May 12, 2012: Happy 84th birthday, Burt Bacharach! The living legend was recently the recipient, with longtime lyricist Hal David, of The Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, bestowed upon the team by President Barack Obama. In celebration of the maestro’s birthday and this great honor, we’re republishing this special installment of Back Tracks, exploring Bacharach’s solo career from 1965’s Hit Maker! through 2008’s Live at the Sydney Opera House!
Age hasn’t slowed Burt Bacharach. The composer, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on May 12, has had a rather active 2010. His latest songs, co-written with Steven Sater of Broadway’s Spring Awakening, were premiered by Italian recording artist Karima on her self-titled album. He and Sater announced plans for a stage version of O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and his first musical, 1968’s Promises, Promises, received its first-ever Broadway revival. [The musical premiered in late 2011 at San Diego, California’s Old Globe Theatre as Some Lovers.] In addition, his songs have made regular appearances on Fox’s runaway hit Glee, with a highlight of the season being Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison’s blazing “A House is Not a Home/One Less Bell to Answer” medley. (He was even name-checked this week by none other than Alice Cooper!) Yes, Burt Bacharach remains a busy man.
Mike paid wonderful tribute on Bacharach’s birthday with a Reissue Theory devoted to Naked Eyes, who brought the Bacharach/David song “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me” back into the charts in 1983. While best-known for his songwriting, though, Bacharach also has recorded a number of albums as a solo artist. Back Tracks turns the spotlight now onto those often-overlooked solo albums, beginning with 1965’s Hit Maker! and continuing to 2008’s Live at the Sydney Opera House. Read all about the legendary career of Mr. Burt Bacharach after the jump!
Hit Maker! (Kapp, 1965 – reissued MCA, 1997)
While Hit Maker! was Bacharach’s solo LP debut (and has there ever been a more accurate title for a record?), it was far from his first solo recording. Bacharach had actually recorded a brace of singles by 1965: first for Cabot Records in 1957 (“Rosanne” b/w “Searching Wind” as Cabot 108), then two singles for Big Top in 1961 – one side of “Brigitte Bardot” with vocal by Joel Grey (Big Top 3086) and “Move It on the Backbeat” b/w “A Felicidade” (Big Top 3087) under the name Burt and the Backbeats. (Providing background vocals for the A-side? None other than the future hit-maker’s muse, Dionne Warwick.) By 1963, Bacharach’s star as a songwriter and producer was on the ascendant, and he signed with Kapp Records. His 1963 single “Saturday Sunshine” b/w “And So Goodbye My Love” (Kapp 532) led to the recording of Hit Maker! This LP introduced the pattern that many of Bacharach’s LPs would follow, featuring largely-instrumental takes of his familiar hits sweetened with (a usually-female) vocal choir. The man himself would also occasionally sing in his own rough voice, but Hit Maker! found him concentrating on conducting and piano. Hit Maker! was recorded mainly at London’s Pye Studios, with the cream of London’s session musicians, and the Breakaways providing those important vocals. To tie in with the album (which made the Top 5 in England in 1965), Bacharach hosted his first television special, The Sound of Bacharach, with guest stars Warwick and Dusty Springfield. Since its initial release, Hit Maker! has been reissued numerous times, most famously as the 1969 album Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits, which replaced the cover photo of a young, sweater-clad Bacharach with that of a groovy “bird” looking alluringly at the camera. This LP, with brassy versions of “24 Hours from Tulsa” and “Always Something There…” among its selections, would become Austin Powers’ favorite recording which the international super-spy would carry with him! An expanded CD on Universal UK in 1997 added B-side “And So Goodbye, My Love” to the track lineup as well as a rendition of “Sail On, Silv’ry Moon” which was later confirmed to have had nothing to do with Bacharach. MCA’s 1997 American release would prove definitive, dropping the misplaced “Moon” but appending Kapp single 657 “What’s New Pussycat?” (featuring Joel Grey) and “My Little Red Book” (with Tony Middleton) to the LP’s original 11 tracks. “And So Goodbye My Love” and an alternate take of “Saturday Sunshine” were likewise added. The original “Saturday Sunshine” 45 mix can be heard on the Hip-O Select box set Something Big; more on that later.
