What’s It All About, Bacharach?

“WHERE IS that whistling coming from?”

Burt Bacharach, dressed in baggy jeans and an Austin Powers T-shirt, looks up from his grand piano and raises his hand, halting the music for the second time at this trouble spot. The medley of his early hits, now a few bars into ‘The Blob’, fizzles out.

“Don’t you hear that whistling sound?” Bacharach asks the six musicians and three singers on stage with him at S.I.R. rehearsal hall in Los Angeles. They shake their heads and mumble possible explanations. “Maybe it’s feedback.” “Some stray overtones?”

Then, Lisa Taylor, one of the vocalists, admits shyly, “Well, I was whistling under my breath, but I didn’t think the mike was picking it up.”

“Lisa, you’re kidding,” Bacharach says, then breaks out in a grin. “I thought I was going crazy, hearing things.”

The fact is, Bacharach hears everything – every sidestick hit, flute trill, trumpet stab, bass note push, synth wash. Even a quiet whistle can’t escape his keen ears. If a cartoonist were to draw him center stage at his piano, they would place one of those Schroeder-style thought clouds above his head and inside it a full annotated orchestral score would be flowing by on music staffs.

This small ensemble, which Bacharach is rehearsing for a tour that will jet around the globe in the next few months, leaves the early hits medley for one of his most current gems, ‘God Give Me Strength’, a six-minute mini-symphony co-written by Elvis Costello (“He’s one of the greatest songwriters in the world,” Burt says) for the film, Grace Of My Heart.

As vocalist John Pagano scales the stately, elegant staircase of the emotional ballad, Bacharach seems lost in his own private cosmos. It’s that place where he sees the sparkling vistas, the shadowy valleys and the breathtaking peaks, “the long line,” as he calls it, of his rangy melodies. As Pagano nails the climactic line of the bridge – “I want him… to hurt” – Bacharach’s head snaps around, then he waves the surrounding players into a breathtaking instrumental passage. As the song simmers into the last verse, he stands up at the piano and feathers the air with one hand, while chording with the other. This has long been his style, playing pianist and conductor simultaneously, the commander-in-chief, the Captain Kirk of the musical stage.

The rehearsal rolls through ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, ‘A House Is Not A Home’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, ‘Wives And Lovers’, ‘Bond Street’. On the upbeat numbers, Bacharach’s Air Nikes dance beneath the piano, shuffling, lifting, beating out the polyrhthyms and meter changes. At times they appear to be accelerating and decelerating, as if he were working the gas and brake pedals on a well-tuned Alfa Romeo, banking around the curves of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Next up is ‘One Less Bell To Answer’, ‘You’ll Never Get To Heaven’, ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, ‘The World Is A Circle’, ‘Blue On Blue’, ‘The Look Of Love’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’, ‘Only Love Can Break A Heart’ – adding new meaning to the expression, “and the hits keep coming.” For this tour, Bacharach has selected the best of his forty years as a composer and fit it into an hour and forty-five minutes. As the classic songs accumulate, it’s overwhelming to consider all of these musical riches came from the mind of one man.

The rehearsal ends with an explosive, majestic ‘What The World Needs Now’. Bacharach calls a break and says of the show, “This is in very good shape, don’t you agree?”

Everyone agrees.

During the break, I talk to a few of the singers and musicians.

“I grew up with his songs,” says Donna Taylor, who joined Bacharach’s ensemble in January of this year. “I remember I had the 45 of ‘Message To Michael’ when I was little and I would play it over and over on the record player in my grandma’s basement. And now I get to sing it in the show!”

John Pagano’s only been on board for a month. It turns out that Burt remembered him from six years ago, when Pagano made a solo record for MCA. John had asked Burt to write something for the album, and even though Burt didn’t have time, he was so impressed by the young singer’s capabilities that he kept his name on file for future reference. Pagano has only praise for his employer: “He has such vision as a composer. What he sees in his head in terms of melody and arrangement is amazing. What a learning experience this has been so far!”

Lisa Taylor, who has a show-stopping solo on ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, says, “I used to listen to songs like ‘You’ll Never Get To Heaven’, ‘Walk On By’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, but I never realized they were all written by the same person. Burt is a genius. I feel really blessed to work with him, because he’s part of music history in the same way Gershwin or Ellington are. It’s nothing to take lightly.”

“I’ve been the keyboardist and arranger for Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach for a long time,” says Rob Shrock, “and to say that Bacharach has been an influence on me would be just too simple. He has been my musical father, but I am not his only child in this respect. All of us who value melody, musicality, taste, sensitivity and style have been touched by him, whether we know it or not. And that’s the sign of a true legend.”

Rob says the challenge of the new scaled-down show was “capturing the essence of the old arrangements by re-writing for less parts.” Since sampling synthesizers are handling strings and some woodwinds, he says, “We lose a little theatricality of Burt being able to conduct. But at the same time we gain in precision.”

Two hours later, they’re back on stage, this time taping the run-through for NBC’s Today Show and an invite-only audience. After an overture that segues into a super-charged ‘Promises, Promises’, Burt steps from his velour-draped piano bench and greets the small crowd with a joke: “Everything you’ll be hearing this evening has been composed by the piano player.”

This is in very good shape, indeed.

‘Let The Music Play’

I’M HERE in L.A. to interview Bacharach and cover these rehearsals, but it seems more like some kind of appointment with destiny.

Since my mother was, and still is, an avid Bacharach fan, I’ve been hearing the songs he wrote with lyric partner Hal David since I was in the womb. My mom had most of the Dionne Warwick albums, as well as Burt’s solo A &M LP’s and records by other related artists such as Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66. Some of my earliest musical memories are of hearing those pulsing, colorful melodies wafting through our house, and to this day, the breezy sound of the horn intro on ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ can transport me right back to the happiest days of my childhood. I also remember staring at the cover of the Promises, Promises Original Soundtrack album because I loved the red carnival print of the logo and the pretty girls hanging off the big brass key.

One of the first 45s I bought with my own piggy bank money was ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ by B.J. Thomas. “Just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed…” I used to sing while I played with my Spiderman action figures in our suburban backyard.

But the song that really knocked me out and started my lifelong love affair with all things Bacharach was ‘One Less Bell To Answer’ by The 5th Dimension. It moved me, raised goose pimples on my arms. It made me conduct an imaginary orchestra. And I think on a subliminal level, it made me want to be a singer and musician. What dynamics! What emotion! When I listen to it now, I still marvel. How does Burt come up with those melodies?

When you’re given a title or a bit of a lyric, what are your first steps in approaching a melody?

I think I just try to see what it means to me first of all. If it’s an attractive thought, an attractive idea. I don’t dislike writing to a lyric. It takes you in another course that you might not go into if you were just writing a straight melody then giving it to a lyricist. It kind of sets you out on a road and then you sort of have to then follow it in a general direction. Sometimes that’s a very attractive direction.

Do you prefer just getting a fragment to a whole lyric?

That depends. Maybe a whole lyric, then I’ll just kind of use a certain approach. Like ‘Alfie’, I think Hal gave me a whole lyric on that. Then a lot of stuff from Promises, Promises had lyrics first. You know, I think it’s a good framework to start on certain things like a picture like Alfie that has to say something lyrically. A musical like Promises, Promises, the words have to step right off the Neil Simon book, you know?

I know you’ve said you like to get away from the piano as soon as possible when you’re composing. What are the main advantages of that?

You can hear a long line that way. You can hear the whole song. You can hear it evolve, and not be as concerned with what the fingers and the hands are playing, where they’re going. It’s short term with my hands on the piano. It sounds really good for that one bar but I’m trying to hear the whole thing, and hear how it would sound just coming at you as a song, as a listener. You can hear the long line. I can, anyway. Certainly that applies to orchestration as well, to hear what comes in when. I just get a better picture when I get away from the keyboard and just try to hear it that way. I mean, guys have written great songs and continue to do so while sitting at their instrument, whether it’s guitar or piano. Not to say I don’t sometimes start at the piano, then get away from it. But I get a sense of balance that I wouldn’t get if I was sitting at the piano. I can’t say enough about where your hands tend to go, because they’ve been there before. It’s like writing orchestrations at the piano. You’ll write what your hands can play instead of what an orchestra can play.

