Burt Bacharach Re-Examined, 1995

by Skip Heller

Prerant: This piece originally ran in October 1995.  I shopped the idea in February successfully to Marc Weidenbaum, then editor of Pulse magazine.  Although he thought the concept was screwy, his notion changed when I told him how I wanted to write the piece -- devoid of the kind of camp crap that would later grab so much press ink.

At this point in the mid-nineties, Bacharach’s music was not being treated as seriously as it has more recently, especially since his teaming up with Elvis Costello.  In fact, at the time of the interview I conducted with Burt, the two has just started collaborating on the song “God Give Me Strength” for the film Grace Of My Heart.

Weidenbaum was not the first editor I tried to convince as to the need for a re-examination of Burt Bacharach’s music.  That honor was first offered to Lee Mergner of Jazz Times.  I had known Lee years back in Philly, and he was always one of the more open-minded guys I’d see at the local jazz clubs, usually checking out the local fusion band Reverie.

I told Lee about my idea, and he dismissed Burt’s music as “cheese” and “camp”.

Within a couple of years after the publication of this article, Burt Bacharach was suddenly the darling of the more forward-minded jazz guys.  Of course, this article had less to do with that than did John Zorn’s multi-artist two-disc set Burt Bacharach: Great Jewish Music, which saw guys like Dave Douglas and Joey Baron (among many others) each tackling a Bacharach composition.

Suddenly, the jazz press got serious about Burt.  But this article -- which was practically paraphrased word-for-word in another article about Burt in the English NME -- was, according to Burt’s publicist Linda Dozoritz, the first shot fired in the war to restore Burt’s name to the lexicon of art.  Kindly recall that, in 1995, the name “Burt Bacharach” was as synonymous with elevators as was the name “Otis”.

Incidentally, the interview with Burt was conducted by phone.  I was so nervous about speaking with him that, in the days leading up to the interview, I didn’t listen to any of his records.  This trick worked.  When I had to call Burt at his hotel, I was calm.  Until the hotel operator put me on hold while they rang Burt’s room, and the music I heard on their hold system was “Walk On By.”

Burt is a very nice guy, but he’s been interviewed so often and usually about the same topics every time, and he has pat answers at the ready.  I made an end run around this by asking a lot of questions about his studies with the celebrated modern composers Darius Milhaud and Henry Cowell, and about records he made that weren’t hits.  Disarmed, and engaged past the usual questions about the usual topics, he revealed more of his musical self than I had read elsewhere.  He was especially animated when talking about going to hear be-bop on 52nd Street.  It was both his youth and the most glorious time (and place) of that music.

The Rhino compilation -- a four-disc box set called The Look Of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection -- eventually did come out, in 1998.  Fourteen of the fifteen tracks I recommended were included, and I got a little “Project Assistance” credit.  (The one they left off was “Juanita’s Place”, if you care.)

Bill Frisell recorded a disc of the Bacharach/Costello material, and Jazz Times started looking a little more reverentially at Burt Bacharach.

Uri Caine told me it’s a shame I couldn’t get paid for being ahead of the grading curve.


He's Brian Wilson's favorite songwriter.  Frank Zappa praised him for the sophistication he brought to Top 40 in the '60s.  NRBQ's Tom Ardolino worships him.  And John Zorn insulted a prominent jazz critic (a good thing) who took issue with Zorn's covering one of his hits.   Burt Bacharach subverted the conventions of an entire generation of pop music songwriters.  At a time when the three or four chord pop tune was the rule of thumb ("One Fine Day," "Chapel of Love") Bacharach was employing more sophisticated chord progressions, usually associated with jazz.  To compound matters, his melodies were often asymmetrical and simply would not fit into conventional 4/4 rhythms.  It's normal to hear a Bacharach song that moves through a variety of non fouresque times signatures: 5/4, 7/8, 3/4. Which sounds like a formula for commercial suicide, yet Bacharach  -- with his partner, lyricist Hal David -- ruled the pop charts through the 60s.

Bacharach's technical sophistication is in itself a wonder.  That he could exercise it with such unswaying and versatile musicality is a minor miracle.  Bill Evans recorded "Alfie" a half-dozen times.  Naked Eyes' cover of "Always Something There to Remind Me" -- originally a hit for 60s go go icon Sandie Shaw -- has become an 80s classic.  And for power pop cultists, there's Elvis Costello's impassioned reading of “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," on Stiffs Live.

This is not the resume of a typical songwriter.  As a workaday songsmith in New York's Brill Building circle, Bacharach somehow stood apart from the other writers penning classics there, like teams Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich.  In 1960, Phil Spector set up shop on upper Broadway to take advantage of the concentration of songwriting talent there.  “Spanish Harlem," “He's a Rebel”, and “Up on the Roof” were among the Brill output.  It was the era of Spector's little symphonies for the kids.

Hal David came from a decidedly more adult viewpoint than other Brill Building lyricists; his spare, unsentimental lyrics might have sounded more appropriate coming from George Jones than Lesley Gore.  And, of course, he was partnered with Bacharach, who -- as a Manhattan teen in the 40s -- was exposed to be-bop: “I would go to the clubs on 52nd Street with my phony I.D. and just listen," he says.

Bacharach's dose of bop helps explain the complex harmonies that mark his style.  Rhythmically, however, his compositions move far past the 4/4 swing of jazz.  Bacharach had studied composition under Darius Milhaud, whose music stressed polyrhythms and unusual asymmetrical  phrases.  Another of Milhaud's students was Dave Brubeck, who recalls his own tutelage under the great French composer:  "[Milhaud] didn't impose his style on his students," he says.  "He never imposed polytonality or polyrhythms, which is what he was most noted for.  But you picked it up being around him and hearing his compositions.”

