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Burt Bacharach: Elvis Wishes

I find myself inexplicably in the company of Elvis Costello cultists – you know who you are. Now please don’t get me wrong (a nice Pretenders song, by the way), Elvis is a major talent in every category, belongs absolutely in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and will be long and well remembered. BUT …

As I have shouted myself hoarse into the gaping void, he isn’t a transcendent popular songwriter in the classic mode: the farther he drifts from his new wavy pop-rock foundations, the less appealing and important he is. His art does not transcend rock – he is not part of the grand tradition of popular song. (I must break now as I duck beneath the desk to avoid the produce and slings and arrows). HE IS NOT BURT BACHARACH, not close.

Champion of an elegant but inviting pop sophistication, Burt Bacharach (winner of three Academy Awards and four Grammys) is among the best and most popular songwriters of this half-century. Ira Gershwin once signed a piece of sheet music to him: “For Burt, the 5th ‘B in no particular order – Beethoven, Brahms, Berlin, Bach and Bacharach.”

His outstanding productions of his own hit compositions for Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Neil Diamond, Roberta Flack, Patti Labelle, and others – coupled with his track record as a recording artist, with five charting solo albums, including his 1971 eponymous album, Bacharach an especially important and enduring figure.

Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City in 1928. His father, a former professional football player, was a syndicated columnist whose work brought the family to Forest Hills, New York, when Burt was a child. A somewhat reluctant musical youth, Burt practiced piano, drums and cello when he would rather have been playing football or chatting up girls.

“I didn’t much like my lessons or what I was playing, but then I heard Ravel and I felt an excitement,” he says. “I was also influenced when I was a kid by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker. I studied classical music with people like Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud [at the New School for Social Research, the David Mannes School in New York, Berkshire Music Center, Montreal's McGill University, and at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Ca.]. I was influenced by a lot of Brazilian music. I guess that’s why I don’t much go for vanilla major chords. I much prefer a major or a minor 7th to a straight C.”

The young hipster played piano in jazz bands while in high school in the ’40s, and in the Army from 1950 to ’52. After the service, he played and arranged for Vic Damone, the Ames Brothers, Steve Lawrence, Paula Stewart (the first of his four wives – followed by actress Angie Dickinson, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, and current wife Jane) and Marlene Dietrich, who doted on him. Bacharach’s first big success as a writer was Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life,” in 1957, which was co-written by Bacharach’s best-known collaborator, Hal David. The team followed in 1958 with Perry Como’s “Magic Moments.”

Arranging was next. “My first record as an arranger was Jerry Butler’s ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ (1962). I wasn’t the producer, Calvin Carter was, but they let me go in the studio with a big string section, and voices, and Jerry to make this record, and that started it. The most important thing was that I got the essence of what I heard when I was writing the song. When I write songs, I hear a pretty good outline of where the strings come in, where lines come, what the bass line is, what the percussion parts are, what the flow is. I hear it as a whole thing.

“I started producing the records out of self-defense, to protect the material. I just thought that my songs were getting changed from the way I heard them when I was writing them. There was a really good song that had a three-bar phrase, instead of the standard four bar phrase, and the A&R man convinced me that it would be better with a four-bar phrase, making the song out of proportion and ruining it. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

In ’62 Bacharach wrote songs for the Drifters (“Mexican Divorce”), and at a Drifters session he met a young backup singer (“in pigtails and sneakers”) named Dionne Warwick, who on the strength of Bacharach/David compositions and productions was to rival Aretha Franklin as the most important female singer of the ’60s. The trio produced twenty Top 40 singles between 1962 and 1970, including seven Top 10′s: “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk On By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “This Girl’s In Love With You” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

“If I had to pick a favorite singer, it would be Dionne,” states Bacharach. “She was a dream vehicle for those years. She has such wide emotional range. She can be very understated and delicate, plus she is capable of going for the jugular. A marvelous voice. The only song I can think of where someone else approached Dionne’s version is Aretha’s ‘Say a Little Prayer.’ That’s a great, great record.”

