Burt Bacharach on his best-known hits: ‘My songs are a form of resistance’

He adored Dusty, drove Cilla to exhaustion and had so many hits he lost count. The singer-songwriter looks back over a very personal catalogue

“I don’t know how many songs I’ve written, I don’t know how many hits I’ve had,” says Burt Bacharach when we meet in a dining room by the ocean in Santa Monica. “I’m not a good counter.”

You can see why he might have trouble keeping track. Bacharach has won six Grammys and three Oscars, had 73 hits in the US Billboard 100 and 52 in the UK top 40 – and that’s at the time of going to press. He will be 91 on Sunday, but still performs, tours and writes, with new material set for release this year.

His mother encouraged him to play piano and he became infatuated with jazz. Being underage, he would sneak into nightclubs to catch big bands after falling for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

“Somebody took me to a street where the music was totally different from anything I’d ever heard. It was the bebop era at the Spotlight club in New York City. Sometimes there’d be more people on the bandstand than there’d be in the audience. I didn’t know what I was gonna do with my life. I just knew I loved this music.”

After studying music at university and serving in the army, he was hired as a conductor for Vic Damone (“I lasted three weeks and got fired”) and Marlene Dietrich (“not my kind of music – very German”). Then, while conducting the vocal quartet the Ames Brothers in Las Vegas, Bacharach was struck by the simplicity of their work. “I thought it would be easy to write songs like those and make hits,” he says. And so he began …

Bacharach and Dionne Warwick recording a song at the Pye studios in London, in 1964.
Bacharach and Dionne Warwick recording a song at the Pye studios in London, in 1964. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Dionne Warwick
Anyone Who Had a Heart (1963)

After moving back to New York, Bacharach started hanging out in the Brill Building, where he met the lyricist Hal David, who had already had hits. “We treated it like a business relationship,” he says. “At 5.30pm, he’d get on a train back to Long Island. I’d go back to my New York apartment. I wasn’t making much money.”

Calvin Carter, an A&R man, gave Bacharach his first break. He called to tell him that the R&B singer Jerry Butler wanted to record some songs of his. “They wanted me to write the arrangement, pick the musicians, play it, conduct, run the date. Nobody had ever given me that kind of permission. I was hearing the record as I wrote the song.”

He began to make a name for himself writing pop songs with unpredictable time signatures. It was unlike anything being marketed towards teen audiences. “Musicians couldn’t understand it.” Neither could the youth, who struggled to dance to his composition Anyone Who Had a Heart, sung by Dionne Warwick. “Cos you couldn’t count one-two-three-four!” he says, laughing. “But it wasn’t about writing songs to dance to. It was about recording music that felt right. I wanted to make it palatable. There are no guarantees.”

The song was sophisticated, moving through 4/4, 5/4 and 7/8 times. “You don’t think that when you’re writing it,” he says. “You think – is it good? Can you hear this more than once or twice? Will you still like it a week later?” Try more than 50 years later. Cilla Black’s 1964 cover of Warwick’s original was the biggest charting hit in the UK by a woman that decade. The competition between her and Warwick was legendary, but Bacharach stayed out of it.

“If I recorded it as the arranger, anybody was then free to record it,” he says. “It’s not like I’d record it with Dionne then try to get Cilla on it. I didn’t really know Cilla!”

Bacharach serenading Mike Myers and Liz Hurley in the first Austin Powers film.

Jackie DeShannon
What the World Needs Now Is Love (1965)

Bacharach and David played this waltzing ode to peace to Warwick, “and she didn’t like it,” says Bacharach. “She thought it was too flag-waving.” Bacharach respected Warwick – “she had very good taste” – so much so that her distaste made him doubt the song. “I put it in a drawer.”

