Burt Bacharach: Famous songsmith for chart-topping pop songs, also “dug” jazz

In the 1960s, the word “songsmith” was a definition often given to folk music artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young, tied with their overt political and social critiques. Burt Bacharach would easily capture that title in the era of pop songs made famous for their beautiful melodies and romantic lyrics; songs that in fact would become the yardstick that other songwriters of this genre would be measured — and measure themselves — against. Additionally, many vocalists would find fame and identity with specific Bacharach compositions, including: Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By, Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer for You, Karen Carpenter’s (They Long to Be) Close to You, Dusty Springfield’s The Look of Love, B.J. Thomas’ Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head, Luther Vandross’ A House Is Not a Home, and Tom Jones’ What the World Needs Now.  Coupled with his essential partner in lyrics, Hal David, his most famous long-term collaborator, Bacharach’s compositions evoked a signature style and melody: “His (Bacharach’s) hit songs in the 1960s distilled that decade’s mood of romantic optimism.”

As the 1960s and early ‘70s were a time of significant social unrest, political turmoil, assassinations, the women’s and civil rights movements and Vietnam War protests, Bacharach’s mostly romantic take on the lessons of life within his songbook were often dwarfed by the sea-change of musical directions during this period. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and many other artists were redefining musical expression with anger and confrontational lyrics, culminating in the historic Woodstock concert event in 1969. Bacharach’s soft melodies, perfect harmonies and whimsical romantic lyrics were overlooked as not “edgy” enough for these turbulent times.

In hindsight, Bacharach’s compositions are recognized by music critics and historians as an essential chapter in the American songbook. As a composer, songwriter, record producer, and pianist he is now widely regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of 20th-century popular music. The slow refrain of Warwick’s Walk On By or upbeat hook of I’ll Never Fall in Love Again or the meter rhyme of BJ Thomas’ Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head are standards that seem simple on the surface but hide the gift of sophisticated composition: “His name is synonymous with beautiful, sometimes quirky, melodies that have provided the soundscape for some of popular music’s most romantic ballads On many of his most famous popular songs, are his trademark chord progressions, syncopated rhythmic patterns, unusual phrasing and use of meter which make his songs instantly recognizable, whether it’s as a writer of ‘pop’ hits as well as for movies and the Broadway stage.”

During the height of his ‘60s and ‘70s songwriting production, Mr. Bacharach and Mr. David worked in the Brill Building, the Midtown Manhattan music publishing hub, and were sometimes lumped together with the younger writers in the so-called Brill Building School of Teenage Pop. Established now as a profoundly prolific hit-making duo, Bacharach and David’s chemistry also produced more elegant results, “their sophisticated songs were closer in style to Cole Porter, and Mr. Bacharach’s fondness for Brazilian rhythms recalled lilting Porter standards like ‘Begin the Beguine.’

As measured against contemporaries, including The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Bacharach’s  Billboard ranking is competitive: Bacharach wrote seventy-three U.S. and fifty-two U.K. Top 40 hits. Those that topped the Billboard Hot 100 include This Guy’s in Love with You (Herb Alpert, 1968), “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (Thomas, 1969), (They Long to Be) Close to You (The Carpenters, 1970), Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) (Christopher Cross, 1981), That’s What Friends Are For (Warwick, 1986), and On My Own (Carole Bayer Sager, 1986). His accolades include six Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards, and one Emmy Award.

In 1961, his discovery of a gospel-trained singer named Dionne Warwick, while she was a session accompanist, would create a musical relationship that delivered some of his most popular and memorable compositions. Perfectly matching his songsmith arrangements, Warwick’s almost angelic and effortlessly ranging voice had perfect pitch and embodied David’s lyrics. In all, their collaboration would result in one of the most successful teams in popular music history: “Over the next 20 years, Warwick’s recordings of his songs sold over 12 million copies, with 38 singles making the charts and 22 in the Top 40. Among the hits were Walk On By, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Alfie, I Say A Little Prayer, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, Do You Know The Way To San Jose. She has had more hits during her career than any other female vocalist, except Aretha Franklin.” A remarkable musical benchmark!

Bacharach was also nominated for Academy Awards for several movie soundtracks that were almost inseparable from the theme and style of his compositions. In 1969, he and lyricist David won an Oscar for the original score of the Academy-Award winning film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford with Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head featuring prominently in a famous Newman bicycling sequence in the movie. Bacharach and David would continue to be recognized for other film scores, including a Grammy Award for Best Cast Album of the Year for Promise, Promises and throughout the ‘60s, receiving Oscar nominations including Best Song for The Look of Love, What’s Up Pussycat and Alfie.

According to his biographical narrative, beginning in his teenage years, he began listening to jazz (including Bebop), and Bacharach would secretly go out in New York City to the 52nd Street nightclubs, underage but with a fake ID to gain admission, taking in jazz sets by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Count Basie, whose styles influenced his  songwriting development, before breaking into the popular music industry. Many of his songs were later covered by jazz legends like Stan Getz (The Windows of the World), Wes Montgomery (Wives and Lovers), Bobby Timmons (Do You Know The Way To San Jose), Stanley Turrentine (This Guy’s In Love With You) and Shirley Scott, accompanied by Ron Carter on bass (What The World Needs Now Is Love) and Ahamad Jamal (The Look of Love).

Bacharach was appreciative of these interpretations and also surprised that his songs could crossover to this genre, as he discovered in 1968 when jazz saxophone legend Stan Getz released an entire album of covers, What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Burt Bacharach and Hal David. At the time, Bacharach reflected “I’ve sometimes felt that my songs are restrictive for a jazz artist. I was excited when [Stan] Getz did a whole album of my music.” Later, in 1997, Coltrane Quartet jazz pianist McCoy Tyner would cover nine of Bacharach’s compositions on What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach.

In 1986, Bacharach would return to chart-topping success and a career revival including future projects with a variety of younger talent. His composition That’s What Friends Are For, recorded by Warwick with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder as a charitable fundraiser for AIDS research and prevention achieved two US Number 1 songs.

In 1998, a much later and unexpected appreciation and collaboration occurred with post-punk British ballad-rocker and Grammy-Award winning singer, arranger, composer and guitarist Elvis Costello. Costello had sought out other projects with Bacharach’s generation including Paul McCartney, but they would find special chemistry co-writing a Grammy-Award winning effort, Painted From Memory. Costello developed a close personal relationship with Bacharach, admiring him as an invisible mentor from “across the pond,” but also quickly dispelling the image that these well-known popular songs were, in any way, simple. In a 2018 interview with The Associated Press, Costello stated, “The shorthand version of him (Bacharach) is that he’s something to do with easy listening, and it may be agreeable to listen to these songs, but there’s nothing easy about them. Try playing them. Try singing them.”

In February of this year, hearing of Bacharach’s passing, Costello would pay tribute by performing Baby, It’s You and Anyone Who Had a Heart during a 10-show residency at New York’s Gramercy Theater. Costello remarked, “A really great man left us yesterday, and people say when somebody reached a great age, ‘Well, it was a good ending.’ Yeah, it’s never time to say goodbye to somebody if you love them. I’m not ashamed to say I did love this man for everything he gave, Mr. Burt Bacharach.”

Bacharach was a rarity, setting a high bar standard in popular songwriting, while also maintaining a prolific output (accompanied most often by sentiment-matching lyricism from Hal David). The unforgettable hooks of melodies with superlative arrangements, always coupled with a stellar vocalist, have left their indelible mark musically, as well as being inseparable cultural timepieces.