Do you have an ideal environment for composing?

No, but the more beautiful a setting is, the more beautiful an environment, the harder it is to write. We used to write in the Brill Building with a closed window, no view, no air, and Hal smoking all over the place. Then you get into a dream setting, and it’s like the Ian Fleming thing, where he used to go to the Bahamas and he’d close the curtains so the light wouldn’t come in and he wouldn’t know where he was, and therefore he could write.

Have you found over the years that you’re more effective at certain times of the day, or do you write at night?

I try not to write at night. Sometimes I can’t help it, because I just find that it kind of stimulates me and I’m hearing it all night long. I hear the music all night. It just keeps going around in my head. It wakes me up, keeps me awake.

Who did you listen to to help develop your sense of drama in your melodies?

I don’t know that I listened to anyone consciously. That probably came about from where I’d been in classical training and classical composition. It just came from, you either feel that way or you don’t feel that way. I think that probably that when I was doing songs with Dionne I was thinking in terms of making miniature movies, you know? Every second counts. Three and half minute movies, with peak moments and not one intensity level the whole way through.

What do you see in your head when you’re composing? Is it like a movie?

No, it’s not like a real cinematic thing. It’s more about the peaks and valleys of where that record can take you. It’s to a different dimension than you might be able to get. You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution. I think one level records always made me a little bit uncomfortable after awhile. They stayed at one intensity. It kind of beats you up, you know? It’s like a smile. If you have a great smile, you use it quick, not all the time.

LYRICIST HAL David, in fitting his like-a-glove words to Bacharach’s melodies, also believed in taking a long, careful look at the work. “The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music is saying to you. You should hear it talking to you.

“Sometimes the placement of the title was not so obvious with Burt’s melodies. For instance, the chorus section in ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ – that’s ordinarily where the title would fall, but it seemed to me that the title should come in the less obvious place in the middle of the verse after ‘The moment I wake up, before I put on my make-up.’

“Sometimes I’d write against the mood. For instance, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’ is bright and rhythmic and because of that you’d think it was instinctively happy to most people. But it wasn’t to me.”

With a sudden laugh, David half-apologizes, “I do labor over these things. I spend inordinate amounts of time deciding whether ‘and’ or ‘but’ is the right word. To a certain extent, lyrics flow easily, but no matter how much they flow at a given time, by the time you get it together, finished and refined to the best of your ability, it’s a lot of work.”

Twenty-five years after I first heard Bacharach & David’s ‘One Less Bell To Answer’ I’m writing songs and playing in a band, Swan Dive, who, to my secret delight, have been called “Bacharach-influenced.” But then, how could it be any other way? On our new record, Wintergreen, as a tribute to Burt & Hal, we even covered what I consider one of their many hidden gems, ‘In The Land Of Make Believe’, a shoulda been hit for both Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. I like to think of it as my way of saying “Thank you” for all the years of music and inspiration.

‘Wishin’ And Hopin”

This was my second interview with Bacharach. I knew from the first time that it wouldn’t be easy to schedule. With most interviews, it takes a week or two of phone tag and sending faxes back and forth to nail down a time. With Bacharach, you cross your fingers and consider yourself lucky if you can get something in two months. Why? The guy’s busy, constantly on the go, touring, recording, composing, racing his horses, spending time with his family. Burt has two children by his current wife (his fourth marriage), Ollie, 4 1/2, and Raleigh, 2, as well as two by previous marriages, Christopher, 11 (by Carole Bayer Sager) and Nikki, 30 (by Angie Dickinson).

Another reason for the difficulty in setting up an interview: at 69 years old, Bacharach has probably had his fill of the publicity gambit. Especially when you consider that most magazines approach him like some kind of kitschy character and ask the same inane questions (“How does it feel to be back in style?” “What do you think of Dionne and her psychic infomercials?” “What was it like being married to Angie Dickinson?” “Are you an Oasis fan?”) Anyone would get weary of that.

But word had filtered back to me that Burt saw and enjoyed a piece I’d written about him for MOJO as well as a concert review I’d done on his show in Nashville, so he’d be glad to talk to me again. If we could only find a few hours.

My contact at Bacharach’s publicity office, Linda Dozoretz Communications, was Angie Jenkins. She was wonderful, blessed with the patience of an angel and absolutely committed to making this article happen. When I finally met her – we’d been through so many reschedulings of the interview and conversations on the phone – I had to embrace her like an old friend. Equally wonderful is Burt’s personal assistant, Anne Marie Roller, who seems to anticipate her boss’s every request and has boundless energy and enthusiasm. Both of these ladies have my gratitude.

‘The Story Of My Life’

BORN IN Kansas City on May 12, 1928, Burt Bacharach started piano lessons while in elementary school. “I was too small to play sports,” the composer recalls, “so what else could I do?” When his father Bert’s job as a journalist took the family to Queens, New York, the aspiring young musician fell in love with jazz, especially the complex rhythmic sounds of be-bop. “It was like a window opening,” Bacharach says of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker for the first time.

After serving in the army, he studied theory and composition at McGill University and Mannes School of Music with such famous teachers as Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud. It was the latter who gave Bacharach the advice he says affected his whole perspective: “Don’t be afraid to write a tuneful melody.”

I’ve read in a few places that when you were a kid it was sports that was your real love. Did you have dreams of becoming a pro athlete?

I certainly wanted to become an athlete. I had my father as an inspiration. I looked at his scrapbooks, he was a football player for VMI, all Southern conference fullback. And he played basketball. It was certainly what I thought I would like to do. I didn’t realize at the time I was pretty small. So I didn’t have the size to be an athlete. My folks used to worry about me playing football actually because I was the smallest kid on whatever team I was playing for.

Is it true that you used to eat jars of peanut butter?

Well, I did eat peanut butter in high school. I think I was trying anything because there were three thousand kids in the school and I couldn’t find a girl I was taller than. It was very tough.

Would you say that when you weren’t able to play on the sports teams in school, that’s what motivated you to turn to music?

Music was a pretty good social thing for me in school, because again, it was the thing of being short. I started playing in a pick-up band with four or five kids that were in school, playing like dance jobs or something at the community center. Socially it kind of just opened things up, I met girls that way and things like that.

Were you a hardworking, intense kind of kid in school?

I don’t think I was a very good student at all. I don’t quite understand why that happened, except maybe the stuff I was studying didn’t interest me too much. But I was very obedient child. I wasn’t rebellious. I didn’t miss school, or cut school or things like that. I just was not a great student. Without being aware of it, I think I didn’t really get the full significance of it of how maybe bad I was as a student until I found out how hard it was to get into a college.

When you were playing piano back then, what kind of records were you buying?

You know, I really wasn’t. To me, it was just kind of something I had to do because my mother wanted me to do it. I had to take piano lessons and I was very non-interested in it. It was a real effort to have to come back from high school and have to practice for a half an hour before I had a chance to go out to play roller hockey or basketball or whatever. Really, it was something I never looked forward to. You know, the Suzuki system of teaching kids in a class I thought was always a good idea. If you have one kid, solitary, in a room by himself who has to practice for half an hour, or study with a teacher by himself versus if you have ten kids in a class… I think it’s the Suzuki school. They had the right idea. Then there’s a little bit of competition, there’s a little comradeship.

Were there other musicians in your family?

I always envied my mother because she could play by ear. She said, ‘Keep studying and I’ll teach you how,’ but there is no teaching someone to play by ear. You either hear it or you don’t hear it. She had aspirations to be a singer.

Was your dad supportive?

Oh yeah, and so was my mother.

When you were in high school and sneaking into the clubs on 52nd Street, were they hip to what you were doing?

I’m not so sure. I was pretty secretive about that.

Was there a turning point during that time that made you consider becoming a professional musician?

I don’t know about becoming a professional musician. I heard a couple of things that really influenced me very much – attracted me more than influenced – and one was the Ravel ‘Daphnis & Chloe Suite’. I thought it was very beautiful and very different from the kind of classical music that I’d been listening to on drives back from Philadelphia – Beethoven, the heavier kind of sounds, Richard Strauss. Suddenly I was hearing something that was really lyrical and beautiful. That kind of turned my head around. Of course, then I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in New York at one of those clubs and Jesus, I’d never heard anything like that. Miles in front of everybody else, what they were playing. That whole group – Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker.