Reach Out (A&M, 1967)
After a one-off single for Liberty in 1966 (Liberty 55934 – “Nikki” b/w “Juanita’s Place”), Bacharach would sign with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records, launching a long-term association that lasted for 8 albums over 12 years. His debut A&M LP only reprised one song from Hit Maker!, “A House is Not a Home.” This recording improved on that arrangement and remains poignant for introducing the world to its composer’s hushed, tremulous, sensitive vocals and featuring a smashing instrumental crescendo. Reach Out‘s take on “What the World Needs Now” would be nearly-duplicated by Motown’s Tom Clay and arranger Gene Page for their seminal “mash-up” of the song with “Abraham, Martin and John” (MoWest 5002F) in 1971. In addition, “Lisa” received its first recording here, which is to date, one of only two known versions of the song. Another standout track is “Bond Street,” from Bacharach’s score to Casino Royale. In just over two minutes, this track encapsulates Swinging London like no other, with its bleating horns, trademark stop-and-start rhythm and groovy horns. While Reach Out‘s orchestrations are a bit more MOR than those written by Bacharach for the songs’ original recordings, they are very much in the spirit of the A&M label’s then-roster of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, etc. In fact, this album remains a perfect evocation of that moment in time when Bacharach’s melodies were literally inescapable, whether on A&M or over the airwaves.
Make It Easy on Yourself (A&M, 1969)
When Bacharach returned to A&M in 1969, he enlisted his longtime engineer Phil Ramone as co-producer, and recorded no fewer than five of the songs from his 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises: the title song, “Knowing When to Leave,” “Whoever You Are, I Love You,” “Wanting Things” and of course, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” He looked back for his Bob Hilliard co-write, “Any Day Now,” and reprised A&M founder Herb Alpert’s Number 1 smash “This Guy’s in Love with You” with a new piano introduction that remains his preference to this day. Two new instrumentals were premiered: “She’s Gone Away” and “Pacific Coast Highway,” which conjures up an early-morning drive. The album was rounded out by imaginatively-arranged versions of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “Make It Easy on Yourself,” with Bacharach’s own reedy but reflective vocals complementing the moody album cover. The songs on this album likely contributed to jazz critic Leonard Feather’s appraisal of Bacharach and David as having “succeeded in drawing popular song away from the dreary old 32-bar format and away from the verse-and-chorus tradition…For example, ‘Promises, Promises’ bulges around the midsection with one bar each successfully in 5/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/8, 4/8 and 4/4. Stop already!” But Bacharach was far from stopping.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (A&M, 1969)
I hesitated before including the A&M album of Burt Bacharach’s score to George Roy Hill’s 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as soundtracks really aren’t the purview of this Back Tracks. (I promise to devote a future Back Tracks to Bacharach’s soundtrack work!) But A&M LP 7227 wasn’t a soundtrack, per se, but rather a studio re-recording of the score cues, thus its inclusion here. This common practice favored by Henry Mancini, among others, has deprived us of an actual Original Soundtrack Recording of the Bacharach score which netted two Academy Awards for its composer. Until Film Score Monthly or Intrada takes it upon themselves to release such an album (big hint, hint), Bacharach’s re-recording stands as a terrific album in its own right. The infectious opener “The Sundance Kid” sets the tone for the album, which is wall-to-wall with memorable melodies from the yearning “Come Touch the Sun” to the breezy “The Old Fun City.” And then of course, there’s the indelible “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” The 2004 Hip-O Select box set Something Big adds one session outtake, “Etta’s Theme,” an alternate version of “Come Touch the Sun.”
