"I have a bridge to write."
Summer 2021: I had gently clasped Burt Bacharach's hands as I thanked him - not for the first time, but for the last - for composing the melodies which had long enriched my heart. He politely accepted the compliment, his voice barely above a whisper, and quickly excused himself, disappearing into the California sunset. The reason for his exit was simple: there was more music to write.
It was announced this morning that Burt passed away at the age of 94. At the time of his death, he was still writing music with Daniel Tashian (including some songs still unheard) and celebrating his 25-year partnership with Elvis Costello with a new retrospective collection. He was tirelessly dedicated to his music despite the toll it exacted on him. As Carole Bayer Sager recently told me, "He has a very slow process and puts himself through a tremendous amount of angst in writing one of his melodies. He'll play it over and over, just to find a certain chord or the right note. He can spend hour upon hour upon hour...his process was so much slower than anyone I'd ever written with."
When those right notes came, though, the results spoke for themselves. Nobody's songs sounded like Bacharach's, even when he inspired legions of imitators. I can't ever remember a time when Burt's music wasn't a part of my life. I'm transported back to a particular moment in my youth hearing Herb Alpert's recording of "This Guy's in Love with You." Long before I could possibly understand the yearning of Hal David's lyric, there was something in the majestic melody that led this kid to record the song off the radio onto a cassette tape and play it over and over again. (I think it was sandwiched between Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run" and Neil Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans.") I need your love/I want your love/Say you're in love/In love with this guy/If not, I'll just die...Herb's unpolished and touchingly vulnerable vocal, the thunderous piano and lush strings building to a crescendo, and the gorgeously wistful, happy-sad beauty of his trumpet left a lasting impact. It's a miniature drama in under four minutes and epitomizes the powerful emotionalism of a Bacharach song.
Burt's most enduring muse, Dionne Warwick, charted hit singles at Scepter Records with more than two dozen of his songs, all co-written and co-produced by Hal David: "Don't Make Me Over," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Walk on By," "Message to Michael," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and on and on. Their familiarity made it easy to overlook just how groundbreaking they were. Bacharach brought classical, jazz, soul, and Latin influences into the mainstream pop realm, employing fiendishly tricky chord progressions and ever-shifting time signatures. His use of atypical instrumentation - think the tack piano, the tuba, or most notably, the flugelhorn - became a calling card, often emulated by others but never duplicated to the same effect. Burt's composing and orchestrating were intertwined. Tinkling piano and staccato rhythms were commonplace in his writing and productions. Yet none of those innovations would have mattered if his melodies weren't able to directly pierce the heart with authenticity and accessibility.
His songs were so accessible, in fact, that in time, they became associated with the kitsch factor of swingin' sixties nostalgia. There's much to be said for the gleefully transporting effects of Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat," Gene Pitney's sly "24 Hours from Tulsa," and Dusty Springfield's sublimely cool "The Look of Love." (Just watch Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress in this scene from Casino Royale.) Still, that was only part of the story. Burt's songs captured not just the euphoria and freedom of the period but also the pulse and social conscience of a society in flux. With Hal David, Bacharach offered the prayer-like plea "What the World Needs Now Is Love," the Vietnam-era lament "The Windows of the World," and such incisive musical commentaries as "Paper Mache" and "Be Aware." With Carole Bayer Sager, he raised money and consciousness for AIDS research with "That's What Friends Are For." During the COVID-19 pandemic, Burt remained politically active, raising money for candidates and causes close to his heart via one Zoom concert after another.
His mastery of songcraft extended to the Broadway stage and to motion pictures. Burt revolutionized the sound of musicals with Promises, Promises, adding singers to the orchestra pit and mixing the sound like he would a record. On film, he scored such memorable pictures as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Arthur (picking up Academy Awards for both) as well as lesser-known movies with delightful scores such as After the Fox and Together? Although Lost Horizon was one of Tinseltown's most notorious flops, Bacharach gave his all, as evidenced by the ravishing likes of "I Might Frighten Her Away" and the poignant title song.
Following his long-term pairings with Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager, Burt frequently turned to younger collaborators whom he had inspired. Late Philadelphia soul architect Thom Bell called Burt one of his "leaders," and when Burt wasn't ready to embrace his classic '60s sound, Thom did it for him as orchestrator of James Ingram's "Sing for the Children." A few years later, Burt's 1998 album with Elvis Costello, Painted from Memory, finally returned him to the milieu of those earlier triumphs. He hadn't missed a step, and the partnership with Costello continued through various projects including two abortive stage musicals which yielded material for Costello's 30th studio album, 2018's Look Now, and the upcoming collection The Songs of Bacharach and Costello. Other partners in song included Tonio K. (with whom he wrote songs recorded by Dionne Warwick, Brian Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, and others), Spring Awakening lyricist Steven Sater (with whom Burt wrote his final produced stage musical, Some Lovers), singer-songwriter Melody Federer, and Nashville-based Daniel Tashian.
I wouldn't be writing these words or working in this field if not for Burt Bacharach. I was lucky enough to meet Burt on numerous occasions and interview him in conjunction with many projects over the years, most recently Dionne Warwick's Sure Thing: The Warner Bros. Recordings (1972-1977) and Carole Bayer Sager's Sometimes Late at Night; though reserved and surprisingly modest, he was always generous with his time and memories even as I felt I could never quite convey to him what his music has meant - and will continue to mean - to me. How to thank him for "This Guy's in Love with You" or the Dionne Warwick albums which shaped my musical tastes for a lifetime? Or for that 1997 night in the front row of New York City Center, as the Overture to Promises, Promises washed over me and brought tears of joy to my eyes? Or for Elvis Costello's "Toledo," the flugelhorns on the opening of which caused me pull my car to the side of the road as I first listened in wonder? Or for "Who Gets the Guy," "Everybody's Out of Town," and "Hasbrook Heights"? Truthfully, I could never adequately thank Burt Bacharach. But we can all hold those melodies, and the memories they conjure, close. Rest well, dear man.
For every dream there is a dreamer/And when dreams are gone/For each wish, another star shines to wish up on/Take all my dreams and all my wishes/Hold them in your heart/Tell me soon we'll be together/Never to part... - Words by Hal David, "Nikki"