For Hal David, it was about dedication to his craft, a tireless commitment to songwriters’ rights and a desire to bring the world a message of love, sweet love – a sentiment that’s never gone out of fashion. The Oscar, Grammy and Gershwin Prize-winning lyricist and former president of performance rights organization ASCAP passed away on September 1. He left behind a world made immeasurably richer by his gift of song. Hal David’s turns of phrase in songs like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Alfie,” and yes, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” became part of the cultural lexicon, yet he largely avoided the spotlight, allowing his beautiful words to speak (volumes) for themselves.
There’s a wonderful, if perhaps apocryphal, story about Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein. Legend has it that Mrs. Hammerstein overheard a conversation in which Jerome Kern, the composer with whom lyricist Oscar collaborated on the musical Show Boat, was being praised with nary a mention of her husband: “Nobody but Jerome Kern could have written ‘Old Man River.'” Mrs. Hammerstein then stepped in: “Excuse me. Jerome Kern didn’t write ‘Old Man River.’ Jerome Kern wrote da-da-DA-da…” And indeed, Harold Lane David often remained in the shadow of his most prominent collaborator and melody man, Burt Bacharach. But who but his friend and partner David could so simply, naturally and eloquently have set the perfect words to Bacharach’s sophisticated, sultry and stunningly inventive music? Nobody else even came close.
Hal David followed in the footsteps of his Oscar-nominated older brother Mack David (writer of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and So” and “Baby, It’s You” with Burt Bacharach) in pursuing the art of lyric writing. His collaboration with Bacharach began in early 1956 with The Harry Carter Singers’ rendition of “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil,” followed a scant three months later by Sherry Parsons’ “Peggy’s in the Pantry.” But from such inauspicious beginnings came one of the most successful pairings ever, on both a commercial and artistic level. In a little over one year, Bacharach and David had scored their first hit with Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life.” A second success followed just two months later with Perry Como’s “Magic Moments.” When Dionne Warwick recorded their “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, Bacharach and David’s urbane pop-soul style had crystallized. Their careers escalated to the next level, and the two gentlemen wrote and produced a nearly-unparalleled string of hits for the singer as the decade progressed. The “triangle marriage” of Bacharach, David and Warwick broke up in the early 1970s amidst a flurry of lawsuits and broken promises, and the divorce seemed permanent. But in 1993, Bacharach and David reunited to write “Sunny Weather Lover,” recorded by Warwick; the duo’s final recorded song together would prove to be 2003’s “Beginnings,” written for the Broadway musical revue The Look of Love and performed on record not by Dionne, but by Cilla Black.
Though the songs written with Bacharach undoubtedly form David’s greatest legacy to the popular songbook, his universal touch graced the compositions of many other esteemed composers. With John Barry, he wrote the poignant James Bond theme “We Have All the Time in the World,” recorded by Louis Armstrong for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With Albert Hammond, he delivered a chart-topper to Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and gifted “99 Miles from L.A.” to Art Garfunkel. Cher and Dionne Warwick both recorded “Early Morning Strangers,” written with Barry Manilow. Early collaborations with Paul Hampton (“Sea of Heartbreak,” included on Johnny Cash’s famed list of the most important country songs of all time) and Sherman Edwards (“Broken Hearted Melody,” “Johnny Get Angry”) yielded pop hits and standards. He wrote film themes with Henry Mancini and Maurice Jarre, and a stage musical with Michel Legrand.
There will always be something to remind us of Hal David: those resplendent songs, recorded by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand to Iggy Pop and the White Stripes. His elegant words still hold enormous meaning today, whether humorous (“What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, he’ll never phone ya!”) or more often, marked with optimism, deceptive simplicity, and a deeply-ingrained belief in the human spirit.
The windows of the world are covered in rain
There must be something we can do…
Let the sun shine through.
Rest in peace, Hal David.