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Remembering Burt Bacharach: A songwriter for the ages

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Burt Bacharach is a renowned songwriter (image by David McKelvey via Flickr)

Burt Bacharach, one of the most brilliant and successful songwriters, composers and music producers that the world has ever known, passed away at the age of 94.

In a career spanning more than half a century, Bacharach received six Grammys, three Oscars, a Golden Globe and an Emmy. He composed hundreds of pop songs from the 1950s onwards that have been performed by an astonishing array of artists, estimated to be around 1,000. At the time of his death, Bacharach had written 73 US and 52 UK Top 40 hits.

He was born Burt Freeman Bacharach on 12 May, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri, to Jewish parents who did not actively practise their religion. He had an eclectic musical education which included classical piano training under French composer Darius Milhaud.

However, Bacharach soon became bored with classical music and started sneaking into jazz bars on New York’s 52nd Street with a fake ID in the 1940s, becoming enamoured of bebop artists like Dizzy Gillespie.

Donald Fagen of the iconic group Steely Dan would later describe Bacharach’s music as “Ravel-like harmonies wedded to street soul”.

After being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, Bacharach was stationed in Germany and played piano at the officers’ club there. During this time, he struck up a friendship with popular singer Vic Damone and when he got out of the army, he worked as a pianist and conductor for Damone.

Damone said: 

“Burt was clearly bound to go out on his own. He was an exceptionally talented, classically trained pianist with very clear ideas on the musicality of songs, how they should be played and what they should sound like. I appreciated his musical gifts.”

In 1956, when he was 28, Bacharach was discovered by actress Marlene Dietrich, who hired him as her musical director. As a result, Bacharach’s reputation as a conductor and arranger started to become internationally known and he was in a great position to take his career to the next level.

Bacharach met lyricist Hal David at New York City’s Brill Building, a legendary hit factory, in 1957 and – in a brilliant career move – decided to join forces with him. Their legendary musical partnership spanned several decades and spawned hundreds of hit songs.

One of their most notable music collaborations was with Dionne Warwick, who charted in the 1960s and 1970s with songs like 'Don’t Make Me Over', 'Walk On By' and 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose?'

The universal and timeless appeal of Bacharach’s songs resulted in him hitting the charts with the same tracks over multiple decades. A good example of this is Bacharach’s 1962 hit 'I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself', which charted five times over four decades. The first time this happened was with Dusty Springfield, another singer with whom he worked frequently, in 1964. The same song was a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1966, Gary Puckett in 1970, Marcia Hines in 1976 and The White Stripes in 2003. 

Bacharach not only dominated the pop charts for several decades but he wrote iconic songs for the movies that won him multiple Oscars. In addition, he regularly appeared on television. His two televised musical extravaganzas 'An Evening With Burt Bacharach' and 'Another Evening With Burt Bacharach', both broadcast by NBC, earned Bacharach a Newsweek cover story in which he was described as 'The Music Man 1970'.

American film critic Rex Reed said of Bacharach:

“He swings. He jumps. He socks imaginary tennis balls from his conductor’s podium. He’s a hurricane that knows where it’s headed.”

Bacharach’s first Academy Award for Best Original Song was for 'Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head', which featured in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, performed by BJ Thomas. He also won an Oscar for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture for the same movie.

In 1981, Bacharach won his third Oscar for the deeply touching 'Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)', performed with great aplomb by Christopher Cross.

Bacharach continued to write and perform well into the 21st Century. In the 1980s, his collaboration with Carole Bayer Sawyer proved to be both professionally and personally satisfying. The pair married and had a string of hits that included 'Heartlight' by Neil Diamond, 'Making Love' by Roberta Flack and 'That’s What Friends Are For' by Dionne Warwick. 

When asked what it was like to be reunited with Bacharach, Warwick said:

“We realised we were more than friends. We were family. Time has a way of giving people the opportunity to grow and understand… working with Burt is not a bit different from how it used to be. He expects me to deliver and I can. He knows what I’m going to do before I do it, and the same with me. That’s how intertwined we’ve been.”

In later years, Bacharach won a lot of kudos from younger audiences for his work with the Austin Powers movie trilogy. Mike Myers, the creator of the highly successful series of spy spoofs, was impressed with songs that Bacharach penned for the real James Bond 007 and invited him to perform in the first movie 'Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery'. Bacharach famously performed 'What The World Needs Now' in Las Vegas on top of a double-decker bus.

Director Jay Roach told the LA Times that Bacharach’s appearance was sublime.

Said Roach:

"Elizabeth, Mike and I all went up and kissed Burt with tears in our eyes. That night, his song became the heart of our film. Burt’s love – which the world does need desperately – will live on through his music, as will our love for Burt.”

Bacharach went on to perform triumphant cameos in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember.

His death of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles prompted a flood of tributes.

Sheryl Crow said:

One of the greatest thrills and honours of my life was getting to know Burt Bacharach, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. There will never be anyone like him and as a songwriter, he set the bar. Burt, you will be missed but your music will live on. My love to his family.

Paul Stanley of Kiss wrote:

'Burt Bacharach: what a loss but what a treasure of amazing songs he left us.'

Alexis Petridis, a music writer with The Guardian, described Bacharach as 'an astonishing creator of impermeable classics and super smooth pop'.

Petridis wrote:

One school of thought has it that interest in Bacharach had been boosted by the 1990s interest in 1960s kitsch, of which the Austin Powers movies formed a part, but the truth was that the oeuvre of Bacharach and David never needed reviving.

 

Even in the years when Bacharach’s latest songs had failed to make the charts, you were never too far away from hearing something the pair had written in their imperial phase: either someone covering them or the radio was playing the vintage versions, or they were appearing on TV or film soundtracks. It’s a state of affairs that seems unlikely to change.

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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