Had you written your first song at that point?

No, that was still high school. I don’t think I wrote my first song until I was in college and that was not a very good song. That’s when I tried it.

Do you feel like there are things that you learned in your college composition courses that applied to your pop songwriting?

I think all the technical study, whatever, the solfeggio and learning how to be able to read music and write it down – it’s all very helpful. It’s like the situation if I was hearing something in my head and I couldn’t get to a keyboard to check it out but I could take a scrap of paper in a hotel or a restaurant or something and just write it out. I think that’s very important. It certainly is for me. To read and to be able to write music. I think you learn the rules so you kind of break the rules. What else did I learn? It’s hard to teach classical composition, I think, because I don’t know that there are any set forms that one has to follow or how key that is. You know, you still learn it. With Darius Milhaud, that was an important thing with me. He heard this one piece I was working on and told me that it was very good. It was very melodic and the rest of the class was writing very dissonant music, and he really encouraged me to tap into the melody. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, he said.

Were you listening to other things besides what might have been the prescribed course listening back then?

I don’t know that we had course listening stuff. I’m not sure what I listened to, you know. When I was studying serious classical music, then I would go to hear people like John Cage and Lou Harrison and more extreme composers, to see what they were doing. Go to McMillan Theatre up at Columbia and hear real avante garde stuff. And studying with Henry Cowell too, that exposed me to a lot of different music.

Tell me a little about the gig you had when you were in the service.

Somebody had the idea that I was a concert pianist, and they took me out of the basic training and put me out on the road playing army bases as a concert pianist. I just didn’t have the repertoire and I had to really fake it. I pretended like there was one unpublished Debussy work that I just kind of improvised. I was sure somebody was going to catch me and bust me and find me out. It was not a very secure time. I felt so fraudulent in what I was doing. But I did get to play at Governor’s Island, doing concerts and the officers club head in Asia that was called back in the service heard me and he just figured, as long as he was back in the army and he had to give up the kind of life he liked, that he would have a piano player in his club at night. So he got me requisitioned and I was playing in a tuxedo every night at the officers’ club.

‘Any Day Now’

AFTER HIS stint in the army, there followed a professional apprenticeship in the mid 50s – pianist/arranger for Vic Damone, The Ames Brothers, Imogene Coca, Polly Bergen and Steve Lawrence. He also played piano for singer Paula Stewart who became his first wife. Burt has remembered how during his gigs in Las Vegas, the song pluggers would fly out to pitch songs to The Ames Brothers. “I thought they were horrible. Songwriting sounded simple. I knew I could write better than that, so I told myself I should quit, go back to New York and write a hit. I did, and for a solid year I couldn’t get arrested. What looks simple and clear and inventive is very misleading. I couldn’t get anything published. I was busted. I was working weekends playing for Joel Grey in the Catskills. Three shows a night. I was never home. My marriage was cooked by then. I finally got a song recorded by Patti Page. It was awful. I’d rather forget it.”

In 1958, Burt was asked to fill in for Marlene Dietrich’s regular conductor. He remembers their first meeting this way: “I went around to see her at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I had a cold and she said, ‘Iz dot a cold?’ in that great voice and then she gave me some vitamins and some medicine and wowed the hell out of me. I was awe-stricken.”

For the next six years, Bacharach traveled the world as Dietrich’s conductor and arranger, until he finally became too busy with his own career.

His songwriting ambitions eventually led him to a fateful meeting in New York at the Brill Building with lyricist Hal David. After an unremarkable start, the team found their rhythm together and began forging the unmistakable style that would make them one of the great ampersands of American song.

“You’d write with one composer in the morning and another in the afternoon,” Hal David, now 75, recalls of these beginnings in his still rich New York accent. “I met Burt, we liked each other, we liked the songs we wrote and that’s how it began. We worked hard – I was always writing lyrics, he was always writing melodies. We’d meet around 11 o’clock everyday: ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ Either my lyric would spark him to write a melody or vice versa.”

And they were prolific.

“As we were working together on one song, he’d give me another melody or I’d give him another lyric, and very often we were writing three or four songs at a time,” David remembers. “A song together, a song to his tune, a song to my lyric and so forth. We kept a number of things going.”

Once one of those things was finished the duo would hawk their wares.

“There were 11 floors in the Brill Building and you’d start at the top and work your way down,” chuckles Hal. The wares of Bacharach and David, even in those first years, were strikingly different from the work of the competition, most of whom were aiming for the teenybopper market. The music had a sophistication you would not encounter in the formulaic fare of the late ’50s. It married unexpected rhythms with daring melodic leaps; it shimmered with rich jazz-like changes and complex harmonies; it teased with its uneven form and challenged with its mild yet exotic dissonance. And of course, at first, it didn’t fly with record company types.

“All those so-called abnormalities seemed perfectly normal to me,” Bacharach once said. “In the beginning, the A&R guys, who were like first lieutenants, would say, ‘You can’t dance to it’ or ‘That bar of three needs to be changed to a bar of four’, and because I wanted to get the stuff recorded I listened and ended up ruining some good songs. I’ve always believed if it’s a good tune people will find a way to move to it.”

The lyrics matched to those tunes were equally unusual: they were grown-up. Hal David focused on adult affairs and described in straightforward, yet emotional language all the jealousy, vulnerability, longing and loneliness that comes with the territory. He quietly lists the three qualities he’s always sought in his lyrics:

“Believability. Simplicity. Emotional impact.”

Despite their fair share of flops, the team proved themselves with a pair of early hits – ‘Magic Moments’ by Perry Como and ‘The Story of My Life’ by Marty Robbins. This was enough to quiet the Brill Building doubters and encourage the duo to continue their collaboration.

But for the next three years, Burt and Hal worked only intermittently together. Bacharach wrote ‘Any Day Now’, ‘Mexican Divorce’ and big hit ‘Tower of Strength’ with lyricist Bob Hilliard; collaborating with Mack David and Barney Williams he penned the Shirelles classic ‘Baby It’s You’; and he moonlighted as an arranger for The Drifters. David meanwhile provided words for various tunes, including ‘You’ll Answer To Me’, a hit for Patti Page, and Joanie Summer’s minor classic ‘Johnny Get Angry’. Then in 1962, fate brought the two maverick pop songwriters the perfect voice and vehicle for their challenging pop songs in the fetching form of a young New Jersey session singer named Dionne Warrick.

“There was a Drifters session she was working on [with her trio The Gospelaires], and we had a song on the date,” David recalls. “She was dressed in jeans, sneakers and had her hair in pigtails. She came over and said, ‘Could I do some demos for you?’ We fell in love with her right away, and she started to do all our demos.”

The enchanting sound of Dionne’s voice on those early demos caught the ear of Scepter Records owner Florence Greenberg and Dionne was quickly signed to the label. Her first choice for a single was Bacharach and David’s ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, for which she’d done the demo. When the authors told her the song had already been recorded by Jerry Butler, so the story goes, Dionne, feeling betrayed, shouted, ‘Don’t make me over, man’ (slang for ‘Don’t try to con me’). By the time she’d cooled down a few days later, Burt and Hal had written her first single, the dramatic – you guessed it – ‘Don’t Make Me Over’. When the ballad was cut and pressed, a Scepter printing error made Dionne Warrick over into Dionne Warwick.

In the 90s, Warwick’s credibility in the US has been tainted by her TV role as high priestess of a 1–900 psychic program, whose hook line is “All you need is a telephone and an open mind.” But that’s easily pardoned when you reacquaint yourself with her brilliant performances from the ’60s. Her voice, one of the most original of that decade, was a sensitive, soulful instrument with an incredible dynamic range that enabled her to whisper with the demure intimacy of Julie London or soar with the gospel bravado of Aretha Franklin. And she understood nuance like few others. Where other vocalists stumbled awkwardly over a Bacharach melody (even Sinatra couldn’t quite navigate the bumpy terrain of a song like ‘Wives and Lovers’), she floated nimbly, easily accommodating odd bars in 5/4, digging deep in all the right places and perfectly conveying the ache and tenderness of David’s poignant lyrics.

