AT THE AGE OF 85, the man who has been described as the greatest songwriter of the 20th century cuts a surprisingly energetic and restive figure.
Burt Bacharach has spent the morning at his home in Santa Monica, California, with his pool trainer, working out on his AquaJogger, a device that attaches to the waist, enabling you to run in the water without touching the bottom of the pool. The pool trainer comes two days a week, supplementing the five days a week on which Bacharach works with his regular trainer in his home gymnasium. “And that’s not with the cardio – cardio I’ll do myself. I get on the treadmill.”
Now it is time for lunch, which Bacharach is taking on a tray at the desk in his music room: meatballs, corn soup and a bowl of raw vegetables. “Cauliflower tastes much better uncooked, kinda like chestnuts.” Bacharach speaks in a whispery growl, which sounds like fine wine being poured over pebbles. “Try some.” He breaks off a floret and passes it to me. “My hands are clean.” A bottle of sanitising spray sits among the papers and CDs neatly arranged on the desk. An obsession with hygiene is one of his quirks – he is a man, as the recording engineer Phil Ramone once remarked, “who washes his hands before he washes his hands”.
Bacharach’s habitual sartorial elegance – he has a weakness for cashmere sweaters as luxuriant as his orchestral arrangements – is in temporary abeyance: he is dressed in track trousers, a T-shirt and trainers. His hair is tousled, his eyes sleepy – what Dionne Warwick, the premier interpreter of his work, once described as “the little-boy quality about him that endears him to the opposite sex” still in evidence, despite his advancing years. He watches, amused, as I search for somewhere on the desk to rest my scaldingly hot cup of coffee. “Just put it down on any album.”
A piano stands by the window, lined with pictures of his family. There is an electric keyboard, a plasma-screen TV; the walls are decorated with concert posters, photographs and framed awards. ‘I Say a Little Prayer‘, ‘Close to You’, ‘The Look of Love’, ‘24 Hours from Tulsa‘, ‘Alfie’… Burt Bacharach has written 73 Top 40 hits in the US and 52 in the UK. In a career spanning more than 60 years, he has fallen in and out of fashion as a composer, but his music has now arrived at a place beyond it. His songs have been recorded by more than 1,000 different artists, late-period entries in what is known as the Great American Songbook, alongside evergreens by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Rodgers and Hart.
There are more than 120 recorded versions of ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘This Guy’s in Love with You‘ alone. Other songs belong so indelibly to the artists who originally recorded them – Warwick’s version of ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’, for example – that it would be hard to imagine anyone else attempting them.
“It may be about what is the work to start with when you hold it up to the light,” Bacharach says, pondering on the enduring quality of his music. “It’s part sound, part sophistication – the different time signatures, different harmonies; maybe a little bit in front of its time. Maybe not too sophisticated, but sophisticated enough to have some durability. And not too sophisticated to have you just hear it by some piano-player in a bar.”
We are in the midst of something of a Bacharach-fest. A box set of his work is released this month, coinciding with a series of concerts, which Bacharach is calling the ‘You Have to be Kidding’ tour, in which he leads an orchestra and a group of singers, and performs himself on a handful of songs. “My singing is very sparse,” he says. “But it’s more about what I feel is the impact of being on stage and being able to meet people through your music. We’re not talking about rock’n’roll. I’m not a good New Year’s Eve act, you know what I mean? It’s about being able to have contact playing this kind of music. The pain that people go through – or the boredom, or the broken relationships, or the illnesses – music can be a powerful antidote sometimes. And you don’t get to see that just sitting in a room writing by yourself.”
At the same time, Bacharach is publishing his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, written with Robert Greenfield. It is a hugely entertaining read: predictably illuminating on the craft of the songwriter; surprisingly candid on his often rackety personal life. Bacharach came of age as a songwriter in the 1960s, and the book is richly evocative of a world of broads, highballs and frequent dinners at Italian joints “where Sinatra liked to hang out”. It also spares nothing of an energetic love life featuring such walk-on players as the wonderfully named Slim Brandy (real name Shirley Orenstein), who danced in the line at the Sands Hotel in Vegas, and Tracy Fisher, a showgirl who owned a poodle named Killer and who, Bacharach notes, “eventually wound up living with some low-level hood, who killed her on a boat”. Bacharach floats across the pages, radiating charm and talent: a man, it seems, who has always taken his work seriously, but himself lightly.
