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Burt Bacharach

One of the most feted and uniquely talented American composers of the 20th century, it’s fair to say that BURT BACHARACH is a musical polymath. Neither his enduring appeal nor his actual compositions recognise musical boundaries, or, for that matter, conventional songwriting rules – just ask a plethora of great acts (read on…) that simply would’ve struggled without his craftmanship. Nearly forsaking a promising solo career to aim for the stars in an altogether less selfish manner, the dude still managed to have the odd instrumental chart entry.
Born May 12, 1928, Kansas City, Missouri, an early love of bebop and subsequent tutelage under the composer Darius Milhaud, in New York, both left their mark on his writing.
1957 was this year that Burt released his inaugural solo single, `Searching Wind’, though it failed to register chart-wise. Married to singer Paula Stewart between 1953 and 1958, during which period he’d played, penned and arranged songs for Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers and Patti Page, the songsmith’s initial breakthrough came about when country-pop troubadour MARTY ROBBINS topped the British chart with `The Story Of My Life’. While the song also reached the Top 20 on home-turf and initiated major Stateside success, the UK would henceforth be a lucrative market for the American and one where his light-handed style was to impact upon the music scene for decades to come. One of his early tracks was an unlikely theme tune for the 1958 B-movie, The Blob (starring a fresh-faced Steve McQueen); the Bach man’s first tentative step into the world of film scoring. It wasn’t until Burt began collaborating in 1958 with lyricist Hal David that his songs were sought out fully. Classically trained and duly apprenticed as a conductor for Marlene Dietrich, BACHARACH’s career as a composer of exquisitely crafted MOR had got off the ground.
Crooners such as PERRY COMO and GENE PITNEY were also the recipients of BACHARACH material during this era, although it wasn’t until the early 60s that the composer, together with his aforesaid long-time lyricist/partner Hal David, began a hugely successful working relationship with DIONNE WARWICK. Through the early to late 60s, the said singer scored an incredible run of global hits supplied by the pair, including `I Say A Little Prayer’ (of which ARETHA FRANKLIN later cut a definitive version), `Walk On By’ and `Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’.
Many of the hits-for-others were grooved swimmingly on BACHARACH’s debut LP, HIT MAKER!: Burt Bacharach plays the Burt Bacharach Hits (1965) {*6}, a record which actually gate-crashed the Top 5 in Britain on the strength of the equally-performing chart smash, `Trains And Boats And Planes’. In the exact same month of its release, he married established actress Angie Dickinson; they divorced in August ’81.
Britain was a hot-spot for the likes of SANDIE SHAW, DUSTY SPRINGFIELD and CILLA BLACK, who were indeed saturating the chart with breezy songs buoyed up on that unmistakable combination of jazz/bossa nova sophistication, impeccable craft, innovative arrangements and pop insouciance. Yet for all its unashamedly commercial clout, it was a highly intelligent formula ripe for subversion. Psychedelic popsters LOVE were perhaps the best example of a band who absorbed the BACHARACH-DAVID ethic and translated it into a rock idiom, unleashing an explosive version of `My Little Red Book’ on their debut album, and taking twisted orchestral pop to its ultimate conclusion on the landmark `Forever Changes’.
By 1965, BACHARACH had become one of the most high-profile songwriters in America; also penning pieces for The FIFTH DIMENSION and HERB ALPERT, respectively. The acclaimed soundtrack WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? {*6} not only provided TOM JONES with one of the most memorable hits of his career, but confirmed BACHARACH as a major film score player, employing all the complexity, unconventional timing and lightness of touch he’d already used to such dazzling effect in his pop compositions. A debonair title theme for the Michael Caine vehicle, Alfie, followed in 1966, as did his endearing giddy score for the Peter Sellers farce, AFTER THE FOX {*7}.
Not quite reaching the Baroque flights of fancy, it nonetheless boasted enough whimsical playmaking to satisfy most lounge buffs and kitsch hounds. Even non BACHARACH-olytes were probably familiar with The HOLLIES-assisted title theme, a loping, major-to-minor harpsichord concoction with “Bedazzled”-style, Peter Sellers-sponsored interjections. The rest of the score veered between sprightly martial brass motifs, swinging, catwalk organ grooves and luxuriously upholstered, cosmopolitan cocktail jazz. `Via Veneto’ deserved special mention for its absurdist combination of hysterical, strangulated vocal ululations, cha cha beat and sheepish Dixieland parping, a triumph of eccentricity over style. BACHARACH also made liberal use of clown-faced clarinet and banjo, predictably vaudevillian but perfect for Sellers’ bumbling slapstick. Throw in the nimble, folksy woodwind of `Tourist Trap’ and one had another potpourri of prime BACHARACH exotica destined for retrospective adoration and debonair, diamond-durable longevity.