“Even back then, she had elegance, grace and the ability to sing just about anything,” Bacharach has said. “And as she grew, we were able to take more chances as writers.”

‘Come Touch The Sun’

THEIR STARTLING growth paralleled that of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and the Motown crowd, encapsulating the experimental spirit of the times: check out the smooth bossa strut of ‘Walk On By’, the tympani-pounding glory of ‘Reach Out For Me’, the breathless hormonal rush of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, the intricate spiral staircase of a melody on ‘Alfie’ and the ambitious dynamic shifts of the often-overlooked ‘Check Out Time’ – these rank as some of pop’s most exhilarating moments from the ’60s.

When you, Hal and Dionne started to hit your stride in the 60s, there was a lot of cool stuff going on in pop music like The Beatles, Motown, The Beach Boys. It seems like from what I’ve read about that period that there was also a lot of mutual admiration and give and take amongst musicians. Did you feel part of that scene?

No, not really. We kind of did our work, and paid a little bit more attention to what was happening at Alden Music and Screen-Gems, with Goffin & King and Barry & Cynthia [Mann & Weill]. We were more aware of those people. It was like the Brill Building with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. It was all kind of centered there. We went in and worked in an office, so it was more an awareness of that very closed little thing more than what was going on in Detroit. But they were making great records in Detroit.

Were you a Beatles fan?

Moderately. You know, I was on the same bill with The Beatles in London, I think when they did the Royal Command Performance. I was conducting for Dietrich. They had already recorded ‘Baby It’s You’ on their first album, but you know they just were happening. My recollection is that I talked to one or two of them, but not much, in rehearsal that day. I’d seen posters in Sweden when I was there a couple of months before when I was there with Dietrich. I didn’t know who they were. But I soon did.

I interviewed Jimmy Webb not long ago, and he cited you as a major influence, especially when he first started writing. Did you guys have much contact?

I admired Jimmy. I thought that album he did with Richard Harris [A Tramp Shining] was one of the great, great albums. I think the songs are just unbelievable on it, the production was great. He made Richard Harris sound just fantastic. I have a lot of respect for Jimmy. We never communicated really. He was on the West coast, I was on the East coast.

So many groups from that time, when I listen to them now, like Eric Burdon & The Animals or Paul Revere & The Raiders, sound very stuck in that time. Yet the stuff that you guys did with Dionne still sounds fresh to me. Any thoughts on why?

I can’t say it was a little ahead of its time, because it wasn’t. It was right in the time. It’s like clothes maybe. Clothing gets outmoded. I’m not sure I know the reason why hairdos get outmoded. You look at them and you feel it’s very off, because it is very off. It’s just another time. It’s the same thing with records. I think the, I don’t want to say cheap songs or less substance songs, or more like rock n’ roll or what was going on at the time, or simplified songs have less of a chance to survive. Take ‘The Long And Winding Road’ – it was incredible then and it’s incredible now. Maybe it’s got something to do with a substantial song to start with. What the songs says and how it’s treated, and if it’s not surrounded by a dated arrangement, or just an arrangement that would work at the time. Maybe then it will hold up thirty years later. That’s my only read on it. Ballads, ballads, you know? Uptempo tunes, maybe because of the very framework they had to be in maybe didn’t have the same chance to grow.

Part of that time too was about Eastern religions, meditation, mind-expanding drugs and so on. Do you feel like your life was touched by any of that?

No.

A lot of your songs, then and now, conjure up images of L.A. and the West coast. I wondered if you could tell me a few places that you especially like on the West coast?

I like Delmar, always did. I like up on the north coast, Monterey. I like Carmel a lot, Big Sur. I don’t think I would want to live in any of those places though because it just gets a little isolated. I think there’s some great areas out here on the coast. Some weird people too. But you know, the people just kind of move from the East to the West, and when they get here they can’t go any further, and there’s the ocean. They keep looking for some kind of religion they never had, or some belief system, and then they congregate in large numbers out here.

Did you have any favorite hangouts in the 60s when you visited L.A.?

Yeah, Villa Capri. When I was in town, I’d go there. I thought that was the place that Sinatra went. And another restaurant called Chianti’s, which was great. Elsie and Pat Russo owned that. It was on Melrose. I think it’s still there.

‘Promises, Promises’

ALL THE attention to their craft made Bacharach and David, by the late ’60s, perhaps the most respected American songwriting team since Rodgers & Hart. And along with that respect, the offers and opportunities came pouring in. While Dionne maintained a steady chart presence, Burt and Hal lent their Midas touch to Sandie Shaw, Jack Jones, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Jackie DeShannon, Cher, Bobby Vinton, B.J. Thomas, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, Barbra Streisand and many others. They scored films too: Casino Royale (in which Dusty Springfield cooed the definitive version of ‘The Look of Love’), The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceAlfieAfter The FoxWhat’s New Pussycat?Wives And LoversApril Fools and the Academy-Award winning Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

Do you have any recollections about writing ‘Wives & Lovers’?

It was an assignment for a movie. It was a song for hire. I don’t know what we got paid. Not much. Without an assurance or much of an assurance that it would go in the picture. It was just a promotional film. So Hal and I wrote it. It’s a shame it didn’t make the picture but it has probably had way more value than the picture in the long run. It’s the same with ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. That again was a song that wasn’t anything other than a promotional song.

Had you written anything with that jazz waltz feel before?

Maybe not. It might have been the first.

Whose is the definitive version in your opinion?

I’m not sure I have one. I like Dionne’s record. I think she did it more like I thought it should be. I like Jack Jones’ record too, though I had to get used to it. It was very different than what I’d imagined. But it started to do really well and became a hit, so I thought, ‘I can get used to it that way.’

How about ‘The Look Of Love’?

‘The Look Of Love’ was really targeted for that one character in the picture, for Ursula Andress. It was really written just watching her on my moviola. Very sensuous, sexual theme. I treated it as an instrumental first, then Hal put lyrics on it. We got the ideal singer for it, went in and made that version for the picture with Dusty. I love working with her. She’s just great.

BACHARACH, WITH his athletic good looks, sparkling blue eyes and boyish charm, became a star in his own right, recording several solo albums or orchestrated instrumentals for A&M, albums which are now much sought after by the thrift-store-browsing, easy-listening set that has spawned Mike Flowers Pops, Combustible Edison and their ilk. Burt would occasionally sing on these records, in what liner notes then described as his “earnest, rumpled baritone.” He also headlined sold-out concerts, appeared on TV variety shows and endorsed Martini & Rossi after dinner drinks in commercials.

In 1968, Burt and Hal, along with comic playwright Neil Simon, penned a Broadway musical, Promises, Promises, based on Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Though it was extremely successful, earning a Tony Award and a lengthy run, it caused the first major ripple in the Bacharach-David partnership.

“Burt lost his enthusiasm for writing shows after that,” notes David. “The experience was different from what he expected. He came out of a record-making background, where every time you play something it comes out the same. But in a show, there are so many variables: the tempo can be too fast, too slow, the singers can change lines or notes. If you’re a perfectionist, it can drive you crazy.”

Bacharach, who caught pneumonia, fought physical exhaustion and has said he was generally “wiped out” during the process of mounting the show.

I remember reading how after Promises, Promises you said you just felt wiped out and you’d never do a musical again.

That’s true. But I thought that way at the time because it was tough and I got sick on the road with the show.

It seems like it would’ve been a tough show for a pit band that was subbing out for certain performances.

That was the tough thing. For me to find out a week after the show opened that they had done a matinee performance – David Merrick the producer called me and told me they had a substitute drummer, a substitute trumpet player, up to seven subs in the band. Of course, it’s not the easiest music to play. You know, if you go into a studio and you make a record, it goes on tape, it’s there. If you do a Broadway show, every night there are different people in the orchestra. It can be very different. Also, I got sick when we were out of town with that show. I got pneumonia and wound up in the hospital. That’s where that lyric comes from – “What do you do when you kiss a girl/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do she’ll never phone ya.” The day I got out of the hospital, we wrote that song. So my feeling at the time was, I didn’t want to do another show, but that’s years ago.