Bacharach was born in Kansas City, but grew up in New York. His father, Bert, was a newspaper columnist and the author of books on men’s grooming (in 1971 he was named Man of the Year by the Men’s Apparel Club of New York City). His mother, Irma, was an amateur painter and songwriter who badgered Bacharach into learning to play the piano as a young man; a skill he found useful when as a teenager, acutely conscious of being Jewish, and wanting “to be popular”, he began playing in a high school dance band. By the age of 15 he was using a fake ID to sneak into the jazz clubs along 52nd Street, to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, and listening to the music of Stravinsky and Ravel.
After studying musical composition at McGill University in Montreal and at New York’s Mannes School of Music, he served in the US Army at the time of the Korean War, where he spent most of his time entertaining officers on the piano. On his discharge he returned to New York and began working as an accompanist, firstly toPaula Stewart, a singer who in 1953 became his first wife (“You know, honey,” her mother warned her, “he’s really not marriage material.” She was right. They divorced in 1958), and then to Vic Damone. The job lasted only three weeks before Damone fired Bacharach, accusing him of smiling at girls in the audience from behind his back as he performed.
Determined to make it as a songwriter, Bacharach rented a cubbyhole in the Brill Building, the hub of the New York music business, where teams of writers laboured to produce hits, working with any lyricist willing to write with him. Famous Music, the music publishing arm of Paramount Pictures, offered him $50 a week for the right of first refusal for his songs. The fee later rose to $75 for exclusive rights. But the hits were slow in coming.
To supplement his income, he took a job as an accompanist for Marlene Dietrich – an arrangement that continued even as he began to enjoy his first success as a songwriter. Dietrich, nearly 30 years his senior, doted on Bacharach to the point of washing his shorts and socks when they were on tour. In her autobiography she would recount that for four years she ‘lived only for the performances and for him’, extolling him as ‘considerate and tender, gallant and courageous… enormously delicate and loving’. Bacharach, who was always careful to keep the relationship strictly professional, did not read the autobiography until after Dietrich’s death in 1992. “It was so overwhelming,” he recounts in his own book, “that I broke down and began to weep.”
His career took off when in 1956 he was teamed with the lyricist Hal David, the son an Austrian delicatessen owner, who had written songs for Frank Sinatra and Teresa Brewer before meeting Bacharach. The two men could not have been more different. The Broadway lyricist Sammy Cahn once said of Bacharach that he was the only songwriter who didn’t look like a dentist. David looked like a songwriter. Seven years older than Bacharach, he was a straight, old-fashioned family man who commuted in each day from his home on Long Island. Bacharach was a smooth, urbane ladykiller with a bachelor pad on the East Side, whom friends described as “the playboy of the Western world”. Yet their partnership would prove one of the most fruitful in the history of pop music.
In 1957 the pair had their first big hit with ‘Magic Moments‘, sung by Perry Como, followed a year later by Marty Robbins’s ‘The Story of My Life’. These were bland confections that belonged to a different world to the rock’n’roll that was beginning to transform American music, and which barely hinted at the magisterial work to come. “I wanted to have a hit,” Bacharach says bluntly. “Those two songs are so unlike what I was going to write afterwards. But I was so grateful to have them.”
It was only when Bacharach met the songwriter and producer Jerry Leiber that he began to write material more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. Leiber was a Jewish hipster, “partly black in some way”, as Bacharach puts it, who with his partner, Mike Stoller, wrote and produced songs for the Drifters, the Coasters and Elvis Presley – a long way from what Leiber described as Bacharach’s “chichi, East Side, red-carpet-type songs”.
Watching Leiber at work in the studio made Bacharach “think differently and hear differently”. At the same time he started placing his songs with R&B artists such as Chuck Jackson, Jerry Butler and the Shirelles. “You start working with non-white singers and it’s a different tone, there’s a soulful thing about it. And that influences what I’m composing and the way I’m working,” he tells me.