"I can’t really tell if I got that from [Milhaud]," says Bacharach.  "The important thing I learned from him was not being concerned about letting melody shine through.

“Once, in his class, I wrote this piece, and, you know, we were writing dissonant modern music in that class.  And I wrote this piece with a very beautiful middle section that wasn’t dissonant at all.  And I was kind of embarrassed about it.

“He told me, ‘Don't ever be worried about something that people can remember.  Whistle.  Sing.' "

Predictably, Bacharach's "irregularities" were met with resistance, which led him to take a stronger stand in the presentation of his songs.  "I became a producer and arranger out of self-defense," he explains.  "I'd write a song, and the record company would come to my publisher and say, `We like it, but Burt's gotta change this three bar phrase to four bars.   If he changes it, we'll give him so-and-so to record it.'  And we wanted the record, so we'd compromise.  But they came out terrible."

In 1962 Bacharach and David found Dionne Warwick singing backgrounds on a Drifters session.  Later that year they cut "Don't Make Me Over," a sophisticated plea for take-me-as-I-am acceptance, for Scepter Records.  The single was a hit, and Warwick was put on a multiartist rhythm-and-blues package tour which included the Impressions.

"It was a fantastic hit in the North," recalls Curtis Mayfield. "She was put on the tour when we were touring the South.  Hers was a very light-type style compared to what [the southern audience was] gettin’ down with.  And it hurt me so.  She came out to do ‘Don't Make Me Over’ and they would just not accept the music.  They wanted to hear [Hank Ballard’s hit] ‘There’s a Thrill Up on the Hill.’  I remember Dionne crying and everybody letting her know, "Hey, don't worry about it.  You're gonna reach the sky.'  And of course she did.  She continued into her own longevity.  But the music was so different for those times and those areas."

Instead of toning it down in an effort to stay on the charts, Bacharach used Warwick as a vehicle to push pop music's envelope.   "She has a perfect voice, and the more we wrote, the more chances I found out I could take."

The result was songs like “Anyone Who Had a Heart" and “I Say A Little Prayer," which took all kinds of liberties with rhythm and harmony.  Time signatures shifted, bitonal harmony underpinned hooky pop melodies, and Warwick lodged about two-dozen singles in the Top 40.  Many aspiring players cut their teeth on these intricate songs, as they were staples of the Top 40 cover band repertoire in the 60s.  Among these musicians was avant drum god Joey Baron, then playing in soul bands in and around Norfolk, VA.

"I learned those songs according to how the phrases breathe," says Baron. "It wasn't like an intellectual exercise.  It was odd compared to the normal symmetrical eight bar form, but it never got in the way.  That's really genius.  And his melodies....  Anybody who can sing ‘Alfie’ as written is a bonafide motherfucker."

By 1965 Bacharach was truly at the top.  With Hal David, he wrote (arguably) the first rock opera -- a TV special starring Rick Nelson, On The Flip Side.  The plot was simple:  A teen idol must wise up on his way down.  It must have cut close to the bone for Nelson, who by then hadn't had a hit in a good long while.  Bacharach doesn't recall much about the show now, except to say, "I don't think it was very good."

He was also starting to write music for films (he'd penned a song for 1958's The Blob), resulting in such non-Warwick hits as "What's New, Pussycat?," My Little Red Book," "Casino Royale," "The Look of Love" and "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." There were also singles with other artists which met with varying degrees of success.  (Rhino is said to be preparing an anthology of these for release next year.)

There were also two Bacharach LPs on Kapp and one amazing single on Liberty, "Juanita's Place."  In 1967 he signed with A&M and made Reach Out.  The tracks were mostly new versions of his own hits, but he drastically recast the melodies, often changing the character of the material at hand.

"It was intentional," he confirms.  "I would only sing part of a song.  I was afraid to do more.  Then the girls would sing the rest.  Or I wouldn't have a whole instrumental.  If there were key lines I'd use vocal dramatically.  Or maybe an English horn, which I'd try to use as judiciously as possible.  Then maybe two flugelhorns.  There's only so much expression you're going to get out of a lead instrument, so I would try and keep it interesting."

Bacharach's singular orchestral sense makes Reach Out (and the followup Make It Easy On Yourself) something of a neglected link between the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Randy Newman's 1972 Sail Away.  It's the bridge between the "teenage symphonies to God" which Brian Wilson created and the more adult composer-as-auteur ethic that set Newman apart from his Southern California contemporaries.

The Bacharach/David team would continue into the early 70s.  It was contracted to write the music for Lost Horizon, the epic 1972 feature film whose failure went unsurpassed until the 1986 release of Howard the Duck.  Bacharach and David split up, and Dionne Warwick signed with Warner Bros. and was soon working with Thom Bell and other producers.

Bacharach would make a total of five albums for A&M in the '70s, compose more film music (most famously for Arthur), write more hits (including “That’s What Friends Are For”), release a live import-only LP, and collaborate with Carole Bayer Sager, to whom he was married.

But it's a cinch that he will be remembered mainly for is '60s output, which fortunately has been well anthologized.  A&M released the Classics collection a while back, and recently reissued Reach Out.  Also there's Rhino's indispensable The Dionne Warwick Collection--Her All Time Greatest Hits, as well as the companion Hidden Gems disc, which (mostly) lives up to its title.

Burt Bacharach's career is one of pop's most impressive.  And for all of the compositional richness (and dare-devilry) therein, it's easy to lose sight of the basic component of his real contribution to American music.

"I'm not qualified to discuss the technical aspects," says one fan, roots-rock poet laureate Dave Alvin, "but ‘Walk On By’ and all that stuff with Dionne Warwick -- that's just great songwriting."

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