Monday, February 13, 2023

Burt Bacharach (1928-2023)

Photo: Getty Images
Composer and arranger Burt Bacharach passed away last Wednesday at the age of 94.  Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Bacharach was entranced by the sounds of jazz in his hometown (County Basie!) despite the fact his mother made him study classical music. He did his undergraduate work (in music) at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, then went to the Mannes School of Music in New York City, and the Music Academy of the West in California. After a stint in the US Armed Forces, Bacharach worked as a pianist and arranger with singers such as Vic Damone, Polly Bergen, Steve Lawrence, and even several stints playing the Catskills in New York State. In 1956, Bacharach began working with actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, touring Europe and the Middle East on numerous occasions. Their musical relationship lasted into the the early years of the next decade.

At the same time, the pianist was also working as a songwriter in the mid-century "Tin Pan Alley" that was the famous Brill Building.  There, he collaborated with lyricists Bob Hilliard ("Any Day Now", "Tower of Strength") and Mack David ("Baby, It's You") but when he teamed up with David's younger brother Hal in 1963, they created a body over the next decade with artists such as Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Lou Johnson, the Fifth Dimension, the Carpenters, Tom Jones, Herb Alpert, and, of course, Dionne Warwick. Their work with Ms. Warwick, a brilliant vocalist with a wonderful range, has stood the test of time.  Their musical relationship slowed to a halt by 1973 – all three went on to do impressive work yet never hit the heights of the mid-to-late 60s.

My introduction to the music of Burt Bacharach started in the early 1960s as I would use my allowance to scour the bargain bins of 45 rpm "singles" at the local Woolworth's 5 & Dime store. Prices ranged from 10 to 25 cents and I would try my chances.  I had already heard Gene McDaniel's "Tower of Strength" (listen below) and had bought a few records on the Wand label, seeing Bacharach's name on some as composer and arranger.  Whether the songs were hits or not, the music was always interesting. Bacharach had an affinity for Black vocalists, working with Tommy Hunt, Lou Johnson, and Brook Benton. Looking back and listening to this music, it sounds so "grown-up" for its time, not really (in many cases) rhythm 'n' blues or rock or even "pop" but incredibly well-crafted works of art sung by singers who had previously been "pigeon-holed" by producers into settings that did not show the range of their voices or emotions. Yes, some of Burt Bacharach pieces could be saccharine (luscious swelling strings, dramatic pauses) but the best of them transcended any genre.  

Burt Bacharach would go on to write scores for films and writing hit songs with his third wife, Carole Bayer Sager, but when he teamed up with Elvis Costello in 1998 to create "Painted From Memory", their work together stands alongside the composer's best work.  He never stopped writing and collaborating, even was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2020 for his work with lyricist and instrumentalist Daniel Tashian (pictured above).  

Yes, some of the songs can be sappy ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head") or sexist ("Wives and Lovers" being the worst offender) but never offensive.  His best work stands the test of the time and had been interpreted by singers all around the world.  

Listen to these Bacharach classics:

"Trains and Boats and Planes":

and, of course, Ms. Warwick:

And two from Elvis Costello and Mr. Bacharach:

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