At 79, Bacharach proves he’s got staying power
December 20, 2007
Burt Bacharach doesn’t tend to have that movie moment in his songwriting ” that instance when the musicians put the final touches on a song, and the singer, the band and the producer all look at one another, then break into that big smile that says, “Hit record!” Bacharach has had a staggering number of hit songs ” 70 that have made the top 40 since he first made the charts, in 1957. (That first hit, “The Story of My Life,” as recorded by Marty Robbins, was No. 1 on the Country and Western charts.) But the element Bacharach typically listens for, to see if a song is going to take a prominent place on radio, is one that doesn’t announce itself the moment the session is done.
A great song, at least by the standards of someone who has composed many of them, has to sound as good after the 50th spin as it did on the first.
“It’s something that doesn’t wear me out, doesn’t beat me up,” said Bacharach from his home in Los Angeles, explaining what he tries to put into his songwriting. “So it’s not, you listen four or five times and you love it, and then you say, ‘OK, enough with that.’ If I get tired of it quicker than I should, I have to rethink it.”
The best of Bacharach’s songs ” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By” ” have stood that test of time, working their way into the collective American consciousness. Often, his songs have been reworked decades after they were first recorded; such artists as rockers the White Stripes (“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”), the folk-punk Ani DiFranco (“Wishin and Hopin'”), and the British New Wave band Naked Eyes, who had a 1982 hit with “Always Something There to Remind Me,” have honored Bacharach by reinterpreting his songs.
Bacharach himself has similarly been favored by the passing of time. While he’s no longer the hit-making machine he was through the ’60s and early ’70s ” when he and lyricist Hal David were churning out tunes for singer Dionne Warwick ” he has been embraced by a younger generation of artists and fans. The cover of “Definitely Maybe,” the debut album by British rockers Oasis, featured a photo of Bacharach; the band’s singer, Noel Gallagher, once performed Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” with the composer. Elvis Costello made an entire album, 1998’s much-lauded “Painted From Memory,” with Bacharach, and the two are at work on a new batch of songs, likely to be recorded by Costello’s wife, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall. Bacharach has made appearances in all three “Austin Powers” films, making the 79-year-old improbably recognizable to hordes of 10-year-olds. He has likewise made three appearances on “American Idol”; in the most recent of them, finalists competed in singing a 12-minute medley of Bacharach songs.
In a way, Bacharach’s popularity with the likes of Gallagher and Costello ” not to mention hip-hopper Dr. Dre, who added loops and drumbeats to Bacharach’s 2005 album “At This Time” ” is improbable enough. The composer specialized in a brand of light, romantic music that may have been popular and enduring, but was hardly the essence of cool or dwelled on the cutting-edge. Bacharach himself says that the main ingredient in his music has been accessibility ” an element that normally fades over the years. But what the younger crowd is responding to isn’t Bacharach’s persona, but his way with a song.
This continuing relevance underscores another facet to the music. For all of their easy hummability, Bacharach’s songs have more complexity to them than is evident on the surface. His music employs distinctive time changes and unexpected chord progressions, to go with their incomparable melodies.
Perhaps even more than the individual songs, Bacharach has created a signature. A Burt Bacharach song, even divorced from Hal David’s lyrics, sounds like a Burt Bacharach song, whether sung by Dionne Warwick or Tom Jones, Christopher Cross or B.J. Thomas. Much of that has to do with the fact that Bacharach is not only a composer, but an arranger and producer as well, with his hands firmly on how his songs are framed and adorned.
“It just may have something to do with the orchestration, the way it’s presented,” said Bacharach, who performs at the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday, Dec. 27. “So much of the music has been born with the songs and the orchestration at the same time. ‘What’s New Pussycat’ and ‘Walk on By’ are very different ” but there’s a common thread there that I haven’t figured out. I haven’t tried to figure it out. But people say it sounds like a Burt Bacharach song.”
Bacharach may have been a king of the ’60s, and remains a vital creative force, but there have also been low periods in his career. The one that seems still to be at the front of his mind is the 1973 remake of the classic 1937 film, “Lost Horizon.” The artistic difficulties in making the film were severe, and the critical and commercial rejection that followed seemed inevitable. Taking a significant portion of the blow were the songs themselves; the experience was enough to split the Bacharach/David writing team, and cause the former to rethink even his past accomplishments.
“It was a disastrous picture,” said Bacharach. “I didn’t want to write anymore. I just wanted to hang out at the beach. You don’t look at the body of work you’ve already done. You’re just right in the moment: ‘That’s a failure.'”
Time, however, has led to a different perspective. “I’ve gone back to the score, and it’s pretty good. It’s got good songs,” he said. “The movie just wasn’t good, but it didn’t have anything to do with me. It’s out of your control when it goes up on the screen.”
In the context of all that Bacharach is capable of, a film debacle from 35 years ago seems like a mere pebble in the road. After his Aspen performance ” which features an eight-piece band, three singers, and Bacharach playing piano and doing a spot of singing himself ” he is off to Hawaii, then Japan and Australia. All of those subsequent appearances are symphonic concerts, with Bacharach conducting the orchestra in his arrangements of his songs.
Asked if he could think of anyone else who had such a deep involvement ” composing, arranging, producing, conducting ” with a repertoire of songs, Bacharach could come up with three names: David Foster, whose songs include the movie hits “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion),” and “I Have Nothing,” from “The Bodyguard”; Henry Mancini, known best for his movie and TV scores, but was not much of a presence on radio; and his friend Elvis Costello, the former punk rocker who has taken up composing classical music and arranging and singing jazz.
“Outside of that, I don’t know who else,” said Bacharach. “As far as an overall package of singing, writing, producing, writing the arrangements, I think there’s just me.”