Obituary: Burt Bacharach
Bacharach’s death marks demise of introspective, melodic pop music
Burt Bacharach, whom this writer once met, died at his Los Angeles home. The artist was 94 years old. Bacharach’s death marks the demise of thoughtful, story-driven popular music—trimmed with optimism—which was once part of American culture. His distinctly melodic music, with lyrics by his primary artistic partner, the late Hal David, was at once gentle, haunting and insistent, shuttling between melancholy and cheerful bop. By the late 20th century, his signature pop music had been reduced to mockery by comedian Mike Myers, who credits the sultry Bacharach/David ballad “The Look of Love” for inspiring the popular Austin Powers parodies. Demand for bitter-tinged, introspective pop romanticism faded, generally giving way to demand for mid-tempo percussive pop, often spewing vulgarity in spoken words.
Mr. Bacharach’s tunes run like a whisper of yearning songs through turmoil, from the first Bacharach/David hit for Perry Como to songs by the Carpenters, Tom Jones, Christopher Cross, Herb Alpert, The 5th Dimension and, most indelibly, Dionne Warwick, whom he and David discovered during a New England recording session with the Drifters. Bacharach won Oscars and Grammys, composing music for “Walk on By,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “What’s New Pussycat?” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” He worked in a variety of art forms with Neil Simon, Peter Allen and Marlene Dietrich.
Burt Bacharach told the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg in 2017 that a pre-Broadway theatrical run of Promises, Promises put him in the hospital with pneumonia. During that time, he said that the show’s producer, David Merrick, pressured him to write a new song. Within days of being released from the hospital, Bacharach wrote “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”.
Born in 1928 on the 12th of May in Kansas City, Missouri, his father was a fashion magazine editor and columnist who moved his family to New York City. The family nickname for the boy Burt was “Happy.” Though he wanted to compete in football, his mother persuaded him to study playing piano. In New York, he was a poor student. Using fake government-issued identification, he went to jazz clubs, gaining admittance to performances by artists such as Count Basie.
In his memoir, Anyone Who Had a Heart, published 10 years ago, Burt Bacharach credits those jazz club shows for a radical change in his philosophy of music. Despite attending several schools, where he listened for months to Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and wrote his first song, he never stopped taking initiative to study and learn new music and technique. Bacharach’s favorite novel as a boy was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—he said he related to the sexually impotent Jake Barnes, regarding himself as “socially impotent”—and he’s preceded in death by his daughter with actress Angie Dickinson (Police Woman, Rio Bravo), Nikki Bacharach, who struggled with autism and committed suicide as an adult. He married for a fourth and final time to Jane Hansen, his wife of 30 years, and is survived by her and his children Oliver, Raleigh and Cristopher, his son with ex-wife songwriter Carole Bayer Sager.
Burt Bacharach’s career began in earnest with a radically androgynous movie star when he filled in for a friend who was touring with Marlene Dietrich for a musical show in Las Vegas. Dietrich retained Bacharach, with whom she traveled the world in the late Fifties and early Sixties. According to the Associated Press, (AP), the actress who’d fled Nazi Germany introduced young Jewish Bacharach to her audience during each performance: “I would like you to meet the man, he’s my arranger, he’s my accompanist, he’s my conductor, and I wish I could say he’s my composer. But that isn’t true. He’s everybody’s composer ... Burt Bacharach!”
Working with Hal David in a small office in Broadway’s Brill Building, the duo produced “Magic Moments” in 1958 for crooner Perry Como, and, in 1962, noticed a backup singer for the Drifters whom Bacharach later said had a “kind of grace and elegance.” The college music major’s name was Dionne Warwick. The pair asked her to record their song “Don’t Make Me Over,” and the three collaborated for over a decade. When asked about Bacharach by a reporter in 1965, the Beatles’ Paul McCartney said Bacharach’s “songs are a lot more musical than the stuff we write — and a lot more technical.”
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy recalled this week that:
In the ‘60s, [Burt Bacharach] and his writing partner Hal David wrote hit after hit, capturing the spirit of the times. Songs like ‘What the World Needs Now is Love,’ ‘Walk on By’ and my favorite ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart.’ Their music was sophisticated and innovative with unique feelings, timing and rhythms.”
This writer met Burt Bacharach during a screening of a father-son movie about a boy with autism, Po; it was Bacharach’s first movie score in 16 years. I remember him as an artist at the piano who was clearly saddened by having lost a child to suicide and, as he prepared to perform, appeared to drift into an inner world of his own making. (You can read my thoughts on the evening and film review at the link below.)
Another songwriter whom I’ve had the privilege to meet, William Patrick (“Billy”) Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, upon learning of Burt Bacharach’s death, describes the composer on Twitter as “[a] titan of beautiful and effortless song.”
This is the essence of Burt Bacharach who, like dancer Fred Astaire, expended tremendous effort to create musically-driven art which touches and elevates the soul while making the work seem simple, straight and serious yet lighter than air. “It began with the melodies — strong yet interspersed with changing rhythms and surprising harmonics,” the AP rightly observed in its obituary, adding that Mr. Bacharach “credited much of his style to his love of bebop and to his classical education, especially under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud, the famed composer.”
Reporting that he once played a piece intended to be played on piano, violin and oboe for Mr. Milhaud, the AP noted that Burt Bacharach was apparently ashamed of the song’s melody because 12-point atonal music dominated popular music of the time. Darius Milhaud reportedly enjoyed Burt Bacharach’s music, however, and advised the young man: “Never be afraid of the melody.”
To his eternal credit, against the nation’s and culture’s downward spiral, Burt Bacharach remained fearless and courageous in making melody for the rest of his life.
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