Burt Bacharach (A&M, 1971)
In 1971 the inevitable self-titled LP arrived, but Burt Bacharach doffed its hat to two recent smashes of the composer’s, the cover copy proudly proclaiming “Includes ‘Close to You’, ‘One Less Bell to Answer’.” The Bacharach/David hit streak hadn’t let up, with the Carpenters and The Fifth Dimension, respectively, breathing new life into songs first recorded by Richard Chamberlain and Keely Smith, respectively. Ironically, neither of those hits were produced or arranged by the Maestro himself. So this LP afforded listeners the opportunity to hear his own arrangements of those chart-toppers and more. Cissy Houston lent her considerable pipes to “One Less Bell,” even if the more delicate arrangement doesn’t have the power of The Fifth Dimension’s rendition. Jack Jones’ lounge-y “Wives and Lovers” was extended via a jazzy orchestral treatment and Bacharach re-recorded his “Nikki,” better known as the theme to the eponymous ABC Movie of the Week. Bacharach’s songbook with Bob Hilliard was once again dipped into, this time via “Mexican Divorce.” This author’s personal favorite on the album is “Hasbrook Heights,” a simple, unassuming ditty sympathetically sung by its composer (in perhaps his sweetest vocal performance), and featuring almost all of his stylistic hallmarks as both arranger and writer in one song. Most ambitious, though, were the instrumentals “And the People Were with Her (Suite for Orchestra)” and “Freefall.” Both showed Bacharach truly breaking free from the constraints of the standard song form while never losing sight of his unerring melodic sense. These challenging pieces were a sign of things to come.
Living Together (A&M, 1973)
One could say that Living Together represents the end of the first era of Burt Bacharach’s career. His hallowed partnership with Hal David was on the rocks, as was his relationship with Dionne Warwick, for whom the duo had penned most of their biggest hits. The estrangement with David (which led to the falling out with Warwick) was largely due to the failure of Columbia Pictures’ big-budget musical Lost Horizon. Bacharach produced, arranged and conducted the songs and score for Ross Hunter’s lavish version of the James Hilton novel, which starred Peter Finch, Liv Ullman, Sally Kellerman and Bobby Van. Yet while Bacharach and David’s friendship took years to mend, it was immediately clear that a number of the songs for the ill-fated film were indeed, quite wonderful. Living Together showcased five of them in arrangements distinct from their film counterparts. Cissy Houston and Tony Middleton both returned to the fold in the dramatic “I Come to You,” while the composer took the lead on the haunting “Lost Horizon.” Bacharach’s music was on the whole becoming more tense; this shift is apparent on this LP both on the Lost Horizon songs and the others: the jazzy “Walk the Way You Talk,” the romantically-minded “The Balance of Nature,” the pensive “Long Ago Tomorrow.” Some relief is provided by “Something Big,” a sort of second cousin to Promises, Promises’ “Half as Big as Life,” another Hal David lyric in which the singer sets his wildest dreams forth in song. Bacharach sings on this track and the chorus echoes, “something big is what I’m after now.” But Bacharach wouldn’t fight any longer to grab that brass ring; he was already on top of the world yet in personal turmoil. He would take a hiatus from solo recording for four years, and scale back his productions for others in that time period, too. When he returned for his next LP, Hit-Maker! wouldn’t have been nearly as accurate a title as Composer, but its actual title was Futures. A live album, though, would be a stopgap.
Burt Bacharach in Concert (A&M, 1974)
One concert could barely contain all of Bacharach’s hits by 1974, or even a small percentage of them. But the 15 tracks on this Japan-only release seem as good a choice of 15 tracks as any. The album’s highlight is a medley of “Don’t Make Me Over/Anyone Who Had a Heart/What’s New Pussycat?/Wives and Lovers/24 Hours from Tulsa.” To this day, Bacharach utilizes medleys in his live concerts as the only way to ensure that an audience hears as many of those hits as possible, and the imaginatively arranged songs here don’t disappoint. Bacharach also offers a gravelly vocal on a tiny bit of “Alfie,” which he continues to perform in concert to this day; he’s long cited its lyric as his favorite of Hal David’s many works.