Bacharach and Warwick waited until 1985 for their first No. 1 together, “That’s What Friends Are For.”

Remarkably, Bacharach has been even more successful in the U.K.. Frankie Vaughan, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, the Walker Brothers, Herb Alpert and Burt himself all hit No. 1 there in the ’60s with Bacharach/David tunes.

True “Kings of All Media,” Bacharach and David also wrote the film scores for What’s New Pussycat?, Alfie, Casino Royale and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Theme Song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (B.J. Thomas) in 1969.

They also wrote the musical Promises, Promises which won a Tony and a Grammy Award (Best Score for an Original Cast album) in 1969 and ran for three years.

Bacharach has enjoyed a renaissance of late: in 1994 his picture appeared in homage on the cover of Oasis’ huge Definitely Maybe album. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher joined Bacharach onstage during a concert in 1996 for a duet on the enduring and endearing “This Guy’s in Love With You.” In 1996 Bacharach collaborated with Elvis Costello [ah, not HIM] on the soundtrack for the movie Grace of My Heart. The 1997 Julia Roberts film My Best Friend’s Wedding featured five Bacharach songs, including the film’s centerpiece where an entire wedding party, and fellow diners, belt out the classic “I Say a Little Prayer.” Ever-suave Burt himself appears tinkling the ivories and crooning atop a Las Vegas limo in Mike Myers’ 1997 spy-spoof Austin Powers.

About Eric Olsen

  • Al Barger

    Eric, you will be allowed to live despite your comments comparing Elvis unfavorably to Bacharach. Consider this a measure of my extreme generosity.

    I will graciously choose to take your comments as high praise of BB rather than as a death-penalty-invoking knock on Elvis.

    You may perhaps have a reasonable narrow point. Maybe Bacharach would be reasonably considered more accomplished than Elvis as a writer of Tin Pan Alley style songs- thus comparing Bacharach’s whole career to maybe 10-15% of the Elvis catalogue.

    Even there, however, note that Elvis was not just the singer but co-author of perhaps Bacharach’s greatest song, “God Give Me Strength” as well as the whole excellent album it was on.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thank you for the special dispensation.

  • TDavid

    Elvis wasn’t on American Idol, yet Burt had his music profiled on season two. For me to call him a great songwriter is almost an understatement.

  • Eric Olsen

    Yes, we saw what Ira Gershwin, who knew a songwriter or two in his day, had to say about him. He has also always been hip in a knows-his-place-in-history sense.

  • Mark Saleski

    i’d have to give bacharach the nod just for being more influential in the long run.

    on the other hand, i do have to put costello right up there in my top ten favorite pop songwriters. right alongside joe jackson (hey eric, ever give Blaze Of Glory a listen?)

  • Eric Olsen

    M, still have Blaze of Glory at the top of my list. I don’t get to actually go and pick things out very often, but I am planning a trip soon.

    My point isn’t to put Elvis down, but to give some perspective: he is a great rocker but hasn’t had much impact outside of rock. Nothing wrong with that, though. It’s the most important music of the second half of the 20th century.

  • Citizen Keith

    I’m confused. Can’t Elvis be influenced by one of the great songwriters of our time (Burt)? Can’t Elvis work with Burt on an album that will endure as one of Burt’s (or Elvis’, for that matter) best recorded works? Can’t he take what he learned from that experience and record an album of ballads (not that Burt is his ONLY influence)?

    Your praise of Burt Bacharach is justified. Praise of Burt Bacharach at the expense of Elvis Costello is pointless.

  • Eric Olsen

    Keith, the intro to this story is something of an inside joke: we have been arguing about the relative merits of Elvis Costello for some time now. I was not putting Elvis down in any way, just saying his best work has been in the rock tradition.

  • James

    A few years ago, McCoy Tyner did album of Burt Bacharach’s music and it is one of my favorites of his recordings.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks James, love them both – will track that one down.