Burt Bacharach – What the World Needs Now…
by Ken Sharp
Originally posted on July 24, 2006.
“Burt Bacharach’s musical contribution was very beautiful, wonderful, warm music that everybody liked and admired,” raves Brian Wilson. “His uniqueness lay in his chord patterns. The chords in ‘Walk On By,’ ‘Here I Am’ and ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’ are really great.”
Championed as one of the 20th century’s most seminal and inventive composers, Burt Bacharach, with partner Hal David, created some of the most sophisticated, complex and beautifully crafted pop songs ever written. The list of Bacharach/David evergreens is truly mind-blowing. “Walk On By”… “I Say A Little Prayer”… “The Look Of Love”… “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”… “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?”… “A House Is Not A Home.” It’s enough to send any aspiring songwriter back into a cave for another fifty years.
Whether it’s his landmark recordings with Dionne Warwick, seminal work on such films as Alfie, Casino Royale, What’s New Pussycat?, and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid or his recent acclaimed collaboration with Elvis Costello on the Painted From Memory album and high profile appearances in the Austin Powers films, Bacharach continues to enthrall generation after generation of listeners. He does it with his urbane cool, elegant musicality and those haunting, unforgettable melodies.
And at age 77, Burt Bacharach is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s just released a provocative new solo album, At This Time, which is a striking departure from his previous work, earmarked by a gritty political slant, drum loops courtesy of Dr. Dre and guest appearances from Costello, Rufus Wainwright, and Printz Board of the Black Eyed Peas.
What made you decide to become a songwriter?
I don’t think it was in my blood to become a songwriter. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I always had an ambivalence about my music, whether I wanted to pursue or it didn’t want to. I kinda just drifted along. My mother made me take piano lessons, which I never wanted to do. I hated it. So what I did was went along with her wishes and practiced the piano and I didn’t really have a lot of ambition in life. I didn’t know where I was gonna go, whether I was gonna wind up in the clothing business because that’s where my father had connections. You might say I floated and let things happen to me. I did get my first job playing piano for Vic Damone. I played piano in bars before that. I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t great. I wasn’t writing songs then when I was with Vic Damone.
What inspired you to start writing songs?
I didn’t last very long with Vic Damone, maybe three or four weeks of actual dates. Maybe I wasn’t good enough or experienced enough because I was trying to conduct and play. But he went through a lot of people so I can’t have any regrets about it. What happened was the next job I had was with The Ames Brothers. They were these good guys, these four brothers from Boston and they had some hit records. They had a big hit with “You, You, You.” They sang pretty simple songs and when I was out on the road with them I heard all of these demos that would come in and they would all sound real simple like “You, You, You” and I thought this could be very easy. I could write five of these a day. I quit my job with The Ames Brothers and went to New York to start writing. I had some connections and I started writing with some people and met some other people. I worked in the music factory, the Brill Building five days a week with different lyric writers. It wasn’t easy. The dream of thinking you can write five a day or even five a week wasn’t gonna happen. I was trying to write real simple and familiar songs. I went a long time, maybe a year and a half without getting a song recorded. The first cut I got was a Patti Page record somewhere around the year and two month mark. It was a song called “Keep Me In Mind,” which was a pretty ordinary song.
When do you think you found your voice as a writer?
Well, I think I was writing some fairly good songs as I got into it. I always tended to be comfortable with R&B. After I had my first hit, which was “Magic Moments” with Perry Como, and the same time a song called “The Story Of My Life” by Marty Robbins. That was a great feeling because we’d broken the ice. But after that I think I wrote some fairly good songs, made demos and put it in the hands of some A&R people. You had to go through somebody else producing the record. I very rarely liked the way my songs got done. I did like a couple of hits I had with The Drifters produced by Leiber and Stoller because they were really good. They knew what they were doing. I had “Mexican Divorce” and “Please Stay” with them. But my voice really as a writer came when I was suddenly able to make my own records with someone like Jerry Butler on “Make It Easy On Yourself.” Calvin Carter said, “You go write the orchestration yourself and conduct the band and get it the way you want it.” It was a hit and once I found someone who let me in the studio to take my song and do it there was big difference. Did I ever really want to be a producer? No, it was really out of self defense. It wasn’t about the money I’d make as a producer or how big a cut I’d get. It was just to protect the song, protect the material. And then I worked a lot with the Scepter label with The Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Tommy Hunt and of course, Dionne (Warwick). Once we had Dionne Warwick we had our voice. And the more I saw that Dionne could do musically with the material and how wide her range was and what she was capable of the more chances and the more experimental and the more risks I could take.
Your songs stood out from everything else on the radio in the Sixties. Were you aware that you were forging new ground?
I knew I was doing things different but at the same time I was doing things that very natural for me. I wasn’t trying to break any rules. But I wrote the way I heard things. When I step away from a piece of material I never wanted to make it too much of an effort for the listener, for an audience, make it too difficult for them to clock. I wanted to make it as successful as possible. You take a song like “Promises, Promises”, it’s a very hard song to sing but with Dionne it was effortless. But if you’re in a Broadway show and you sing that every night it’s hard. But the intent there is to make it work for the show and express the anger that the lead feels in making a statement like “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises.”
Do you write with visuals in mind?
I tried to hear the voice I was writing for. That was important. What Dionne would sound like or what Chuck Jackson would sound like on “Any Day Now.” If you knew what the voice was like you could tailor make the material. But for me, the song would always go hand in hand with what was around the song, the orchestration. It kind of came together. I’m much happier when I orchestrate myself, make the record myself , nobody changes chords on me. If the record doesn’t work and I missed then I missed. I can blame myself, not the arranger and not an A&R guy.
As a pianist, your choice of chords, inversion is very sophisticated. What shaped your approach as a player, your music theory and composition education?
You take it from everywhere. You take the exposure to music. If I’m ever asked about what advice I can give to young students or young aspiring composer it’s learn the rules. Learn how to write music down. Get a wide range harmonically of where you can go instead of a three, four, five chord range.
Expand your palette?
I was exposed to a lot of music starting with Darius Milhaud. I was exposed to John Cage but I didn’t study with him. Henry Cowell was a big one. It’s what you take in, what you feel, what you hear. You know if you listen to twelve-tone music, if you listen to the music of jazz, which appealed to me. Be-bop, Dizzy Gillespie, Theolonious Monk, Charlie Parker. You gotta be like a sponge.