Two of his biggest soundtrack successes were still to come: the Bond send-up CASINO ROYALE (1967) {*8}, and the much-loved revisionist western BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) {*8}. The first of these opened with a fast-paced theme tune by the wondrous HERB ALPERT & the Tijuana Brass, whereas the maniacal mood swings and hodgepodge lounge jams were a million miles from the seductive `The Look Of Love’ theme undertaken by DUSTY SPRINGFIELD.
The most enduring and engaging BURT BACHARACH score of them all, the follow-up OST marked the pinnacle of the man’s fame and popularity, with both the score and the multi-million selling, BJ THOMAS-sung `Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ cleared up at the Oscars. It also marked something of a watershed in his career. Burt’s bittersweet, unashamedly sentimental signature tune was nevertheless as good a justification as any for the soundtrack’s rewards, even if it was repeated in three different versions. BACHARACH got to act out one of his most Baroque scat-waltz fantasies on `South American Getaway’, a lovingly-composed, intricately rendered masterclass in multi-layered choral harmony and lopsided timing. `The Sundance Kid’, meanwhile, was as compelling and ingenious a slice of Latin-esque escapism as one’ll hear this side of Marcos Valle. Perhaps what was most impressive about this music was the way BACHARACH managed to incorporate elements of archetypal Western scoring into his own skewed, sophisti-pop vision. Not only were the vaudevillian harpsichord, echoes of MORRICONE-esque horns, and cantering rhythms skilfully interwoven, but BACHARACH’s innate feel for Brazilian music generated a refreshing take on a genre normally figured on pseudo-Mexican motifs. If there was one fault with this 27-minute soundtrack was that it finished all too soon.
One could’ve easily forgotten that the songsmith had worked outside the confines of the film industry. 1967’s A&M-endorsed REACH OUT (1967) {*6} contained quasi-jazz elevator music that pop pickers might’ve bought in the name of BACHARACH before; but it was nigh-on instrumental (featuring said `Alfie’, `The Look Of Love’ and `I Say A Little Prayer’).Only the piano man’s vocal delivery of `A House Is Not A Home’, a pointer into why the main was shy of the x-factor.
In summer 1969, prior to “Butch”, Burt cut the classy MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF {*6}, only his third non-OST release as a recording artist, but one which effectively captured his essential genius. Produced by Phil Ramone, the album found a reticent performer rising to the challenge of singing his own songs – which, to be fair, was never his strongest point – already definitively cut by other artists. Predictably perhaps, the composer reclaimed songs such as `Make It Easy On Yourself’ (earlier snapped up by The WALKER BROTHERS) and `I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ (borrowed by BOBBIE GENTRY), by re-tuning the arrangements in such a way that they still had a distinct, separate identity ad infinitum.
While the CARPENTERS scored their first major hit with the BACHARACH/DAVID-penned `Close To You’, and undoubtedly looked to the songwriting pair as inspiration for their seminal MOR sound, the 70s were lean years for Burt as he split with Hal from time to time. After the Top 20 success in the States of his eponymous BURT BACHARACH (1971) {*6} set, Burt and lyricist Hal endured their first high-profile setback with the failure of LOST HORIZON (1973) {*4}. Their score to Ross Hunter’s musical production – which BB admitted to being personally disappointed – came in for almost as much flak as the film itself, a re-make of Frank Capra’s utopian classic. Songs sung by the cast, that comprised Liv Ullman, Peter Finch, Sally Kellerman, Bobby Van and Olivia Hussey, it’s only pop appeal arrived by way of SHAWN PHILLIPS’ syrupy take of the title track.
On a scale of 1-10, there was certainly a suburban middle-of-the-road, cross-over 5 appeal for subsequent LPs, LIVING TOGETHER (1973) {*5}, the live IN CONCERT (1974) {*6}, FUTURES (1977) {*5} and WOMAN (1979) {*5}, which basically regurgitated ideas he’d had in the previous decade and rolled them into an easy-listening AM pop.