Years later, David suggested playing it for DeShannon. “I played eight bars. She started singing. I said: ‘Jesus, this is the perfect voice for this song.’ Interesting how you can be swayed by someone else’s opinion.” Warwick would record it later on. Was her opinion swayed too? “I don’t know that Dionne ever said, ‘I really love this song’,” he says. “She recorded it, yeah. She didn’t like to be wrong. Nobody likes to be wrong.”

More than 30 years later, in the first Austin Powers movie, Bacharach would serenade Mike Myers and Liz Hurley on a bus on the Las Vegas Strip with it. On a more serious note, as a reaction to the Vietnam war, its message continues to have resonance today. “If we needed that song then, man, we need it now 20 times more.”

Bacharach with Cilla Black in the mid-1970s.
Bacharach with Cilla Black in the mid-1970s. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Cilla Black
Alfie (1966)

When Bacharach received a call to go to Abbey Road in London to work with Cilla Black and George Martin on a song for the Michael Caine movie Alfie, he took it extremely seriously. “I hardly knew George Martin. I just knew that if I was gonna fly from New York to London, I’d take no prisoners,” he says.

The recording process was notorious. He drove Black to exhaustion. “I was gonna get the best possible performance out of everybody,” he says now. “Did I do too many takes? I’m sure. Sir George took me aside and said: ‘You got it on take four.’”

Paired with David’s existential query into love’s place in our lives, Alfie remains Bacharach’s favourite composition – a song about Michael Caine’s titular character, questioning the ultimate goal of his womanising ways. “It’s one of the greatest lyrics anyone ever wrote.” He denies he was ever resistant to writing for the film, contrary to popular myth. Director Lewis Gilbert wanted Cher to sing it. “I didn’t think that was a good idea at all,” says Bacharach. “I think Cher’s amazing, but with Sonny producing and coming out of the Phil Spector studio, it just wasn’t the way I believed I should hear the song.”

Aretha Franklin
I Say a Little Prayer (1967)

Aretha Franklin’s version is the most renowned, but Warwick recorded this for Bacharach first. He wasn’t sold on it, and tried desperately to keep the record from coming out. “It didn’t feel subtle,” he says. He was wrong. The Warwick version reached No 4 on the Billboard chart. To this day, however, he prefers Franklin’s version. “I thought it was 15 times better than ours.”

Bacharach with Dusty Springfield on his TV show in 1970.
Bacharach with Dusty Springfield on his TV show in 1970. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Dusty Springfield
The Look of Love (1967)

Film producer Charles Feldman gave Bacharach his first opportunity in cinema, inviting him to score the 1965 comedy What’s New Pussycat? “I was clueless about how to score a film.” Soon after, he scored the 1967 Bond curio Casino Royale, which caused tension with his then wife, the actor Angie Dickinson, who grew envious as he watched Ursula Andress’s scenes on repeat, trying to find the melody. “Andress was looking unbelievable,” he gasps. “I was looking for something melodically very sexy.”

It was sung by Dusty Springfield, whose memory renders Bacharach misty-eyed. “I loved Dusty. We went to the Grammys together a few years before. Dusty was great, but very difficult on herself.” He says she wouldn’t sit in the same control room as him in the studio. “She’d go in another room to be by herself,” he explains, reasoning that she was way too hard on herself to hear her voice back in front of someone else, even someone as close to her as him. “I miss her.”

Burt Bacharach
Something Big (1971)

One of the last numbers Bacharach and David wrote together, this deep cut had such a hold over Bacharach that he recorded it himself. With the passing of time, Bacharach has learned to appreciate the genius in David’s lyrics. “I was so into how my music was going to sound I just wanted one word with a vowel sound. Whatever the word was it didn’t make a difference!” Again, it was a promotional song for a 1971 film of the same name starring Dean Martin. “It’s a feelgood song more than one from the heart,” he says. He credits the engineer, “my man” Phil Ramone, who died in 2013, with capturing his part. “I’ll never sing that well ever again.”

