bacharach and David, including “Walk On By” (1964), “Message to Michael” (1966), “I Say a Little Prayer” (1967), “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (1968), “This Girl’s in Love with You” (1969) and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1969).

Bacharach, with his chiseled good looks and blonde starlet wife – Hollywood actress Angie Dickinson – became a symbol of the freewheeling era, where turtlenecks and love beads went hand in hand. But his music was never based on the ever-changing fads or the turmoil-filled social developments of the day.

The strength of his memorable melodies and atypical chord changes, along with the everyman quality of David’s lyrics, enabled them to become two of the few non-rock songwriters to survive intact the rock era brought on by The Beatles, and actually forge a viable, sophisticated alternative that thrived rather than succumbed under the rock & roll onslaught of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to Bacharach, the key to their astounding success derived less from the songwriting and more from the final recording, a process that he made every effort to be involved in on all his songs.

“I have this belief that you can write a piece and think it’s very good, but the moment of truth comes when you get to the studio – it lives or dies by its recording,” he said. “For me, it always came down to the right performance, and it mattered when I was able to go into the studio, choose the musicians, control the environment and set the tempo I felt was right. You need everyone on the same wavelength – the drummer, bass player, background vocals. It’s very exciting when you’re trying to get everyone to peak at the same moment.”

It didn’t always work according to Bacharach’s plan, however, and he can recall like it happened yesterday the recording sessions in 1964 of Brooke Benton’s version of “A House is Not a Home” (Warwick also had a hit with the song a few weeks later) as being particularly vexing, to the point of Bacharach leaving the studio and being asked not to return.

“He wasn’t singing the right melody, and I said ‘wait a minute, you’re singing it wrong,’” he said. “So they kicked me out of the studio, someone else wrote the arrangement, and they ended making a very good record. But he did sing the wrong melody. I don’t like that, particularly if that version is going to be the first time people hear the song and it’s altered from what your original concept was.”

The Benton session proved to be the exception, however, as Bacharach and David scored numerous hits in addition to their Warwick gold mine, including Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now”), the Fifth Dimension (“One Less Bell to Answer”), Tom Jones (“What’s New, Pussycat?”), Dusty Springfield (“The Look of Love”) and B.J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”), a tune which earned Bacharach a pair of Oscars (Best Score and Best Theme Song) as well as a Grammy for best score. Bacharach also began releasing a series of albums under his own name, but they were never nearly as popular as when other artists performed his songs.

A divorce from Dickinson, and various lawsuits among Bacharach, David and Warwick slowed him down in the 1970s, but a professional and personal collaboration with lyricist Carol Bayer Sager resulted in another Oscar for him in 1981 for Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” from the film Arthur, and marked the beginning of another fruitful period of creativity throughout the decade. Bacharach reconciled and reunited with David and Warwick in 1993 for the song “Sunny Weather Lover” from Warwick’s Friends Can Be Lovers album.

A new generation of musicians and fans began to realize the timeless quality of his songs, with artists as diverse as REM, The White Stripes and Faith No More paying homage to Bacharach by covering him. The tributes went a step farther when he recorded an entire album with Elvis Costello in 1998 – Painted From Memory – which resulted in a mini-tour and another Grammy. It also didn’t hurt that he appeared in cameo roles in all three Austin Powers films.

In 2005, at age 77, with the help of relative youngsters like Costello, Dr. Dre and Rufus Wainwright, Bacharach released At This Time, his first solo album in 26 years, and the first time he wrote his own lyrics to accompany his melodies. Two years later, a personal tragedy struck when his daughter with Dickinson, Nikki, committed suicide at age 40.

Despite – or because of – the grief he suffered due to her death, which he recounted extensively in his book, Bacharach has continued to return to music for solace. And his upcoming orchestra tour is a new chapter in the six-decade story he can’t stop writing.

Looking at today’s musical landscape, Bacharach said he wouldn’t want to be a songwriter starting out in the business.

“It’s much tougher today, record companies are disappearing and the great singers out there are not apparent. When was the last time you heard something as good as a Gladys Knight record on the radio?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t want to be a young songwriter now, unless maybe I was in Nashville. It seems to be the only pace where a good song is still valued, if you can write country songs. I’m not sure if I can. I guess I could try.”

Is there anyone who doubts he would be great at it? Let them find the way to San Jose themselves.

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