BB had already flung himself back into writing film scores. 1979’s TOGETHER? {*5} was commissioned by American counterparts who thought GOBLIN’s version of the original Italian movie, Amo Non Amo (starring Jacqueline Bisset), a little risky. Augmenting Burt’s more mature score were singers PAUL ANKA, JACKIE DeSHANNON, MICHAEL McDONALD and unknown Libby Titus, although only `I’ve Got My Mind Made Up’ and `I Don’t Need You Anymore’, resonated with a public that’d long shifted from simplistic pop music.
Coming up with half the tracks that made up the Dudley Moore/John Gielgud comedy, ARTHUR (1981) {*6} – the No.1 title piece, `(Best That You Can Do)’, down to singer CHRISTOPHER CROSS – it netted BACHARACH his third Oscar, and triggered in a more auspicious period during which he married lyricist CAROLE BAYER SAGER and extended their successful professional partnership well into the 80s; they divorced in 1991.
These times were brighter as he began writing again, scoring two successive chart-toppers with `That’s What Friends Are For’ (for DIONNE WARWICK) and `On My Own’ (for PATTI LaBELLE and MICHAEL McDONALD). Not quite full scores but mighty enough for his name to surface in the credits, Burt’s songs featured in films as diverse as Baby Boom (1987), Buster (1988) and Goodfellas (1990), while there were scores to forgotten Ron Howard comedy, Night Shift (1982), as well as the Arthur sequel, On the Rocks (1988).
Having already influenced the alternative Hollywood scene in the 1960s, BACHARACH again proved an unlikely 90s icon for a whole generation of British indie acts; he also married for a fourth time in 1993; the lady in question: Jane Hansen. While his sugary confections weren’t too hard to discern as an influence on such twee rosters as Sarah Records and pop magpies such as SAINT ETIENNE, meat and potatoes rockers like OASIS confirmed BACHARACH as a major touchstone; the latter lads famously included a photo of the man on the sleeve of their debut album.
In 1998, one of the founding fathers of alternative music, ELVIS COSTELLO, teamed up with BACHARACH on the acclaimed `Painted From Memory’ album, while the man himself sealed his indie/dad-rock credentials by performing on Jools Holland’s Later… BBC-TV show. The unlikely pairing of Elvis and Burt also contributed a duet of `I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ to the soundtrack for Mike Myers spoof, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (in which they also made a cameo appearance), and general BACHARACH mania had also saw some of his best songs featured in the high grossing romantic comedy, My Best Friends Wedding (1997).
Less successful was his score for ISN’T SHE GREAT (2000) {*4}, a biopic tracing the life of Valley Of The Dolls author, Jacqueline Susann, who died in 1974. Yet over a staggering six decades in the music business, few figures have conflated the demands of film composition and regular songwriting with such panache and maverick consistency and, while he isn’t the most inventive of film composers, BURT BACHARACH arguably remained one of the most iconic and recognisable.
The songwriter and his songs were to duly undergo another more credible rebirth post-millennium. First up was the sublime revisit to pastures old with RONALD ISLEY: HERE I AM: ISLEY MEETS BACHARACH (2003) {*7}, a match made by the gods; only the Tonio K double `Count On Me’ and `Love’s (Still) The Answer’ had not the Burt and Hal stamp of approval.
Stripping back the memories and filling in the spaces with ELVIS COSTELLO (on `Who Are These People?’), RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (for `Go Ask Shakespeare’) and Chris Botti on a few tracks, 2005’s AT THIS TIME (2005) {*4}, didn’t quite push the envelope in modern music terms. Then again, armed with all his best tunes from the last half a century, octogenarian Burt (with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), delivered LIVE AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE (2008) {*6}, another trip through a musical memory lane space time continuum. And then the ill-matched set-back with Ronan Keating, WHEN RONAN MET BURT (2011) {*4}, an album that nevertheless sold in bulk due to the pop pulling power of the slick Boyzone boyo. Whereas Dusty, Dionne, Arthur (Lee, that is) and Elvis C could add a touch of je ne sais quoi to Burt’s songs, one listen to the respective “orcastrations” of `The Look Of Love’, `Walk On By’, `My Little Red Book’ and `This House Is Empty Now’, was enough to wipe clean the slate of time itself – not quite.
© MC Strong 2003-2008/GRD-LCS/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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