Futures (A&M, 1977)
The title track of Futures signaled a new direction for Bacharach. A keyboard is the first instrument heard, and the instrumental even veers from jazz to light rock, with nary a flugelhorn present. Dramatic, swirling strings and the unexpected time signatures, though, make it uniquely Bacharach, even as he explores new territory. “Futures” leads into a virtual suite of decidedly uncommercial songs co-written with Bobby Russell, James Kavanaugh, Norman Gimbel and even Neil Simon; Hal David makes an appearance with two songs salvaged from the remnants of their partnership, the wistful “No One Remembers My Name” and “I Took My Strength From You (I Had None).” Many different guest vocalists are employed, from Joshie Armstead on the impassioned, angry “Us” (a Russell co-write) to Peter Yarrow on the lovely, delicate “The Young Grow Younger Every Day.” Armstead, who appears on four songs, is more resigned on Simon’s lyric to “Seconds,” written for a proposed but never-filmed movie adaptation of Promises, Promises and also recorded by Gladys Knight. “When You Bring Your Sweet Love to Me” is a soulful Hollywood tale sung by Jamie Anders with lyrics by Gimbel and a funky, percussive backing. The most familiar-sounding track may be “Another Spring Will Rise,” a new instrumental that recalls those from 1971’s Burt Bacharach. Futures is hardly an instantly-accessible album, but after multiple listens, it’s rewarding for those looking to delve a bit deeper than usual into the Bacharach catalogue. Critic Joe Viglione called Futures “underground adult contemporary,” and the description couldn’t be more apt.
Woman (A&M, 1979)
Woman marked the end of Bacharach’s long association with A&M Records, and the beginning of his sabbatical from solo recording. Another album wouldn’t appear with Burt Bacharach’s name as primary artist (barring soundtracks) until 1998’s Elvis Costello collaboration Painted from Memory. He wouldn’t fly completely solo again until 2005’s At This Time. Woman stands, though, as a continuation of the style Bacharach first explored on Futures, albeit with fewer songs and more extended instrumental compositions (five of its eight tracks clock in at over six minutes’ length). Only three vocal tracks appeared, none of which were straightforward pop songs: Libby Titus co-wrote and sang on “Riverboat,” Sally Stevens did the same on “There is Time,” and Carly Simon sang on “I Live in the Woods,” which she co-wrote with Bacharach and Titus. The arrangements are typically lush, utilizing the Houston Symphony. Bacharach’s sophisticated scoring for strings and brass meshes well with atypically-funky overtones similar to Futures. Woman stands as a true song cycle; he was joined for the ambitious project by Michael Woolcock and Armin Steiner as producers. Many of the tracks sound as if they could have been film themes, with sweeping orchestration emphasized over traditional song form. Opener “Summer of ‘77” has a number of particularly forceful, exciting passages, while Anthony Newley’s contribution as co-writer, “The Dancing Fool,” conjures up the sound of a circus gone awry. Carly Simon’s languid, impressionistic “I Live in the Woods” remains a unique entry in her canon, as well as in Bacharach’s. Woman remains a difficult but rewarding listen, an experiment in marrying classical composition style to a pop sound.
Painted from Memory – Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello (Mercury, 1998)
The 1980s saw Burt Bacharach find a new wife and lyrical partner (Carole Bayer Sager), a new style and some of the biggest successes of his career (“That’s What Friends Are For,” “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” “On My Own”). The decade also saw him reuniting with both Hal David and Dionne Warwick, bringing the legendary songsmith’s career full circle. By the early 1990s, though, the hits with Sager had dried up, as had the marriage. But the ever-restless Bacharach continued to compose with a variety of new collaborators, and in 1997, he was invited to make a cameo in Mike Myers’ tongue-in-cheek Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. His appearance in this film surprisingly led to a full-scale if long-overdue reappraisal of his work, with musicians including Noel Gallagher, Ben Folds, Aimee Mann and The White Stripes singing his praises (and his songs)! Rock critics were finally on board with them, too.