Have there been plans to revive Promises, Promises?

Yeah, it’s been done twice. It was done here in Los Angeles with Jason Alexander. They did a two week run. And then it was done in New York with Martin Short. I didn’t see either production. I wasn’t in town, but it’s funny, things that are in the past, I don’t like to go see necessarily. I like the present and the future.

‘One Less Bell To Answer’

THERE WERE no further forays into theater for the B &D team. They closed out the final weeks of the 60s with their biggest hit yet, a simple folky tune complete with ukelele accompaniment, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’.

B.J. Thomas, who sang the Academy Award-winning smash, says he wasn’t the first in line for the vocal: “Burt had originally composed the melody to fit Bob Dylan. In subsequent years Burt has denied it, but this is what I understood at the time. Burt really admired Bob Dylan and the way he phrased. When Bob for whatever reason didn’t do it, I was his second choice. What’s funny is that I actually had laryngitis and was barely able to eke out the thing for the soundtrack. But there’s maybe only two or three times in my career when I felt like I’d recorded a hit record, no doubt, and that was one of them.”

‘Raindrops’ was also an example of Burt’s increasing need for control over all aspects of record-making. “I actually did stop it from coming out,” he has recalled. “It was set for release, but I turned down the pressing. I had been torn between two takes – one that sounded comfortable, one that had a lot of energy. I went with the comfortable. But what I wound up doing was making an edit right in the middle of the song, and picking up the fast one in the break. That’s how it was finally released.”

Without breaking momentum, Burt and Hal greeted the 1970s with a brace of potent dreamy-listening hits: ‘One Less Bell To Answer’ by The Fifth Dimension and ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ by The Carpenters. While neither seems to remember much about the writing of particular songs – David laughs, “People always ask me what inspired such and such song and most times I’m not sure” – Hal does recall the source of ‘One Less Bell To Answer’.

“Burt and I were in London working on a project, and I was invited to a dinner party. The hostess said to me, ‘When you arrive, don’t ring the bell, just come in. It’ll make one less bell for me to answer.’ I was wise enough to know it was a good title.”

As for ‘Close To You’, David admits, “I didn’t think it was a hit when Jerry Moss at A&M sent over the record of The Carpenters. Not that Karen Carpenter didn’t sound great. I just thought it didn’t have what it took to really catch on. It shows that nobody, myself included, knows a hit until it becomes a hit.”

Despite the success of these singles and a decade of continuous good fortune, trouble was brewing. While he was spending more time pursuing his own career with TV specials and personal appearances, Bacharach’s high profile marriage to actress Angie Dickinson ended. When he and David got together in 1972 to compose songs for a musicalization of the Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, their chemistry faltered. The soundtrack, sung by a cast including Peter Finch, Liv Ullman and Charles Boyer, was roundly panned. Newsweek magazine called it “excruciating.” From there, the reviews just got worse. Despite a heavy push, the dippity would-be hit from the movie, ‘The World Is A Circle’, failed to click with anyone.

Was Lost Horizon influenced at all by the hippy movement or the times?

I don’t think so. Lost Horizon is just is a picture whose very premise should never have been made. You know, it’s just a crazy idea to go and do an original musical, and you can’t take it out on the road and fix what doesn’t work. You do it as a film you’re stuck with it. You can’t reshoot a whole scene because it didn’t work. You can do that with a Broadway musical out of town. You can take it out, fix it and work on it, put it in the next night. But I like the score. I have no problem with a lot of that music. But when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, we have the movie at home and we watch it all the time, it’s so great, it’s the best,’ I don’t know what they’re talking about (laughs). I don’t understand it.

BY THIS time, apparently frazzled by the extremely negative response to their work, Burt and Hal were hardly speaking to each other. To compound the problems, shortly after that, Dionne Warwick filed a $6 million suit against the songwriters for failing to provide songs for her upcoming album, lest she be sued by her record company. David then sued Bacharach over a publishing dispute. Bacharach filed a countersuit.

They parted, and it wouldn’t be until 1979 that the tangled suits were settled out of court. “A part of me wanted to go all the way to court, but it wasn’t a big enough part,” Bacharach has said. “So I pushed to settle it because it was draining my energy. By moving to settle it I wound up paying considerably more than Mr. David – he would have gone all the way to court.”

‘Knowing When To Leave’

WHEN THE smoke cleared, Hal David eventually went on to collaborate with several different composers, turning out MOR hits such as Ronnie Milsap’s ‘It Was Almost Like A Song’ and the Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias duet, ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’. From 1980-86, he was president of ASCAP and continues to serve on the board of directors.

“Nowadays I’m writing songs with a few different people,” David reports. “Pop songs with Archie Jordan and Kenny Hirsch, and theatre songs with Charles Strouse.”

Somewhat wistfully he adds, “Lyrics seem to be less important than 30 years ago. I wish I didn’t think so. Very often the melodies seem less important. The sound and the production seem to be more important.”

After what he calls the “giant bust” and a period of “hiding out” Bacharach weathered the worst draught of his career. Between 1973-1981, he was absent from the charts, while releasing two forgettable solo albums, Woman and Futures. Then in 1981, he married lyricist Carole Bayer Sager and the two collaborated on a string of successful, if somewhat schmaltzy hits: ‘Arthur’s Theme (The Moon and New York City)’, ‘Heartlight’, ‘On My Own’ and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, a Grammy-winning Number One for Dionne Warwick and Friends.

By the 90s, Burt had made a kind of peace with Hal and they got together once more at Dionne Warwick’s request. Working at Burt’s home in Del Mar, California, they attempted to rekindle the old magic. The result was one song, ‘Sunny Weather Lover’, a disappointingly flaccid track on Dionne’s 1993 album Friends Can Be Lovers.

‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’

THE FIRST part of our interview was done by phone. Burt was in Delmar on vacation, but hiked in from the beach to give me an hour. Now, a few hours after arriving in L.A., I’m sitting in the bar of the swanky Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, along with my two Japanese friends, Reiko and Osamu. We’re waiting for the great man, who’s meeting us for a drink and some more Q & A. Though the three of us are here on assignment, we’re more like excited teenage fans, sipping our ice teas nervously, clutching our album covers we hope to get autographed and craning our necks for sight of Burt.

At ten minutes before the appointed time, he strolls in. He’s wearing jeans, tennis shoes, a white T-shirt with a gray sweatshirt tied around his neck, and wire-rimmed sunglasses pushed up on his silver hair. It’s the quintessential Burt look, cool and casual – like the pictures of him poolside with Angie Dickinson from the late 60s.

Burt orders a tomato juice and we begin. He talks in a soft, husky voice and punctuates his sentences with thoughtful pauses. He moves his head and hands in much the same expressive way he does when seated at the keyboard. It’s as if he’s sculpting the air around him.

What are three things that you haven’t done yet as a songwriter that you’d still like to do?

I think I’d like to do another musical. I’d like to write something for a symphony orchestra, other than the way I did with The Houston Symphony. And I don’t know, that would be sufficient, those two.

Are you on the lookout for material for a musical?

Yeah, we’ve been working on a musical for a couple of years now and it’s hard to do. It’s a very stationary form of work right now. We’ve written about fourteen songs, so we’ll see what happens.

What’s the most difficult thing for you these days as a composer?

I think the market is very tough for good songs. It’s very difficult because there’s less space for good songs. There’s a very youth-oriented radio format, much rap on urban stations. You know, artists that you could count on to make an urban hit then have a pop hit, like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne or Patti LaBelle, it’s no guarantee anymore. You used to be able to have a Top 5 urban hit with them, then it would cross over into the pop market. But they don’t necessarily get played or accepted at radio like they did. It’s a shame. There are terrific singers out there like Toni Braxton, Tony Rich and Babyface. They make great records, great songs.

If you were hired to teach a workshop on composing, what kinds of things would you stress to your students?

It’s hard to teach composing. I studied composition and I think you should learn the basic stuff, like to be able to write music down. If you hear it in your head or you play it, you should be able to notate music and write it. I think it’s helpful. It’s so easy now, you just play something and dump it onto a tape machine. I’d have my students learn to read and write music. I think it’s important. I think that you learn to try to listen when you’re writing your own music, to get a long picture of it. I like to get away from my instrument, the piano, and just hear in my head what this music is about that I’m writing. If I do it at the piano then I just hear it bar by bar, not the long picture.

