Like a lot of people who make pop music, Burt Bacharach wasn’t thinking of the lasting value of his creation.
“You can’t predict endurance,” Bacharach said. “You can’t do that any more than you can think, ‘Make something more commercial. Make a hit.’ Look at Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, how appealing those songs were when they came out. Two years later, they were ear candy.”
It doesn’t appear as if Bacharach will be consigned to the bin with the ’90s boy bands. The composer got a nice late-career bump in mass popularity with his cameo roles in all three “Austin Powers” movies, films that were inspired in part by Bacharach’s songs from the ’60s and ’70s. But Bacharach, at 85, is also getting more serious consideration as an artist whose work has deep and lasting worth beyond pop-song-of-the-moment status.
Earlier this month, “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined” opened. The opening was not in a venue where oldies shows are typically relegated (i.e., a casino) but at the New York Theatre Workshop, a hip spot where new works are developed in the hip East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The show is led by 26-year-old Kyle Riabko. A singer-guitarist, Riabko built “What’s It All About?” around more than 30 Bacharach tunes, most of them written with lyricist Hal David, Bacharach’s partner on an almost unimaginably long string of hits (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and on and on).
The review that ran in the Dec. 16 issue of the New Yorker is head-turning for the people who get name-checked in describing Bacharach’s music and its effect on the listener (or at least a specific listener, Hilton Als, who wrote the review from a most personal perspective). Bacharach finds himself in the company of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, jazz pioneer Charlie Parker and writer John Cheever — all of whose contributions have showed far more staying power than whatever those songs were by ‘N Boys and Backstreet Sync. The review notes the emotional, even philosophical depth of the Bacharach-David catalog; for Als the songs were his “first brush with existentialism” and “a crash course in alienation.”
“What’s It All About?” might not be the only reconsideration of Bacharach’s work to hit a Manhattan stage. Chuck Lorre, the producer behind TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” is behind a Broadway adaptation of “Painted From Memory,” the Grammy-winning album that introduced the unlikely musical team of Bacharach and Elvis Costello. On a different note, Bacharach reports there is also talk of turning “Austin Powers” into a stage production.
Also among those impressed with how good those old songs sound in their reimagined state is their co-creator. Bacharach has heard his songs reinterpreted in all ways; Riabko’s versions, which emphasize the vocals over the instrumentation, are unusually pleasing.
“I can be very hard on people changing my music, my chords, my melodies, my flow,” said Bacharach, who appeared onstage at the opening of “What’s It All About?” for a ukulele-driven reprise of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” “And this was quite brilliant.”
Bacharach, noting the collapse of the traditional music-business model centered on record sales, said that music theater is the most promising place for his career at the moment. But he hasn’t ended his usual style of performing. Tonight, Bacharach, accompanied by a handful of singers, will play for the opening of the renovated Wheeler Opera House. It is a fitting booking, as Bacharach has been a part-time Aspenite for 16 years, since meeting his wife, Jane Hansen, here. A special guest for the concert will be Oliver “Sharkey” Bacharach, Burt’s 20-something son, who was a competitive snowboarder while growing up in Aspen.
Bacharach appreciated the New Yorker article’s view that “What’s It All About?” tied his songs together into a whole. But what is it that makes the individual songs stand out? Perhaps it’s that Bacharach’s music isn’t really pop music — or at least doesn’t share many of the qualities typically associated with pop. A Bacharach song is strong on melody, an element that unfolds over time, rather than a repetitive beat, which can be catchy but ultimately shallow. And Bacharach worked deliberately, not in quick bursts of inspiration that would result in a quick hook or a catchphrase prevalent to pop.
“I’m not masterful at writing quickly,” Bacharach said from Los Angeles International Airport, where he was awaiting a flight to San Francisco and a concert date with the San Francisco Symphony. “I like to have the ability to look at it, think through it. Give me a chance to make it better. That’s what’s important.” Bacharach was not only a composer but also an arranger and producer who helped mold the written elements into a finished recording. That allowed him to spend more time with the songs he created.
Bacharach, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, was a jazz buff as a teenager and studied classical composition at several colleges. At Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., the rage in composition at the time, in the middle of the 20th century, was 12-tone — music that was thorny, intellectually demanding and, ideally, lacking in melody. When Bacharach wrote a piece for oboe, violin and piano, he worried it was too melodic. But his teacher, Darius Milhaud, advised him to embrace melodicism.
“Milhaud said, ‘Never be ashamed of something melodic, something this good,’” Bacharach recalled. “A lesson well-learned.”
The academic background seems to have added much to Bacharach’s style of making music. His work is marked by shifts in time, jazz chords, rhythmic shifts and ambitious orchestrations.
“Maybe at the time the range was a little adventurous with time signatures and harmonic flow,” he said. “It had something to do with sophistication.”
It probably comes as little surprise that Bacharach never had a taste for rock ’n’ roll; his writing has almost nothing in common with rock. What is surprising is that he finds a tie between his compositions and urban styles, especially Motown. It’s worth noting that Dionne Warwick, a black singer from urban New Jersey, was the most prolific interpreter of Bacharach’s tunes, scoring hits with “Walk on By,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and a few dozen more.
“We were very urban,” Bacharach said. “I was turned off by Bill Haley, didn’t like rock ’n’ roll. Never was my bag, slashing guitars. Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ the Temptations — those were major musical statements. Hip. They didn’t settle on three chords.”
Bacharach then pointed out that quite a few of his songs were originally recorded by singers well outside the urban realm. His breakout moment was having country singer Marty Robbins score a hit with “The Story of My Life.” Though Bacharach wasn’t a rock fan, at least one monumental rock group recorded a song of his: the Beatles, who included Bacharach’s “Baby It’s You” on their first album. His songs also have been interpreted by Rod Stewart, Shelby Lynne, Rufus Wainwright and Dr. Dre.
Bacharach was taken with what he witnessed at the opening of “What’s It All About?” His songs are here to stay.
“Young people onstage connecting with my music? That’s incredible,” he said. “Then, out on the street, older people — not parents but grandparents — were there, affected by my music. No one said, ‘Oh, that was terrible what they did to your songs.’ The fact that it could be done different, appeal to different tastes, that’s something.”