At Bacharach’s side throughout this great comeback was Elvis Costello. Director Allison Anders had a vision for her fictionalized Brill Building “biopic” Grace of My Heart, in which contemporary musicians would team with 1960s stalwarts to craft the soundtrack album. Longtime fan Costello (who had earlier in his career cut renditions of both “Baby It’s You” and “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”) jumped at the chance to collaborate with Bacharach, and their work for the 1996 film yielded the majestic “God Give Me Strength.” The song found Bacharach writing in his quintessential 1960s style for the first time in a great many years, his majestic, tortured melody recalling “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Make It Easy On Yourself” in its dramatic reach. Costello supplied a pained lyric and contributed to the melody, too, while Bacharach handled the arrangement and conducting. “God Give Me Strength” led the men to craft a full-scale album together, a stunning song cycle that stands among both men’s best achievements. The melodies easily stood alongside Bacharach’s best, and Costello matched him with typically incisive, intelligent and sharp-edged lyrics that never once reminded one of Hal David’s unmatched directness. “Toledo” and its prominent flugelhorn part immediately sounded as if it had been around for ages, while “In the Darkest Place” was truly there, a despairing but beautiful song. Pain and reflection color Painted from Memory, with “This House is Empty Now” another aching, gorgeous lament, this time about divorce. “I Still Have That Other Girl” became a concert favorite for both Bacharach and Costello. Clearly, each gentleman brought out the best in the other.
While another full-scale set of songs hasn’t emerged to date, both men continued to collaborate regularly on one-off songs and projects, and to this day, perform the album’s songs in concert. Should an Expanded Edition ever emerge from the vaults, there is plenty of material extant. Costello fans have long clamored for an official release of The Attractions’ very different recording of “God Give Me Strength,” recorded without Bacharach’s involvement. It’s an illuminating look at just how much the co-composer brought to his own song with his arrangement. A DVD of their appearance on Sessions at West 54th would be a welcome bonus, or back on the audio side, the professionally-recorded concert appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall on October 29, 1998 where Costello tackles, in addition to the PFM songs, terrific covers of “My Little Red Book,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Finally, Costello experimented with recording his own songs in a Bacharach-inspired orchestral vein; these arrangements of “Alison,” “Accidents Will Happen” and “Just a Memory” deserve to see release, as does an original called “Suspect My Tears” that sounds like a lost Dusty Springfield song but continues to gather dust in the Costello vault. All would be welcome on a reissue of Painted from Memory.
Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach – Burt Bacharach and Ron Isley (DreamWorks, 2003)
Bacharach followed Painted from Memory with another collaborative effort. Ron Isley’s deep, romantic vocals provided a perfect foil for Bacharach’s lush productions on Here I Am. Besides reinterpreting the catalogue via passionate performances on songs like “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the disc offered two new songs written by Bacharach and Steve “Tonio K” Krikorian: “Count on Me” and “Love’s (Still) the Answer.” Most exciting is “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” reinvented as a seductive lament, and the forgotten gem “Here I Am” (from Bacharach’s score to What’s New, Pussycat?) which Isley makes his own. Should there ever be an expanded edition of this overlooked album, a prime candidate for inclusion would be a duet of “Close to You” recorded by Isley and Lauryn Hill but never released; a solo version appeared on the released album.
