Updated: Feb 19
Burt Freeman Bacharach (May 12 1928 - February 8 2023)
The American songwriter Burt Bacharach is probably one of the most influential talents of the 20th century. From the 1950's onwards he composed hundreds of pop songs that are known the world over. Working with his writing partner Hal David, they were responsible for the soundtrack of popular music for decades. You know many more Bacharach tunes than you ever realised!
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he was the son of Mark Bertram "Bert" Bacharach, a sports star who became a well known syndicated newspaper columnist and Irma (née Freeman) an amateur painter and songwriter. It was, naturally, his mother who encouraged Burt to play the piano, but also the cello and drums. The family moved to Queens, New York where he graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1946. Bacharach's background was Jewish but his family were not practising Jews. He knew little of his religious heritage. "...all the kids I knew were Catholic...I was Jewish but I didn't want anyone to know about it" he observed in his autobiography.
As a teenager he found himself attracted to jazz, often sneaking into the 52nd Street nightclubs underage to see such acts as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Intrigued by the work of Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker and played in several jazz groups before he went on to study music at McGill University n Montreal, the Mannes School of Music in New York and at the Music Academy of the West in California. He studied under several teachers, but he often cited the French composer Darius Milhaud (4 September 1892 - 22 June 1974) as having the greatest influence on his work. He remembered Milhaud would urge him to "never feel embarrassed or discomforted by a melody that people can remember or whistle." This sage advice would serve as a guiding trademark of his life work.
In 1950 Bacharach was drafted by the US military and he served in Germany. He played piano in officers' clubs and in big band performances. While in Germany he met the singer Vic Damone. After being discharged from the army Bacharach worked with Damone for three years. The singer would recall that Bacharach was always "clearly bound to go out on his own", he recognised not only his talent and training but also his gifts in arrangement and production. Bacharach worked with various acts on the club circuit and one was the singer and actor Paula Stewart, whom he married in 1953.
In 1956, at the age of 28, the composer Peter Matz recommended him to Marlene Dietrich, who needed an arranger and conductor for her nightclub show. He worked as a part-time music director for her and toured the world. When not touring, he wrote. In 1957 he met Hal David in a music publishing office in the Brill Building in New York. David had been working for famous acts such as Frank Sinatra since the 1940s. The chance meeting of the pair led to a combination that was instant magic. They achieved their first commercial success when Marty Robbins took The Story of My Life into the US top 20 in 1957. It then reached No. 1 in the UK the following year with a cover by Michael Holliday. Perry Como then gave them eight weeks at no. 1 in the UK with their tune Magic Moments. This made them the first writing duo to reach back-to-back no.1's in the UK, starting a love affair between Bacharach and British Isles that would last a lifetime.
Bacharach's marriage to Stewart broke down and they divorced in 1958. He enthusiastically spent more time on tour with Marlene Dietrich who recalled in her biography that Bacharach was especially fond of touring in Poland and Russia as he appreciated the standard of the violinists and the public reaction to such performances. After some five years touring with the star, Bacharach informed her that he wanted to commit his time to writing and brought their working relationship to an end. Dietrich described her time with him as "seventh heaven...As a man, he embodied everything a woman could wish for...How many such men are there? For me he was the only one." It was already clear that he had the Midas touch as he was writing consistent successes with Hal David. having written Gene Pitney's US 1962 No. 4 hit (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance and the same artist took their composition Only Love Can Break a Heart to No. 2 later the same year. Despite these successes Bacharach had still been writing with other lyricists, including Bob Hilliard but the Bacharach/David partnership was about to become his primary partnership, helped in part, by the discovery of singer Dionne Warwick.
Teaming up with Dionne Warwick
Warwick was working as a session backer singer for the Drifters when Bacharach met her in 1961 while she was recording with the Drifters in a session that included Mexican Divorce and Please Stay, two songs Bacharach had written with lyricist Bob Hilliard. He asked her to record demos for them in their studio/office in the Brill Building, one of these was Make it Easy on Yourself which became a hit for Jerry Butler. Warwick was under the impression these songs were meant for her to sing and she confronted the pair. They explained they had recruited her to produce demos but when considering her talents they realised they had a potential star on their hands. The pair got the singer and her sister Dee Dee Warwick to record the single Move it on the Backbeat under the name Burt and the Backbeats, with lyrics written by Hal David's brother Mack David. This led to one of the most successful teams in popular music. Over 20 years the pair wrote for Warwick and she went on to sell over 12 million copies, with 22 of her 38 charting singles in the Top 40, seven in the top ten. Just some of the hits churned out by this powerhouse were Walk on By, Anyone who had a heart, Alfie, I Say a Little Prayer, I'll Never Fall in Love Again and Do You Know the Way to San Jose. Warwick would have more hits than any other female vocalist with the exception of Aretha Franklin, who incidentally, covered I Say A Little Prayer scoring the top ten in the US and her best performance in the UK with a No. 4 hit.