Are there ways to encourage students to be able to do that?

It’s discipline. But too many great songs have been written sitting at the piano or the guitar, so it’s not something that isn’t done all the time. But I just think whether I’m orchestrating, writing an arrangement or writing a song, I’ve got to get away from the music instrument and hear it only in my head. Hear where it’s lacking, where it’s good, where it’s boring, where it’s overkill. The same with a record. You try to hear the record in your head, then hear it again. It’s a fine tuning thing.

Speaking of arrangements, did you compose the intro riffs as part of your songs?

Very often they came as part of the songs. Very often when I wrote those songs, I was hearing everything that went with it – the drum pattern, the bass. I never liked to go into the studio with just a chord sheet and a rhythm section. I liked to write out a drum part, a bass part, a guitar part. At least it would be a framework, a structure so they would know what I had in mind. It would change, but at least it had a start. The drummer would know where I wanted a cross stick. For me, if I just went in with a chord sheet, it’s too loose.

I’ve read too that you would often write words under the notes of an instrumental line.

Yes, even if they didn’t make any sense. It had a word and if you sung the word on your flugelhorn, it would be more than just a note by itself. I’ve always been a big believer in words with notes. I used to write for the trumpet players, or the reed players, anybody that would have a singular statement to make on a record, I’d write the lyric underneath. So they’d be playing melody notation but they’d try to speak through their instrument the actual lyric. People that I worked with in the studio who knew me didn’t think it was so crazy, and whether they thought it was crazy or not was unimportant to me. There was a reason I did it. There are certain things that can’t really be notated, I find in an orchestration. It’s maybe two eighth notes, a sixteenth note and another eighth note and that’s the way it should be notated, but that’s not the way it totally feels. But if you put words with it, or even vowel sounds, it does make a difference

I talked to Phil Ramone and he said he used to have a hard time getting you to play piano on the sessions.

Well, I liked to be in the booth. Often I’d wind up playing piano because I wasn’t getting what I wanted. No matter how great the keyboard player was, I had a certain way of wanting to do it myself. It took a while to get me to do it. On the Elvis Costello record (‘God Give Me Strength’), I wasn’t going to play piano, but it wound up that way. Elvis kind of nudged me to do it.

On your solo records, I love the way your versions of hits depart from the originals.

I didn’t want to make it the same. I’d split vocals and instrumentals and try to make it interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to the listener.

I always dug your singing voice. Did you have to be coaxed into singing?

Yeah, more or less. I was very insecure about singing. It’s different on stage. I can be insecure about that, but I’m really insecure about going on tape. It’s one thing to do it in a live performance on stage. It’s like yesterday’s newspaper. It’s forgotten. It wasn’t so good. But when you go onto tape, it’s there forever. So I don’t feel great about hearing my singing voice. I’ll sing a little in the show, like I do now with Dionne or when I’m performing by myself. But careful, very little.

I reviewed your show in Nashville this past April, and when you sang ‘Alfie’ solo, it was fantastic.

Thank you. It’s daring of me to do that. But I figure by then, because I do it late in the show, that I’ll either have the audience (laughs), I’ve done enough songs that they’re on my side and I can take this chance. When someone like you says they really like the way I sang it, or I got a review in the L.A. Times here when I did it and they spoke glowingly of it. So maybe I believe a little bit more that my singing’s not so terrible. Because I can’t be fooling everybody. So maybe there is a good moment there. I hope. I try to sing the song not as a singer, but just interpreting it as a composer and interpreting a great, great lyric that Hal wrote.

‘All Kinds Of People’

IN THE two days between the interview and the rehearsal, we drive around L.A. in our rented car, singing along with the songs on Bacharach compilation CD’s. Though my friends don’t speak much English and I know even less Japanese, Bacharach’s songs provide a common language. We visit record companies, publishers, nightclubs, bookstores – anything that’s Bacharach-related. I find that the mere mention of Burt’s name always makes people smile and say things like, “I love his music. He’s the greatest.”

Four years ago, former A & M exec Bob Fead and Burt Bacharach started two publishing companies, Feadback and Backfead, designed to administer Burt’s vast catalog and promote his new songs. Fead, tan and 50-ish, dressed in his Armani sweater and slacks, has the smooth look of the L.A. record man. His manner is slightly brusque, but very friendly.

“We have all kinds of things going on right now,” he says. “Burt’s working on two Broadway shows, he’s collaborating with Elliot Kennedy [a British songwriter who’s penned hits for The Spice Girls] as well as Elvis Costello. He just a had a song, ‘If I Should Lose You’, recorded by Anita Baker, a UK pop group called Cliche just covered ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and he’s rehearsing for a world tour. There’s a huge demand for his live show in Europe and Asia.”

Fead grabs a DAT labeled “Undiscovered Bacharach” off his spacious, modern-looking desk. “These are songs Burt has written with Tonio K.” he says as pops in the tape and plays us ‘Change My Mind’ and a few other tunes.

It’s smooth, quiet storm R & B, very contemporary sounding. To my ears, there seems to be only a hint of Bacharach in the songs, with an occasional interesting interval leap or an unexpected rhythmic phrase. Otherwise, they could’ve been written by any staff writer. Perhaps it’s the sound of Burt wanting to keep up with the times, but it doesn’t have the same character of his best work.

In between appointments, we stop at Encounters, a restaurant at LAX which looks like a cross between a tilt-a-whirl and a spaceship. Inside the decor is Jetsons’ lounge – cool greens and blues chase splashes of pink and purple across the walls, lava lamps bubble and at the bar, where they serve drinks with names like “Bossa Supernova” and “Mars Melontime,” the dispensers make futuristic whooshing sounds. Somehow, even in this slightly contrived atmosphere, Bacharach is present. Since his music has been made one of the touchstones of the whole easy listening revival, any conversation about “lounge” or “swingers” or “bachelor pad music” usually leads to at least a mention of his name.

Gary Peterson and Patrick Milligan of Rhino Records are the two driving forces behind the first ever Bacharach box set. Scheduled for release in March 1998, this three-disc, various artists, 72-song compilation follows Bacharach’s trek as a songwriter royale, from ‘Magic Moments’ through ‘God Give Me Strength’. Over lunch at a Cuban restaurant, we all share our enthusiasm for Burt’s songs, comparing favorites and trying to stump each other on trivia.

Next stop is A & M Records, the label started by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss that was home to many Bacharach-related artists such as Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, Claudine Longet, Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and The Carpenters. Housed in what used to be Charlie Chaplin’s personal film studio, A & M has a quaint, 1930-ish bungalow vibe to it. We’re greeted by a friendly publicity person, but for some reason that is not explained to us, we are not permitted to enter any of the buildings. We leave after a few minutes.

Later that evening, we visit Darien Sahanaja of The Wondermints, an L.A.-based melodic pop band who wrote and performed the catchy theme for Mike Myers’ 60s spy farce, Austin Powers (which features a cameo by Burt Bacharach himself). We meet Darien in the house of the group’s manager, Chris. The place is a real gas, an eye-catching shrine to 60s pop culture. The walls are adorned with colorful 007 movie art, Beatles posters and photos of Brian Wilson, The Monkees and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The shelves in every room are stuffed with Mad magazines, I Spy games, Batman & Robin puzzles, 8-track tapes and albums galore. Darien fits right into the decor with his hand-painted Pan Am airlines jacket.

He remembers first hearing Bacharach through his parents’ hi-fi. “When I heard ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ by Dionne, my ears perked up,” Darien says. “It was different than everything else, jazzy and sophisticated.”

Listening to the groovy track Darien wrote for Austin Powers, the Bacharach influence is apparent in a most welcome way. Darien recalls how The Wondermints got involved with the successful movie: “Mike Myers had heard our version of ‘The Party’ that we did for Shots In The Dark, a Henry Mancini tribute record. So he sent the script, which was right up our alley. We took a chance and wrote a song. It was really fun because we were writing in the style of what we love – John Barry, The Five Americans, total kitsch stuff. We were the first group to contribute, so we had to wait a long time for the other bands.”