It was in August 1961, while rehearsing with the Drifters on a song called ‘Mexican Divorce’, that Bacharach was struck by the “regal elegance” of a young pig-tailed girl with a high voice, singing backing vocals: Marie Dionne Warrick. Bacharach had found the woman he would describe as “our artist and our flagship”. Starting with ‘Don’t Make Me Over‘ the partnership would yield 15 top-40 singles between 1962 and 1968. Ask most people to name their favourite Bacharach song and the chances are it will be one of his recordings with Warwick: ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart‘, ‘Walk On By’, ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’, ‘You’ll Never Get to Heaven’…
Warwick (her surname was incorrectly printed on a record label, and it stuck) came from a musical family; she could read music, and she could effortlessly navigate the complex melodic lines and shifting time signatures of Bacharach’s music. He described her voice as having “the delicacy and mystery of sailing ships in bottles”. Hal David once said, “There was nothing that Burt could write musically, or I could write lyrically, that she couldn’t do.”
Bacharach and David were working in the same ambit in the Brill Building as a number of songwriting teams – Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – that would shape much of the music that dominated the pop charts in the early 1960s. Both a good 10 years older than most of their peers, Bacharach and David brought a more adult sensibility to pop music.
“I wasn’t listening to top-40 radio,” Bacharach says. “I didn’t like Bill Haley and the Comets. I didn’t like rock’n’roll per se. It was all a little too simplistic, harmony-wise, and those pure vanilla chords… It’s a very interesting thing, where that harmonic thing that stockpiled so much in my life came from, whether it was listening to Stravinsky’s Firebird or [Ravel’s] Daphnis et Chloé, the extraordinary richness of harmonies.”
Most pop songs follow a fairly predictable pattern, and are written in either 4/4 time – four beats to a bar – or 3/4 – waltz time. Bacharach wrote in more complex time signatures – ‘non-symmetrical phrasing’, as he describes it. Frank Sinatra once joked that Bacharach “writes in hat sizes. Seven and three-fourths.”
The average listener, of course, cares little for the technicalities, but does register that the melodies are in a state of constant, subtle and arrestingly beautiful flux. To this Bacharach brought a series of signature motifs to his arrangements and orchestration, the use of timpani and of the flugelhorn – a softer, more muted alternative to the trumpet.
“If we weren’t finishing a song, we’d be starting a song,” Hal David once recalled. “Burt would have part of a melody and I would have part of a lyric, and we’d start with one or other. At night I’d go home and work on a lyric to one of his tunes, and he’d do just the reverse. We’d be working on three songs at the same time. It seemed to me we were working seven days a week.”
Bacharach has written some of the most sensual and romantic music of the modern era. Yet his compositions, he insists, were never inspired by his own romantic attachments. “No. It’s not like I’m in Hawaii and I see this beautiful sunset and I hear such and such a song in my head… no.”
So ‘Walk On By’, for example, was not written for whomever you happened to be in love with at the time? He laughs. “I can’t remember who I was in love with at the time. I was in love with my music. And the passion for getting it right is so strong that it’s crazy-making.”
He has always been an obsessive. By his own estimate, in the 1960s, between the writing, the arranging and producing, he would probably listen to a song more than 1,000 times. “And I was still never satisfied with the way it sounded on the radio. Because it is a short form; and if it’s a short form then make it as good as you can. Because it all counts. There is no filler in a three-and-a-half-minute song.” Cilla Black would recall that the recording of ‘Alfie’, which Bacharach orchestrated and supervised, took 28 or 29 takes as Bacharach searched for “that little bit of magic”. Finally, George Martin – who was nominally producing the session – turned to him and murmured, “Burt, I think you got it in take four.”
The coming of the Beatles and Bob Dylan – artists who wrote their own songs – presaged the end for the songwriting teams of the Brill Building era. While their peers fell by the wayside (or, like Carole King, became singers themselves), Bacharach and David moved into composing for film and stage. In 1970 Bacharach won two Grammys for the musical Promises, Promises, and in the same year two Academy Awards, for best score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and best song for ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’.
But for all their success together, Bacharach and David were no Butch and Sundance. David came to resent Bacharach’s growing celebrity, at one point hiring a publicist to raise his own profile. “We’d hang out together after we’d made a hit record,” Bacharach remembers. “We’d go to the Chinese Bar around the corner from Bell Sound studios, bring Dionne with us, have some drinks. But that was about it. And in those days Hal did drink. In later years, he stopped drinking. Was it something we ever talked about? No. Did he have a problem? I have not a clue.”