Something Big: The Complete A&M Years…and More (Hip-O Select, 2004)
Rhino’s 1998 box set The Look of Love was and is the last word on Burt Bacharach the composer, offering three cross-licensed CDs chronologically exploring his entire career. But the perfect complement to this collection is Hip-O Select’s 2004 box set chronicling Bacharach as solo artist. Its five discs contain the entirety of Bacharach’s A&M albums plus Hit Maker! and assorted rarities: both sides of his Kapp and Liberty singles, a United Artists single with tracks off the After The Fox soundtrack LP, and a song each from his scores to Arthur, Night Shift and Arthur 2: On the Rocks. The clothbound book-style format is as classy as its subject, and contains essays by Lauren Oliver, Phil Ramone, Richard Carpenter and set producers Mike Ragogna and Jim Pierson. This set is one-stop shopping for the Bacharach fan and collector.
At This Time (Columbia, 2005)
“Controversial” and “Burt Bacharach” in the same sentence? In 2005, the composer was mad as hell with the Bush administration, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. The result of his frustration was this politically-relevant album for which Bacharach wrote lyrics for the first time (in collaboration with Tonio K) and sharply divided his audiences. A generally world-weary, mournful tone is established on songs like “Please Explain” and “Where Did It Go?” but the real anger is unleashed on “Who Are These People?” where Elvis Costello’s vocals furiously assault “these people that keep telling us lies” and ask “how did these people get control of our lives?” There are somewhat gentler moments such as Rufus Wainwright’s guest spot on “Go Ask Shakespeare.” An adventurous teaming with Dr. Dre also produced some of the album’s tracks including “Dreams” featuring guest Chris Botti (and based on “The Last Three Minutes,” which had previously appeared on Botti’s 2003 album A Thousand Kisses Deep). At This Time melodically lives in an area somewhere between the extended symphonic compositions of Futures and Woman, and his 1980s pop style, with synthesizers and smooth saxophones abounding. If it’s not as timeless as Painted from Memory (nor was it intended to be, methinks, as a specific product of its time) it stands as a unique statement from an artist still pushing himself in new directions over 50 years into his career. A non-LP bonus track worth owning is the iTunes-exclusive uncensored version of “Who Are These People?” in which Costello utters a certain four-letter word that nobody ever expected to hear on a Burt Bacharach album. (A DualDisc was released in the UK only containing a video interview on the DVD side where Bacharach talks about what inspired him to take such a risk with this album.) Unfortunately, At This Time’s chances of success were almost entirely derailed by Sony’s copy-protection scheme which was present on initial pressings of the album; like the other albums encoded with the copy-protection, At This Time was quickly recalled and never recovered.
Live at the Sydney Opera House (Verve, 2008)
For his final release to date, Bacharach was in nostalgic mode. Live at the Sydney Opera House teamed the composer/conductor with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a 32-song program based around three large medleys including a fun movie medley with lesser-known songs such as “The World is a Circle,” “April Fools” and “Making Love” among its selections. Besides the 1960s hits, “God Give Me Strength” appeared as well as 1980s stalwarts “On My Own” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” A QVC-exclusive bonus disc added three songs: the world premiere of a new instrumental suite “For the Children” plus two more recent co-writes: “Fallin’ Out of Love” with Jerry Leiber and Jed Leiber, and “Who’ll Speak for Love” with Tim Rice. Australian label Liberator Music saw fit in 2009 to release the entire concert on 2 CDs, totaling 38 tracks and adding, among other tracks, a “Beginnings Medley” with “The Story of My Life,” “The Blob” and “Tower of Strength.” From At This Time, “Who Are These People?” made an appearance. While the American Verve release is a nice enough career overview, the full concert truly gives the complete Bacharach experience; the end result after listening to both CDs is simply, “Wow.” The breadth and scope of Bacharach’s career – and his effect on American popular song – can’t be distilled into two discs. But as record of a giant looking back at 57 years of music-making, it doesn’t get much better (short of the original recordings of each song) than the complete Live at the Sydney Opera House. Bacharach continues composing in his personal, idiosyncratic and affecting style; part of the fun is waiting to see where he will appear next, and with whom as collaborator. One report indicated that an album would be forthcoming of today’s brightest female stars working with him on new versions of his best-known songs. Until he, Warwick and David decide to reunite for one more great statement together, my fingers are crossed.