"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"
Nathan L Sturm says
Joe , thank you for such an utterly heartfelt and moving tribute, on this bittersweet day. Your thoughts and remembrance are certainly easing the initial sting of loss, and the feeling of the inexorable passage of time. Bittersweet, to be reminded anew of his lifetime's worth of wonderful song after song.
On a slightly more mundane 'Second Disc'-oriented note, I've been searching intermittently for vocal versions of 'Nikki', as referenced in the lovely coda to your essay. Have only heard the instrumental versions. Any recommendations?
Many thanks, again - - NL Sturm
There's a link on the word "Nikki" taking you to an Ed Ames vocal version on Youtube. New to me too.
N L Sturm says
Thank you, ISH - - I woludn't say that I've conducted an 'exhaustive search', so I appreciate this lead (and I'm fond of Ed Ames, so that's a plus...)
Harry N Cohen says
Thank you for this gorgeous tribute to Burt Bacharach. I spent today listening to his solo A&M albums and am currently listening to Dionne's Promises, Promises album.
You mentioned Windows of the World. That was my "go to" 9/11 song. Thanks also for the shout out to Everybody's Out of Town...an underappreciated gem.
One of Burt's most challenging songs to sing is Knowing When To Leave from Promises, Promises. The master class in singing Knowing...is by Dusty Springfield. There is a great youtube clip of her singing it .
We have lost the greatest composer of popular song. His music will thankfully always be with us.
Thanks for writing such a wonderful tribute to Burt. I was a little surprised that you did not mention any of the songs Burt and Hal David wrote that The Carpenters recorded. As you more than likely know, The Carpenters had a huge hit with his composition of Close to You, which also became the title of their second studio album and they also recorded a medley of Burt and Hal's songs for their third studio album. Is there any particular reason you didn't mentioned The Carpenters covers of Burt's songs?
Anyway, thanks again for writing a great tribute.
Lawrence Schulman says
In all the tributes I have read, heard, and seen today, not one has mentioned that Judy Garland in 1966 also performed "What the World Needs Now" on the ABC-TV program The Hollywood Palace:
Ted Naron says
Thank you, Joe. Of the various obits and tributes, this is the very best at explaining his greatness.
I've read quite a few tributes to Burt and this is one of the best. Strangely not one tribute mentions "The Blob"
Larry Davis says
Was sad when I saw on the news last night that Burt Bacharach passed away...I am utterly wordless, his music has been with me since I was a kid...55 now...and loved Dionne Warwick's hits...no mention of UK singer/writer/stylist Rumer?? She's done many of his songs, he sought her out too & flew her to his house in CA to sing for him in person at the dawn of her solo career & she did an album of his songs as well...plus at the end of the 90s, I attended a Burt tribute concert at NYC's Hammerstein Ballroom recorded & filmed with many guests performing & Burt conducting & playing piano...Dionne, Elvis, Luther, Mike Meyers, Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow (think), a few more...Burt was one of a kind, unique, genius, can never be replaced...thank you for this amazing tribute Joe...
Cliff Townsend says
Yes, indeed! I also want to thank you, Joe, for that wonderful tribute to our dear Burt. I have been a devoted fan for probably his entire career. I am 75, so we go way back! As an avid record, now song, collector, I have made it my goal in life to obtain every song of Burt's that has been recorded. I don't have everything--some seem to be unobtainable--but I have most everything of his and multiple renditions to boot. I am a recording artist myself and I honored Burt and Hal by recording some of his lesser done opuses, to wit: "The Balance of Nature," "Be Aware," "Everybody's Out of Town," "Hasbrook Heights" and "I Just Have to Breathe." I saw Burt several times in concert, but I never got to meet him to talk with him, something that I really regret. I envy you, Joe. And you knew Thom Bell, too, another of my musical idols.
This is for the Burt fans. There is a book entitled, "Burt Bacharach: Song by Song--The ultimate reference for fans and record collectors". The author is Serene Dominic. I love this book so much. It is an encyclopedia of every song that Bacharach has written, up until 2003, that is . If there is an update edition, I don't know about it. Unfortunately, I can't tell you where to obtain it. You'll have to do your own research to find it. I have a secondhand edition that was given to me. For the fans it is a must-have.
Harry N Cohen says
Do you have Petula Clark's version of Burt and Hal's "Don't Say I Didn't Tell You So" from 1971?
It's the only version I know of and I really like it.
Cliff Townsend says
I have it, Harry.
Thanks for that heartfelt and substantial obituary. Burt's music has always meant a lot to me. In the mid-seventies to mid-eighties, when I formed my musical taste, there wasn't a lot of talk about him, at least not here in Germany. It was such a joy to gradually learn "oh, he wrote that song, and that one, too!". As diverse as the songs were, there was a special magical quality about them. Going through the back catalog was such a joy, and he continued to write the occasional dud, but also magnificent songs. "Finder of Lost Loves" for the divine Dionne remains a special favorite of mine, and there are so many other, often overlooked, gems, like "Here Comes the Night" for The Pointer Sisters, a gorgeous production, with real strings and horns, remember those?
I had the great fortune of being able to see him in concert in Munich in 2019. As he told us, it was his second time in the city, the first time being the musical director for Marlene Dietrich 57 years prior. "The music wasn't very good", he said with a twinkle.
Sorry for rambling, but my heart seems to overflow. His music greatly helped me though some times of grief. It's hard to let go, but what a body of work that he left us.
Cliff Townsend says
If anyone looks for "Here Comes the Night" by the Pointer Sisters, they won't find it under that title. The real title is, "The Love Too Good to Last" and is from "Night Shift."
Kent Allin says
What a magnificent tribute. I’ve read all of the laudatory essays about Mr. Bacharach that I’ve found, and this was the most personal and meaningful. It truly spoke to how significant pop music can be in our lives.
God bless you, Burt. Thanks for a lifetime of wonderful music. R. I. P.
Brent J says
Thanks, Joe! What a great tribute!