The partnership finally came to an acrimonious end in 1973, following an argument over the musical score for an ill-advised remake of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon. The pair were on a deal to share five “points” from the film’s profits. Bacharach, who had spent months arranging and producing the music, telephoned David in Mexico, where he was playing tennis, and told him he wanted the split to go to 3-2. “I can’t do that,” David replied. Bacharach told him, “**** you and **** the picture.”
“Me,” Bacharach says now, “I just got in my car and disappeared.” He was scheduled to produce a new album for Dionne Warwick, but didn’t have the heart for it. She sued him, and he sued David. “For 10 years we just saw each in law offices. It was ridiculous.” He shrugs. “I take the responsibility for it. A good friend of mine said to me, why didn’t you just call him and say, ‘Here’s the five points; they’re all yours.’ No argument. Because he was never going to see five points. No one was going to see anything. It was just lucky the studio didn’t go bankrupt on it.
“But it’s called growing up. You do get older and you get wiser – or you should. If you don’t, then you haven’t done much work on yourself.”
One might argue that all their careers suffered. Warwick had only one major hit over the next six years. David continued to collaborate with other composers but never again enjoyed the success he had had with Bacharach. Bacharach’s career entered a fallow period that was broken only when he married the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager in 1982, and the pair collaborated on such hits as ‘On My Own’.
“Had Hal and I run our course? Maybe. Had Dionne run her course with us? Maybe. If we had carried on together we might have written some really important stuff; but we didn’t carry on. You can’t talk about ‘what ifs’.”
He and David never wrote together again (David died last year, at the age of 91), although he did reunite with Warwick, writing and producing ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ in 1985. They occasionally talk, and there have been innumerable offers for them to tour together, but he has always declined. “I’ve been very straight with Dionne. Many of these songs belong in the keys that the records were made in. And when you take everything a fourth lower it’s just a very different thing. She can do it all she wants out on the road; I just don’t want to be part of it.
“I think she’s amazing,” he adds. “She’s one of the great voices. You’ve got Dionne, you’ve got Dusty and you’ve got Aretha.” All, of whom, of course, had hits with Bacharach’s songs. He laughs. “That’s pretty great.”
A couple of hours in Bacharach’s company is an undiluted pleasure. He is charming, amusing – a nice man. “Well, I would like to believe after all is said and done that there’s something about being a nice person that’s admirable, but it doesn’t exactly go in sync with being married four times, does it? Because you leave bodies strewn in the path, don’t you?” He ponders on this. “The very nature of the work and the creating of it is a very selfish act. ‘Dinner’s ready…’ ‘Well, I’m not ready for dinner. I’m on to something…’ How many writers do you know who are really selfless people? Very few. It’s nothing to be proud of; it’s just a fact.”
Following the collapse of his marriage to Paula Stewart, in 1965 he married the actress Angie Dickinson. For some years they were Hollywood’s golden couple. A daughter, Nikki, was born in 1966, but the marriage buckled when Nikki began to display the signs of chronic Asperger’s syndrome – compulsive and obsessive behaviour, an inability to interact with other people and a total lack of empathy. In despair, when she was 16 Bacharach had her admitted to a clinic, where she lived for the next 10 years. But it would be a further eight years before her condition was properly diagnosed.
“Nobody told us,” he says. “That’s the terrible thing. Nobody said, ‘Hey, here’s the deal; we can do therapy with her every day of the year, twice a day, and she’s going to be just the same.’ Nobody spoke the word Asperger’s – nobody knew what it was; nobody was really talking about autism then. It was just very severe stuff.”
Nikki developed a series of obsessions – with earthquakes, which she adored; with a fear of her mother dying; and with noise. The sound of a helicopter overhead or a leaf-blower from a neighbouring garden would drive her to despair.
“She would say, ‘If that carries on, I’m going to kill myself.’ Or ‘If Angie dies, I’ll kill myself.’
“I believed her a little bit more on that. Never was, ‘If my dad dies, I’ll kill myself.'”
And did that hurt you?
“No, because I knew… I had done some stuff to try and get her better that alienated her.”
Nikki committed suicide in 2007, at the age of 40, by self-asphyxiation.
