By simply listening to a short excerpt of a Burt Bacharach composition, one can immediately recognize his unique talent.
The late Burt Bacharach was a highly original songwriter who composed many timeless hits during his peak in the 1960s. Alec Wilder, in his renowned book “American Popular Song,” praised Bacharach’s “natural phrase” and unique irregular measures that defied the constraints of commercial music.
The originality and complexity of Burt Bacharach’s off-beat rhythms and unconventional phrasing are well-known among singers, and he was known for his uncompromising insistence on getting the performance just right. This is exemplified by the numerous takes he required of Cilla Black for the song “Alfie.”
Burt’s former wife and frequent collaborator, Carole Bayer Sager, wrote in her memoir about the difficulty of crafting lyrics to match Burt’s unparalleled, asymmetrical melodies and his exacting standards.
He received his education at McGill University in Montreal, which is a top-notch institution for those aspiring to make it in New York.
During the 1950s, he was part of the exceptional group of songwriters from the Brill Building, striving to create the ultimate hit. One of his early compositions, “Baby, It’s You,” was famously performed by John Lennon on The Beatles’ first album.
At a deeper level, the 20 or so songs from the 1960s that have become as well-known to American audiences as Gershwin, resemble the famous composer in their lively rhythms and connection to the Black musicians of the time.
Burt Bacharach continued a musical discourse with the prominent Motown producers of the era through these compositions, many of which were recorded by Dionne Warwick and feature Bacharach’s unique arrangements and electric bass beats.
The lyrics, written by Hal David, may not have been as polished or literate as those of Stephen Sondheim, but they complemented the music perfectly, and at times even approached poetic expression, such as in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” with its memorable line, “L.A. is a great big freeway / put a hundred down and buy a car.”
In 1973, the partnership between David and Burt Bacharach came to an unfortunate end with the disastrous production of a Hollywood film, resulting in Warwick becoming an unintended victim.
Woody Allen once stated in his book-jacket biography that he would do everything the same, except watch the musical version of “Lost Horizon.” This movie was so bad that, unlike “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar,” no attempts have been made to revive it, causing it to remain the most painful episode in Bacharach’s career.
This may be somewhat unjust, as Vincent Canby noted in his New York Times review that Bacharach’s music was far superior to the rest of the film. Despite the somewhat saccharine lyrics, the Fifth Dimension’s rendition of “Living Together, Growing Together” is still worth a listen.
Following the separation from his singer and lyricist, Burt Bacharach went through a period of uncertainty. His memoir includes heart-wrenching accounts of the struggles and stress he faced in his relationship with his daughter, Nikki, whom he had with Angie Dickinson.
He wrote numerous songs after the split, some of which became hits, but he never quite managed to write a successful musical. Despite the appeal of its score, his Broadway debut “Promises, Promises” does not hold up well upon revival, with the standout song being “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
Like Michel Legrand, another French composer who transitioned from classical to pop music, Bacharach’s compositions were essentially joyful, but not inherently storytelling like Randy Newman’s music can be. He made a remarkable comeback with the album “Painted from Memory,” which he recorded with Elvis Costello.
To everyone’s surprise, Costello sang Burt Bacharach’s music as well as anyone ever has. The depth of Costello’s voice and vibrato complemented the intricacies of Bacharach’s melodies, while Costello’s insightful lyrics restored the music’s dignity. “Painted from Memory,” “This House Is Empty Now,” and the ethereal “In the Darkest Place” will endure as timeless recordings.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Burt Bacharach during a workshop for his new musical, which was based on O. Henry’s classic tale “The Gift of the Magi”.
Despite the praise I gave for his extensive body of work, I noticed a subtle discomfort on his face. It seemed that he was tired of hearing his 1960s music being recognized in the same predictable manner. Although the O. Henry musical wasn’t as successful as everyone hoped, the music was still recognizable as his own, which was almost uncanny.
There’s a famous anecdote about Schubert’s unfinished symphony being so uniquely recognizable that people would whisper his name after just four bars of music. Such a distinctive sound is a rare characteristic of a melodist, with only a select few possessing such clarity in their compositions.
While talented musicians like Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney have produced a diverse range of music, a select few have created a sound that is completely their own. Gershwin and Burt Bacharach belong to this exclusive group, and their music continues to captivate listeners without losing its timeless appeal.
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