In May 2012, Burt Bacharach and his lyricist partner Hal David were honoured by Barack Obama with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize. ‘The Gershwin Prize is named for one of the great American songwriting duos of all time. And it’s fitting that tonight’s award is being presented to another,’ the President said at a White House concert honouring their work.
He also noted that their songs still resonate today, and that ‘Burt is appearing on American Idol and Dancing With The Stars.’ Sadly, Hal David passed away some three months later, but the four-times married Bacharach, already the recipient of three Academy Awards and eight Grammys and a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, has gone on to publish his autobiography, Anyone Who Had A Heart: My Life And Music.
Born in 1928 in Kansas, his family moved to New York when he was only four years old. As a child he learned the cello and the drum before moving to the piano – an instrument he initially hated – at the age of 12. His dream was to become a footballer, but his relatively short height of 5 feet 8 inches precluded this.
He enjoyed bebop jazz as a teenager, and its unconventional harmonies and melodies were to become a major influence. At 15, Bacharach started a 10-piece high-school band with himself on piano. He first started to write songs while at McGill University in Montreal, and also studied music theory and composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York City and the New School for Social Research. Later he was awarded a scholarship to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.
During two years’ military service between 1950 and 1952 Bacharach continued to play piano at entertainment evenings. He met vocalist Vic Damone in Germany and, on discharge, worked in nightclubs and restaurants, accompanying Vic and other performers such as the Ames Brothers, Joel Grey, Georgia Gibbs, Steve Lawrence and a young singer named Paula Stewart. She and Bacharach married in 1953, but this would last only five years.
In 1957, Bacharach met Hal David, an in-house lyricist for the Famous Paramount Music Company in New York’s legendary Brill Building. He worked with a comprehensive spectrum of singing stars from the easy-listening genre including Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis, as well as being Marlene Dietrich’s musical director.
Feeling restricted by the requirements of Paramount, Bacharach moved to Atlantic to join the Leiber and Stoller team. This gave him the opportunity to work more closely with performers to craft the perfect song. A brief writing partnership with Bob Hilliard yielded three big 1961 hits: ‘Please Stay’ by the Drifters reached Number 14 in the Billboard chart, while ‘Tower of Strength’ by Gene McDaniel made Number 5 and ‘Baby It’s You’ by the Shirelles Number 8. ‘Tower Of Strength’ was previously recorded by Gloria Lynne, and her version is also included here.
Leiber and Stoller were working on reviving the career of the Drifters, and Bacharach/Hilliard wrote other tracks for them such as ‘Mexican Divorce’, which starts our third disc. Dionne Warwick was a backing singer for the group, and Burt would work with her for many years thereafter. She recorded our opening number, ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ in 1961, and this made Number 21 the following year.
Greater success was to come. Back writing with Hal David, Burt helped Gene Pitney achieve the 1962 Number 4 hit ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ inspired by the John Wayne/James Stewart movie.
Not all the songs on these CDs were hits for the artists who sing them. But many of them are major stars – like Helen Shapiro, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, Dick Van Dyke and Nat ‘King’ Cole – performing Bacharach numbers that would go on to be household favourites. Cole’s 1952 recording of Bacharach’s ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ ends our first CD.
It’s amazing that, with such a strong writing commitment, Bacharach managed to find time to record. We close this compilation with Burt’s own 1958 performance of ‘Searching Wind’ – oddly, not a number he wrote himself.
Bacharach brought his classical training to the world of light pop music, and his songs are characterised by unusual chord progressions, syncopated rhythms, irregular phrasing and frequent modulation between keys. His melodies are strong, catchy and many have become instantly recognisable to listeners worldwide.
Bacharach went on to co-write hit songs for many more artists, including Tom Jones, Manfred Mann, Herb Alpert and Dusty Springfield, as well as having his earlier numbers covered with greater success by performers such as the Carpenters and the Walker Brothers. He continued to work with Hal David, co-writing well over 100 songs, and also moved into film scores.
At the time of writing, Burt Bacharach, now in his mid eighties, can look back on a career that boasts over 70 US Top 10 and over 50 UK Top 10 hits – successes that came far more frequently than blue moons.