“I hated the way she did it… alone.” Bacharach pauses. “I thought, Jesus, that’s a lot of courage, you know. But she always did like to test the limits. Scuba-diving – going down as deep as she could go to the point of almost testing the oxygen. There was that part of her…”
Nikki gave one of the most vivid and most haunting descriptions of her father’s music, describing listening to one of his songs as “going to heaven on a velvet slide”.
“Really?” Bacharach looks at me. “I never knew that. Where did that come from?”
Dickinson mentioned it in interview that she gave to Vanity Fair in 2008, in which she also spoke of how she believed Bacharach had “no real connection” with Nikki. “She was too difficult for him, but it was his loss. He had the wrong goal in mind: he thought that she was just a difficult child, and I was just a terrible mother, indulging her.”
He started reading the article, he says, but did not finish it. “Sometimes when you know that your intentions are right; that you didn’t do something to punish somebody; that you did something that you hoped would make them well… whatever Angie says about me, it rolls away. I know I did my best. Angie’s a great chick. But when you get all that stuff going on, it fractures a relationship in a way.”
Bacharach is a remarkably candid man. “Is there another way to be?” he asks. Perhaps not. But not every four-times married man would invite their former wives to contribute to their autobiography, as he has done. “I’m really all OK with it.” Carole Bayer Sager talks amusingly in the book about Bacharach’s self-absorption – “nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives. The only thing that changes is his wife; his routine remains the same” – and his tendency to vanity. “I used to take photographs of him,” she recalls. “I had my camera and he was like 53 years old and I said to him, ‘You are so handsome.’ He said, ‘Hey baby, you should have seen me 10 years ago’.”
It is a testament to their enduring good relations that a few days after my meeting with Bacharach he was due to give a talk about the book with Bayer Sager as his interlocutor. “That will be interesting,” he acknowledges with a smile. Their marriage ended in 1991, after Bacharach, on a trip to Aspen, met a young ski instructor named Jane Hanson, 32 years his junior.
“I don’t like splitting up with people,” he says. “It’s the person you’re hurting, and their mother, and their brother or sisters – the whole family. But then the harder part of me will say, ‘I’ve just got this one shot, and I’ll just keep going until I get it right’. It’s not so far away from trying to make the perfect record.”
One of the reasons he fell for Hanson, he says, was because she had no interest in being a singer or an actress. “She was an athlete. I don’t think I’d ever been with anybody like that. She was just right for me, in the sense of not too close, not too far. Level, not over the top. Play her something you think is great and she’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s good.'” He gives a shrug that suggests encouragement, without exultant flattery.
Hanson’s father was a farmer. In his book, Bacharach describes his first meeting with him, at his farm. He had been up since 5.30 am burying his favourite cow, and worrying whether it had been struck down by some mystery illness that would infect his entire herd. Exhausted, he was sitting on the back porch at the end of the day, drinking a cold beer, when Bacharach arrived in a white chauffeur-driven limo. “The difference in their lifestyles,” Hanson is quoted as saying, “was apparent to all of us.”
He laughs. “Not to mention that I was old enough to be her father, Jewish, and still married, and she was knocked up at the time.” They married in 1993, and have two children, Oliver, now 20, and Raleigh, 17.
Bacharach shows no sign of slowing down. Along with Elvis Costello, he is writing new songs for a musical based on their 1998 collaboration Painted From Memory. He is also working on some country songs, “although I’m not sure that I can suppress my tendencies to harmonise in a certain way that’s very uncountry.” He pauses. “The belief is in gratitude for every day and to stay in the moment, and not looking that much ahead, or looking backwards.”
That evening, after our interview, Bacharach gave a talk about his book at a theatre in Glendale.
The moderator, Mitch Albom, a popular American journalist and radio presenter, interleaved his questions with snatches of Bacharach’s greatest hits. As they played Bacharach looked alternately pensive, wistful and at times almost tearful.
At the end, he sat at a piano and performed ‘Alfie’ – his finest song, he said. His voice was a cracked, poignant whisper, reaching for the high notes, not quite finding them, bringing Hal David’s lyrics to life. “As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie/I know there’s something much more/ Something even non-believers can believe in/ I believe in love, Alfie…” There was not a dry eye in the house.
“I have a less than perfect voice,” Bacharach told me. “But that’s OK. It’s from the heart.”
© Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph, 1 June 2013