The Brill Building had gained a reputation as a hub of music writing on the New York and national scene. It was referred to as the school of teenage pop with teams like Carole King and Gerry Goffin working there. Bacharach and David were definitely not writing for a teenage audience though, their style was much close to Cole Porter.
What the World Needs
In 1965 Bacharach married the actress Angie Dickenson. Their daughter Nikki Bacharach was born in 1966, and as the decade progressed his star continued to rise. The Bacharach/David pairing was now a juggernaut of success. Everything they touched, turned to international gold. They amassed a quite extraordinary catalogue of chart topping hits. What the World Needs Now is Love was released in 1965. Bacharach described this seemingly simple pop ballad as one of the most complicated lyric projects of their prolific partnership. He recalled the melody and chorus was in place as early as 1962, but the lyrics took much longer to find their pace. The pair were openly taken aback by the success of the track as there was much disagreement over the Vietnam war which had been the inspiration for the lyrics. Astonishingly it was turned down by Warwick who felt it was "too country" for her and "too preachy". She would go on to record it after it had become a success for Jackie DeShannon. Bacharach would go on to use the song as the intro and finale of his live concerts for most of his career and the song has been covered by huge numbers of artists and Bacharach's performance of the song in the 1997 film Austin Powers : International Man of Mystery was described as the "heart of our film" by the director.
The Bacharach/David duo also turned their hand to writing the film soundtracks for What's New Pussycat (1965) and Casino Royale (1967), both of which won widespread acclaim and each included monster success singles. What's New Pussycat first recorded by Tom Jones and The Look of Love by Dusty Springfield. The Casino Royale soundtrack is widely considered one of the best engineered vinyl recordings ever produced and a valuable collectors item. Both songs were nominated for Best Song at the Oscars, as was the eponymous Alfie. Cilla Black performed the song Alfie. Originally it was considered for Warwick but it was felt a British singer should take the song to stay in keeping with the film. Sandie Shaw, who had a number 1 in the UK with Bacharach/David hit (There's) Always Something There to Remind Me turned the chance down so the song was offered to Black, who had also scored a UK no. 1 with Anyone Who Had a Heart. Black was unconvinced by the track and set out some stipulations for recording the song. She insisted on Bacharach overseeing the arrangement and recording and that he would come over to England to do it. Black's headstone in Allerton cemetery features lines from the song and her 2005 autobiography was titled What's it all about? from the opening line of the song. In the American market a young twenty year old Cher recorded a version of the song, produced by then husband Sonny Bono.
In 1968 Bacharach and David collaborated with Broadway producer David Merrick to release the musical Promises, Promises. The producer approached the pair on the eve of the show's opening to provide a further song. Bacharach had just been released from hospital after suffering from pneumonia and was still sick. The pair turned out I'll Never Fall in Love Again in record time, which would go on to become another success for Dionne Warwick and multiple other artists over the coming years. It was a one of the first Broadway musicals to use backup singers in the orchestra pit and pop amplification methods. The musical Hair opened in the same year and the two were precursors of the era of the pop musical. The show cast recording scooped a Grammy and the show was nominated for seven Tony Awards. Also in that year they provided Herb Alpert's first US no. 1 This Guy's in Love with You.
The pair saw out the sixties with a double at the Oscars in 1969 for the soundtrack for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the single from the film Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head won Best Song.
The end of a beautiful friendship
The 1970s started much as the sixties for the Bacharach/David team with the Carpenters achieving success with their tune (They Long to be) Close to You achieving top ten in the UK and no. 1 in the US. Bacharach's eponymous 1971 solo album was a critical success but the decade was to bring disaster and appointment. David and Bacharach descended into an acrimonious split over bitter recriminations revolving around the flop of their musical remake of the film Lost Horizons (1973) Multiple law suits emerged between the pair and Warwick. The magnificent trio wet their separate ways.
Bacharach would reflect on the split in his autobiography in 2013, acknowledging that "it was all my fault, I can't imagine how many great songs I could have written in the years we were apart."
The pair reunited briefly in 1975 to write and produce Stephanie Mills' album For The First Time on Mowtown.
Bacharach tried his hand at various solo projects but failed to find the spark he had nurtured with David. As the 70s continued, He appeared in a series of adverts for Martini & Rossi drinks with his wife. Playing on their sixties sophisticated image, he even wrote the short jingle for the campaign but behind the scenes his marriage to Dickinson began to fail. It was considered a lost cause long before they divorced in 1981.
After a fallow seventies Bacharach enjoyed a revival in the 1980s. He collaborated with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager. The partnership brought Bacharach success with tunes such as Heartlight for Neil Diamond, Making Love for Roberta Flack and On My Own , a duet for Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald; but when the pair collaborated on Arthur's Theme (Best You Can Do) with Christopher Cross they took home the 1982 Oscar for Best Song. Bacharach married Bayer Sager the same year. The AIDS fund-raising anthem That's What Friends Are For went on to win a Grammy for song of the year in 1985. Originally recorded by Rod Stewart for the soundtrack of Ron Howard's movie Night Shift (1982) it was covered by Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John. Bacharach finally reunited with Dionne Warwick. The singer would explain "We realized we were more than just friends. We were family. Time has a way of giving people the opportunity to grow and understand ... Working with Burt is not a bit different from how it used to be. He expects me to deliver and I can. He knows what I'm going to do before I do it, and the same with me. That's how intertwined we've been." The 1986 success would be Bacharach's last major hit.