Dionne Warwick (left), Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight performing That’s What Friends Are For at the Grammys in 1987.
Dionne Warwick (left), Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight performing That’s What Friends Are For at the Grammys in 1987. Photograph: Mark Avery/AP

Luther Vandross
A House Is Not a Home (1981)

From Kanye West’s sped-up sampling of this as producer on Twista’s 2003 hit Slow Jamz to its parody on Spongebob Squarepants (This Grill Is Not a Home), this wistful smoothie got its biggest resurgence courtesy of Luther Vandross in 1981. Bacharach is unaware that West paid tribute. “Did he?” he asks. “It’s a very good song. There have been some iconic versions. Luther was brilliant, Aretha, Mavis Staples. It’s a great vehicle for a soul singer.” It was written as a promotional song for a film of the same name, but wasn’t used in the movie. “Maybe it would have won an Academy Award if it had!”

Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder
That’s What Friends Are For (1985)

This schmaltzy classic was recorded by Rod Stewart for the Ron Howard flick Night Shift. Bacharach wrote it with his third wife and songwriting partner Carole Bayer Sager. He blames the “rock’n’roll chords” for its initial lack of traction. Bacharach isn’t a fan of rock’n’roll. “Not really,” he mutters.

He played Warwick the song after their epic falling out: in 1973, David and Bacharach stopped working together after a disastrous experience scoring Lost Horizon. Warwick – still needing to fulfil a Warners contract – filed a lawsuit against them. It was settled for $5m. “Very costly and unfortunate,” says Bacharach. “I stupidly handled it wrong.”

The song has more emotional gravity, then, because it brought Warwick and Bacharach back together. When he played it to her, Elizabeth Taylor was in the room and suggested recording it as a charity single for Aids research. “We got more people involved,” Bacharach says. Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, no less. The track won two Grammys and raised $3m.

Bacharach with his second wife, the actor Angie Dickinson, in 1974.
Bacharach with his second wife, the actor Angie Dickinson, in 1974. Photograph: John Olson/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images

Burt Bacharach
Live to See Another Day (2019)

Politics is what spurs Bacharach to write now. His remaining Songbook choices are as yet unreleased. He wrote this one with Latin songwriter Rudy Pérez, about gun violence in schools. “This is my form of resistance,” he says. “I can’t stand what’s happening in this country – my country.”

Bacharach says he has “prayers” for the next election. “We have 20 Democrat candidates running for president – there’s never been anything like it, not in my lifetime. Twenty! We must pick somebody who’s capable of getting rid of this guy. I’m not sure he’ll leave even if he loses. They’ll have to drag him out – unless he starts a civil war.”

He becomes upset. “He’s very dangerous. Every subpoena sent to the White House he ignores. He’s guilty of so much obstruction of justice. The good guys – the Democrats – have to stand united. It’s almost like Trump is making it so we have no choice but to start impeachment. We don’t want to. [Speaker of the House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi – thank God for her. She’s keeping us together. We have to pick the right person. Keep your fingers crossed.”

Burt Bacharach: ‘Trump is guilty of so much obstruction of justice.’
Burt Bacharach: ‘Trump is guilty of so much obstruction of justice.’ Photograph: Eric Ray Davidson

Burt Bacharach
With a Voice (2019)

Bacharach grows weary as he explains this song’s subject matter, namely “the anguish of living in a Trump land”. He despairs for the digital age, and urges Congress to change regulations to ensure songwriters are properly paid. “If my catalogue was being written now, it would be hopeless. I saw talented writers who couldn’t survive the rejection in the Brill Building. It was hard then, but it’s really hard now.”

Considering his own legacy, he takes nothing for granted: “I’m still here, still walking, still writing, still touring.” His speech softens, he stares at the ocean, almost tearing up, but soon cracks one last chuckle. “It’s gratitude, and it’s attitude,” he says. “They go together.”

Burt Bacharach and Joss Stone perform together as part of the Apollo Nights Summer Series at the London Eventim Apollo on 16 and 17 July.


Eve Barlow

The GuardianTramp

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