Myers liked The Wondermints so much that he had them masquerade as his own back-up band, Ming Tea, on the MTV Awards. The theme that Darien wrote for Austin Powers has led to him recently signing a deal with EMI Publishing, where he hopes to be able to compose for more films. Myers reportedly is planning a sequel to his 60s spoof.

‘That’s What Friends Are For’

DURING OUR conversations, I asked Burt Bacharach about some of the most important people in his musical life, past and present.

I wanted to get your impression on the difference between Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager as lyricists. Do you feel like Hal’s lyrics brought different kinds of melodies out of you than Carole’s did?

I’m not sure. I think it’s very possibly a different time as well. They’re both great lyricists. Carole is one of the fastest lyricists I’ve ever seen. Too fast for me the way she writes, just because I’m that far behind. I’m still working on one note or something like that, and she’s basically got the song done. Hal was more like the one who would take it home, work on it, bring it back the next day and we’d look at it. Then he’d go back and I’d go back and we’d work alone a lot. Then together.

Hal seems like he might be a less sentimental person than Carole. Is that true?

You know, one is a woman, a beautiful woman and the other is… if you look at Hal, then you listen to the lyrics, you’ve got to be stunned at the insight that Hal has in those lyrics. Brilliant stuff. And Carole too. I was lucky to have worked with them both.

I was really knocked out by ‘God Give Me Strength’, the song you wrote with Elvis Costello for Grace Of My Heart. It sounds more like the stuff you were writing in the 60s. Was that a conscious choice?

No, not at all. I’m not sure that was so. The picture was about that time, so I think that influenced the way people think too. I don’t think I was writing backwards or trying to put it in a timeset.

Did Elvis act as your lyricist?

Elvis is terrific, he’s a very good musician too. He had a musical input as well as a lyrical input. We never got together in person, we just did it over the phone, answering machines, fax machines and speaker phones. We got it done and it was great.

When you think of your songwriting do you ever see it in the way a painter might recognize different periods in his work?

Yeah, I think it’s got to be in periods. Certain things I did then, there’s no way I could do now. There are songs, like the first couple of hits I had, ‘Magic Moments’ and ‘Story Of My Life’ – that’s another way of thinking than I’ve certainly thought the last 20 or 25 years.

I’d like to mention a few artists you’ve worked with to get your reactions to their charming or good points. Marlene Dietrich…

Marlene was great. It was a different kind of musical experience. It was a real kind of paradox to be writing R & B songs for The Shirelles, Chuck Jackson and Dionne and conducting around the world for Marlene in a very old traditional style – whatever you want to call those songs. It still was conducting an orchestra and it was still doing concerts and it was still dealing with people and music and life. I got to see the world with Marlene, some great places that I never would’ve seen.

What was the story about her calling Sinatra on your behalf?

Yeah, she did. I played her a song and she liked that song and she thought that Sinatra should record it. I think it was a Mathis B-side of ‘It’s Not For Me To Say’, a song called ‘Warm And Tender’. But Marlene told Sinatra that he’d be sorry and that kind of thing. Marlene was great. Very supportive.

Dionne Warwick…

Dionne is just this magical voice. I feel very lucky that our paths crossed. The more that we wrote for Dionne and the more we recorded with her, the more I saw what she was capable of doing, and then we’d keep stretching. She has this very remarkable understated thing that can be very explosive and immediately recognizable.

I’d love to hear you guys do a whole record together.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not now anyway. We do concerts. We just got off the road about two weeks ago.

Aretha Franklin…

Aretha’s great. I just went and did three sides with her at that time, three things I’d written with Carole. Aretha is just impeccable, her choice of notes, her musicality. A really brilliant musician. One of the greats for all time, forever and ever.

Dusty Springfield…

Great. These are all great people. Dusty’s very hard to work with in the studio because she’s very hard on herself. That can be tough.

The Carpenters…

The Carpenters I never knew so well, but I thought what they did was really fine. They had this huge hit on ‘Close To You’. We knew each other at the time a little bit, because they were out on the road with me initially. They opened. I think they opened in St. Louis and Westbury, maybe the first four months, until they became huge. Karen had this voice that was just a voice for all times. It was clean, understated, very present. It just walks off a record at you.

When you wrote ‘Close To You’ were you disappointed it wasn’t a single?

You know, I made the first record with Richard Chamberlain and it was a terrible record. I had a terrible arrangement and a terrible concept. I think the concept that Richard Carpenter and Herb Alpert came up with, the flow on that record, was very different than the way I had thought of it, and much more appealing.

I still like the Dionne version.

Yeah, that’s nice too. It’s more the way I thought of it, but the other is way more attractive, that kind of shuffle thing.

Carmen McCrae…

I never worked with her, always liked her. She’s a great jazz singer.

Is there any musician or singer whose career you’ve followed or paid special attention to over the years?

No, not one.

Did you stay in touch with someone like Dizzy Gillespie?

When I hosted the Tonight Show in New York, which was way back there many years ago, they asked me who I wanted on it and my first choice was Dizzy. He was a good guy, a really nice man. Then Miles Davis was somebody I just thought the world of musically, you know.

I’ve always detected a Brazilian influence in your work. Were there certain composers you were attracted to?

Yes. Milton Nascimento, Djavan. It’s marvelous stuff. I think it’s better when they’re singing in Portugese than in English. You don’t know what it means but it’s definitely more romantic.

Were you a Jobim fan?

Yeah.

‘The Windows Of The World’

PHIL RAMONE is best known for the landmark records he produced on artists such as Billy Joel and Paul Simon, but one of his first gigs in the music business was engineering Dionne Warwick’s albums for Scepter. He worked closely with Bacharach all through the 60s, co-producing Burt’s solo LP’s as well.

What was the atmosphere in the A&R studios cutting the Dionne records?

The enthusiasm was wonderful. It was very much a family affair. That’s an overused term, but Hal was in the control room, Burt and I were running back and forth getting sounds. And Dionne’s family was there – her Aunt Cissy was one of the background singers. Her dad, who was a minister would come in. Dee Dee Warwick was also one of the singers. And Hal and Burt were such an unusual pair to work with – Hal being extremely quiet and polite. Not that Burt isn’t. But you had the bombastic side and then the quiet side. The combination would work so well to make a record, it was amazing. They treated me like the fifth Beatle kind of guy (laughs).

You had a long streak of hit records. Were there any superstitions you had about keeping the luck going?

A lot of times, my mother was sitting in the corner of the control room, knitting and telling Burt and Dionne how great the songs were, and when she wasn’t there, suddenly the song wasn’t a hit, or that night’s recording didn’t go well. So yes, there were certain superstitions we had (laughs).

Most of the recordings were done live?

Oh yeah. Both the studios at A & R that they used had some kind of isolation for the vocals, because we separated the group from Dionne, but they were right in the room. There was not much overdubbing in those days. In the beginning, it was a four-track, then eventually eight and sixteen.

How many takes did most songs require?

It could be some of them would be two or three, but some might be ten or twelve. I remember at the time it was unusual to only do three songs in a session, then it became more unusual when these guys would do two songs. People now think one song a day would be a miracle (laughs).

I know Burt had a lot of shorthand that he used with musicians. How about with you?

We also had a sort of code between us. You’d get such a closeness between Hal, who might raise his eyebrow at something, it could have been lyrical or some musical thing that he questioned. Burt would look at me through the window. Sometimes he sat next to me and he’d have someone else play the piano, but the whole band and groove would come together when he played. And he’d kind of say, ‘Ah, damn I don’t want to…’ and I’d say, ‘C’mon man, you have to play.’ Because the whole room would come to life with his conducting and the way he would look over at the drummer and with just the flick of his finger things could happen. Once the groove was happening in the room, forget it, there was nothing like it. And everything, including the strings, responded to the kind of body movement that Burt had. He brings an incredible amount of life to the studio. He’s probably one of the most amazing musicians in the world.

Can you think of a song that was difficult to capture on tape?

Some songs just fell in. ‘San Jose’ and songs like that just got into a thing and happened. Probably ‘Alfie’ and ‘A House is Not a Home’ were two difficult ones.