Bacharach saw a revival of his earlier work begin to emerge in the 1980s, especially working with Luther Van Dross on re-stylings of A House is Not a Home and Anyone Who Had a Heart. and began to tour and perform himself, often appearing with Dionne Warwick at her sold out concerts in Las Vegas.
As the nineties began, Bacharach was once again to prove to be unlucky in love as he and Carole Bayer Sager were divorced in 1991. The couple had an adopted son, Christopher Elton Bacharach. But the man who was often described as the "playboy of the western world" did not stay single for long. He married Jane Hansen in 1993. During the 60's Bacharach had admitted “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, but when you wind up being married four times, there are a lot of bodies strewn in your wake.” He would have two children with Hansen, a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Raleigh.
He finally reunited with Hal David for Sunny Weather Lover for Dionne Warwick in the early 90s. His renaissance continued in 1997 as he made a cameo in the Austin Power movie. Mike Myers stated the idea was partially inspired by the song The Look of Love. He spoke warmly about Bacharach appearing in the film, saying “It was amazing working with Burt. His song "The Look of Love" was the inspiration for this film. It was like having Gershwin appear in your movie." In 1998 he wrote the album Painted from Memory with Elvis Costello This album emerged from a collaboration on the ballad God Give Me Strength for a film, Grace of My Heart, loosely based on the life of Carole King. The track I Still Have That Other Girl won Bacharach the sixth Grammy of his career. 1999 saw him earn another Oscar nomination for the song Walking Tall, a collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice, performed by Lyle Lovett for the film Stuart Little. An album called Here I Am was released with Ronald Isley in 2003, returning to many of his earlier works but in Isley's RnB style.
After a lifetime of being defiantly non political a 2005 album At This Time saw him write his own lyrics as well as the music as he tackled different themes. "All my life I've written love songs, and I've been non-politiccal...so it must be pretty significant that I suddenly have strong feelings of discomfort with the state of the world." It featured appearances from Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright and Dr. Dre. The work garnered him yet another Grammy in 2006. In the same year he appeared as a guest judge on the American Idol TV show, during which an entire episode was dedicated to his music.
In 2008 he performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra as he opened the BBC Electric Proms at the Roundhouse. Featuring performances from Adele, Beth Rowley and Jamie Cullum, it was a retrospective of his six decade long career. The following year he produced the debut single of Italian soul singer Karima Ammar. He released his autobiography in 2013.
Bacharach continued to enjoy the twilight of his career in the UK as he performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 2015 and then appeared in London to launch What's it All About? Bacharach Reimagined, a 90 minute arrangement of his hits.
Sadly, his daughter Nikki committed suicide in 2007 after struggling with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome and in 2016 he composed the soundtrack to the film A Boy Called Po about a boy with autism. The theme tune Dancing with Your Shadow, performed by Sheryl Crow, was a collaboration with lyricist Billy Mann. Another political theme emerged in 2018 with Live to See Another Day, co-written with Rudy Pérez, dedicated to the survivors of gun violence in schools.
A further Grammy nomination was forthcoming for the 2020 collaboration with Daniel Tashian, the EP Blue Umbrella. In March 2023 a collection of collaborations with Elvis Costello was due for release. Entitled The Songs of Bacharach and Costello it is expected to include 16 tracks from the proposed musical Taken From Life.
The music of Bacharach was heavily influenced by jazz and syncopated rhythmic patterns, rapid changing meters and unexpected chord changes. He produced, arranged and conducted much of his own work and despite often being labelled as easy listening, the Bacharach catalogue is often characterized by being anything but easy to perform.
"I didn't want to make the songs the same way as they'd been done, so I'd split vocals and instrumentals and try to make it interesting ... For me, it's about the peaks and valleys of where a record can take you. You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute, then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution."
Bacharach mused that he had been "luckier than most" in his professional life:
“Most composers sit in a room by themselves and nobody knows what they look like,” he wrote. “People may have heard some of their songs, but they never get to see them onstage or on television.” As he was also a performer he also stated “I get to make a direct connection with people.”
“Whether it’s just a handshake or being stopped on the street and asked for an autograph or having someone comment on a song I’ve written...that connection is really meaningful and powerful for me.”
Few songwriters have enjoyed a career with such a span of time as Bacharach, let alone an astonishing revival in popularity to be held in reverence. And that reverence stretched across the genres of music and time. Bacharach will be remembered as the greatest songwriter of the century, and quite possibly, the most influential. There was never any shame in writing a melody people can remember, Bacharach wrote more than that, he wrote melodies that people will always remember, and always love.
Bacharach died of natural causes at his Los Angeles home. He is survived by his sons Christopher and Oliver, daughter Raleigh and his fourth wife Jane Hansen.