Composer/arranger Burt Bacharach (born 1928) established himself in the 1960s as one of America's premier pop songwriters. After achieving considerable success with recordings by Dionne Warwick and B.J. Thomas, among many others, he found his style of music out of fashion during the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1990s, he returned to active composing as a new generation discovered his music.
The sophisticated melodies of Burt Bacharach were among the defining sounds of American popular music in the 1960s and early 1970s. In an era when rock gained ascendancy, his elegant compositions echoed the heyday of the great Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songwriters. In tandem with lyricist Hal David, Bacharach created songs graced with complex rhythms and fresh harmonic patterns that were rich in color and mood. The Bacharach/ David team produced a remarkable body of work for the stage and screen as well as for the record-buying market. The Carpenters, Tom Jones, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and, most of all, Dionne Warwick were among the artists who popularized Bacharach's songs. The start of the 21st century found him increasingly productive, working with new collaborators and releasing retrospectives of his best work.
Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 12, 1928. His father, Bert Bacharach, was a syndicated columnist and men's fashion journalist. His mother, Irma, was an amateur singer and pianist who encouraged her son to study music. Moving with his family to Forest Hills, New York, Bacharach studied cello, drums and piano as a child. His first strong interest was in sports. However, by the time he reached high school his piano playing abilities began to make him popular at school functions and local dances. Beyond his classical training, Bacharach found inspiration by sneaking into Manhattan jazz clubs and absorbing the sounds of such bebop innovators as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. After high school, he studied music at McGill University in Montreal and at New York's Mannes School of Music. It was at the latter school that he came under the influence of composer Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his young student to develop his melodic talents.
During a stint in the armed services from 1950 through 1952, Bacharach was kept busy performing at army bases as part of a dance band. Back in civilian life, he became a New York nightclub pianist and arranger, working with such singers as Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence and the Ames Brothers. In 1953, he married vocalist Paula Stewart and began to find work in Las Vegas. His horizons broadened further when he signed on as actress/singer Marlene Dietrich's musical director in 1958. Bacharach began to become more serious about songwriting during this time. Exposure to the music of Brazilian bossa nova composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Dori Caymmi helped him develop his style further.
Bachrach's first hit recordings included Marty Robbins' "The Story of My Life" (1957) and Perry Como's "Magic Moments" (1958). Undoubtedly his oddest early tune was "The Blob" (1958), the novelty theme song from the horror film of the same title. His songwriting partnership with lyricist Hal David was beginning to solidify, paving the way for the exceptional songs that would come out of them a few years later. David and Bacharach worked together in New York's legendary Brill Building, a haven for hardworking songwriters. Increasingly, Bacharach was taking chances with his music. Some of his more unusual melodic and harmonic ideas met resistance from record companies. "All those so-called abnormalities seemed perfectly normal to me," he commented in the liner notes to The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a CD retrospective released by Rhino Records in 1998. "In the beginning, the A and R [Artist and Repertoire] 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." His unorthodox but appealing work began to reach a wider audience with such tunes as "Baby It's You" (recorded by the Shirelles and, later, by the Beatles) and "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" (a 1962 hit for Gene Pitney).
The elements that would define the Bacharach sound began to fall into place in the early 1960s. "Make It Easy On Yourself," released as a single by pop/rhythm and blues singer Jerry Butler in 1962, displayed the melodic grandeur and bittersweet lyric sentiments that would become the hallmarks of later hits. An even more significant release that same year was "Don't Make Me Over," the first Bachrach/ David song recorded by Dionne Warwick. Her delicate phrasing and ability to convey both strength and vulnerability made her the ideal interpreter of the duo's songs. Warwick was able to handle the intricacies of Bacharach's demanding music with ease. The result was a series of enduring hit singles, among them "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (1963), "Walk On By" (1964), "I Say A Little Prayer" (1967) and "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" (1968). Bacharach arranged and co-produced his hits with Warwick, surrounding her voice with elegant strings, muted trumpets, tastefully-used background singers and other touches that became his trademarks.
Numerous other artists in both America and Britain found success with Bacharach/David songs, including Jackie DeShannon ("What the World Needs Now is Love"), Dusty Springfield ("Wishin' and Hopin"'), Herb Alpert ("This Guy's in Love With You"), and Sandie Shaw ("(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me"). Such films as What's New, Pussycat? Alfie, and Casino Royale featured the duo's material on their soundtracks. Bacharach and David made yet another leap when they wrote the score for the 1969 stage musical Promises, Promises, which enjoyed a long Broadway run and earned both a Tony and a Grammy Award.
In an era when songwriter/performers became the norm, Bacharach remained largely behind the scenes. His limited singing abilities were not seen as the best vehicles for his music. That being said, he did release a series of albums on his own, among them 1965's Hit Maker and 1967's Reach Out. These and subsequent efforts emphasized his arranging abilities as much or more than his vocal talents. The 1970s began on a high note for Bacharach when his score for the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won an Academy Award, with the Bacharach/David song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" chosen as best theme song as well. The success of "One Less Bell to Answer" by the 5th Dimension" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You" by the Carpenters (both 1970) continued the songwriting team's winning streak into the new decade.
Collaboration with David Ended
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Bacharach and David began to sour after their music for the 1973 film Lost Horizon proved to be a critical and commercial failure. The songwriters sued each other over a publishing dispute and their years of collaboration ended. Bacharach's career went into decline and he was largely absent from the record charts for the remainder of the 1970s. He remained a familiar enough figure to appear in television advertisements for Martini and Rossi vermouth with his then wife, actress Angie Dickinson.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that Bacharach began to emerge from his career doldrums. A working relationship with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager led to the pair's marriage in 1982. Among the Bacharach/Sager songs of note from this period was "Arthur's Theme (The Best that You Can Do)," recorded by Christopher Cross for the 1981 film Arthur. Another tune of theirs, "That's What Friends Are For," was released as an AIDS research benefit recording in 1986 and featured vocals by Dionne Warwick and Elton John, among others. The song became a hit and led to further recordings with Warwick in the early 1990s.
Revival in 1990s
Remarkably, a Bacharach revival began in the mid-1990s, when a younger generation discovered the so-called "easy listening" music of the 1960s. Such notable young rock acts as Oasis and Stereolab began to perform Bacharach songs, reworking his classic melodies in a modern context. The composer was the subject of a British television documentary and his recordings were reissued in several CD anthologies. British singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, a long-time fan, collaborated with Bacharach on a song for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, which led to an album's worth of songs together, Painted From Memory two years later. Bacharach and Costello went on a concert tour in 1998 as well. Enjoying his renewed celebrity, Bacharach shared the stage with Oasis at a 1996 London concert and made a cameo appearance in the 1997 film comedy Austin Powers.
Bacharach continued to remain active into the new century, performing occasional shows with symphony orchestras and working on stage musicals. In May 2001, he accepted the Royal Academy of Music award, presented by King Carl Gustav XVI in Stockholm. Such recognition confirmed Bacharach's stature as one of popular music's most distinctive and enduring songwriting talents.
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