The dynamic range on those two are incredible.

It’s part of that that makes the whole record sound so good. At the time, we had very limited remixing capabilities, so we were dependent on a relationship between the rhythm section and Gary Chester, who was the drummer. Gary could explode in the middle of a bridge, which Burt loved to do. I mean Gary was totally understanding of what the string section had to do, because sometimes Burt would write a beautiful section in the middle, but these dynamics had to be accomplished live. A lot of the songs took a little longer because of mistakes or tiredness. I’d look at Burt or Hal sometimes and say, ‘I don’t know, we seemed to have peaked here for the moment. We’ve got to go on, but we’ve got to do one more.’ It’s that horrible thing of having to do one more take and not knowing if it’s going to be any better. But it took a lot of patience and a lot of affection between the musicians and Burt.

How did you get that explosive drum sound?

It was a combination of his playing and the room mikes, the string mikes – opening them up more just to get that explosion. It wasn’t just an echo chamber. It was part of the thunder that happens live. It’s knowing your room well, and Gary and I were really good friends. Sometimes he exploded so loud we couldn’t hear anything else (laughs). But that’s all in the adjustment of the levels. When Burt was conducting, sometimes it was down to a whisper. You know, it makes a hero out of me rather than trying to force dynamics. Both he and Hal were really cool with me because they let me say a ton of things that I think was probably my total education for me to become a producer.

‘Always Something There To Remind Me’

ALMOST 40 years after Bacharach first began shaking up popular music, the tremors of his seismic influence can still be felt – it’s there in his picture prominently displayed in one corner of the cover of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe; it’s there in the syncopated trumpet break in Blur’s hit ‘The Universal’; it’s there in artists as varied as Prefab Sprout, Luther Vandross, Elvis Costello, Pizzicato Five, Everything But The Girl and Gary Clark; it’s there in the encomia from songwriters; it’s there in the soundtracks for this summer’s hit films, Austin Powers and My Best Friend’s Wedding; it’s there in elevators and grocery stores courtesy of Muzak-y renditions of the Bacharach & David songbook; but most importantly, it’s there in spirit every time an act breaks the rules and explores a new frontier in melodic pop music.

Your music was a big influence on Mike Myers’ movie Austin Powers. How was it for you being in that picture?

I had a lot of fun doing that. When the picture opened I was in Europe touring, and that trip was over in two months, then by the time I got back to the States, it had already come and gone and been a pretty good-sized hit. I still haven’t seen it. Not because I don’t want to. I do want to. People love it, and he’s great. I’ll see it probably on cassette. That’s the way it looks at the moment.

As I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of contemporary bands like Pizzicato 5, Cardigans and Blur are citing you as an influence. Do you have much of a chance to listen to these groups and if so, what do you think of them?

I did listen to Pizzicato 5. I met them in California and they’re very nice cats, and they’re good. They’re very good.

Have you heard anything in the last year or two that’s really knocked you out?

I was playing the last Oasis album. I like them, I like that album. Tony Rich and the Toni Braxton album. I like that. I think that one thing I play all the time in the car is this CD by Jean Jacques Thibault playing transcriptions of Bill Evans. Thibault is a French concert pianist.

Have you been approached by any groups like Swing Out Sister or Oasis to arrange for them?

No. I talked to them. Swing Out Sister opened for me in London in July, and they’re nice people. I caught a little bit, and I listened to their album. They’re very good. We talked a little about maybe writing something. They were really sweet. As a matter of fact, the lead singer, Corinne, she had her massage person come in and give me fifteen minutes as a present from her. They’re very nice people. They were suggested to me to open the show in London. And I heard them, heard about them and said okay.

Are your children musicians?

No. Not yet. My older daughter Nikki plays drums, and my four-and-a-half year old is musically inclined a bit.

If you hadn’t become a composer, what would you be doing now?

Probably in the men’s clothing business. My dad had connections. That’s where I would’ve wound up.

I always dug the way you dressed in the 60s. Did you ever have any endorsement deals?

No.

Did you have favorite brands of clothing?

No, I always hated the thing of going to buy clothes. I still don’t like it. I still kind of wear the same pair of jeans and tennis shoes and sweatshirts. That’s just the way it is.

When you’re stressed out or exasperated with the music business, do you have a favorite daydream you like to escape into?

You know, I love horses. I’ve been involved with horse racing for a long time. It’s a good bounce off for me, to go to the racetrack, go see my horses or to read the racing form instead of Billboard.

How did you get into horse racing?

I always wanted to have a race horse, if I ever could afford it. It was like a dream of mine when I was a kid growing up in New York. So I bought my first horse like maybe thirty years ago. So now I have too many horses (laughs).

‘What’s New Pussycat?’

NEXT YEAR, Burt Bacharach will turn 70. It’s hard to believe. Especially when you the meet the man. He’s tan, trim, energetic and looks a good ten years younger. Despite accomplishments that would make it easy to rest on his laurels – how many songwriters alter and shape the course of pop music, after all? – he keeps striving and working on new projects. We closed our talks by looking ahead to the future.

What are your current projects? I know last time we spoke you were working on a musical based on Snow White.

That’s kind of on hold at the moment. I’ve been working with Elvis Costello and we’ve got about 6 or 7 songs in the works for an album that we’ll do together. We’re going to write again in October and maybe we can start recording by the end of December and then, the project with this new show I’m taking out on the road. It’s taken a long time. It’s very different than anything I’ve done. Three singers, two synthesizer players, two horns, bass and drums. We’re doing songs I never thought about doing, like ‘The Blob’. We’re going to do a beginning medley of the first four hits I ever had. When we rehearsed it, it sounded like somebody else had written those songs. ‘Magic Moments’. You know, that was then. It’s a different kind of show. We make the music the star of the show instead of the orchestra.

Nowadays, young people are really tuning into your music. Do you think it’s because they’re craving melodies in a scene that’s mostly about beats and grooves?

I think it’s terrific that it happened. I’m not sure I know why it happened. It started in England, started with some of the younger artists and bands, like Noel Gallagher. It was fun last year, Noel came on and sang ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ with me and the symphony orchestra. I think it started for me in England the first time thirty years ago. First time around, I was more successful there than in the States. So are they missing melody? These kids that like these songs, this music, they weren’t even born when it came out, so it’s not like they like it now again. They’re hearing it for the first time. Is it a need for a melody? I think so. For melody, for romance, for love songs. Most of the songs I write and have written are love songs, romance songs. So however it happened, it started again in England, then came to the States and they’re kind of rediscovering me.

Do you have the sense that some of what your wrote with Hal for Dionne will last 100 years from now?

I think there’s a chance that some of it will because it lasted 30 years. I think at that time you could make songs that had a chance to last. I don’t think we would be having hits with songs like that now perhaps in today’s market.

Do you have any thoughts on pop music in the next century?

It’s maybe a little harder to crack through with a good song now, or make a standard, but I have no idea where it’s going. Or where radio’s going. I think it’s way more difficult for more legitimate writers now who write for artists who don’t get played as much as they used to get played or get promoted or recognized as much as they used to. It’s a very youth oriented and rap oriented scene at the urban level. Those cracks are just a little bit harder. But really, I have no idea what’s going to happen, if it’s going to get better or worse, with more machines or live musicians. All I know is this. If I was a young musician, a violinist and I went to a music school like Julliard, I would think that things would look very bleak, because there wouldn’t be recording dates to play. The synthesizer takes the place. And if I wasn’t up for a symphony orchestra – which isn’t easy for a young musician – a violinist coming out of Curtis or Julliard, maybe they wind up in Oklahoma with a city orchestra, but they don’t wind up with the Philadelphia Orchestra, not yet anyway. Also, French Horn players. The samples are so unbelievable on the synthesizers. I like it but I don’t like it, you know? You can make a perfect record even if you’re not a good bass player. You can play four bars of a bass part on a synthesizer, copy it, paste it. So it’s good and it’s bad. I don’t like it that live musicians don’t work as much as they used to do. Like drummers. There’s the drum machine. It never slows down, it’s perfect for dance, perfect for techno. But no matter what, I have to believe that there’ll always be room for a good song.

© Bill DeMainSwitch, June 1997

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