Composer Burt Bacharach, Smooth Virtuoso of 1960s Pop, Dies at 94
Burt Bacharach, the velvety smooth composer and orchestrator whose partnership with lyricist Hal David brought swanky sophistication to pop music in the 1960s, has died. He was 94.
Bacharach died Wednesday at home in Los Angeles of natural causes, his publicist said the Associated Press.
Bacharach composed the music for some 50 top 10 hits, including six that reached No. 1. Among his most celebrated efforts were “Walk On By,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “What’s New Pussycat?” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “Alfie,” “This Guy’s in Love With You” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
He and David were dubbed the “Rodgers & Hart of the ’60s.” Many of their songs were popularized by Dionne Warwick, whose singing style inspired Bacharach to experiment with new rhythms and harmonies, composing innovative melodies for such tunes as “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Bacharach’s music cuts across age lines, appealing to teens as well as the elderly. His fresh style could keep the listener off-balance yet remain intensely moving, his compositions defying convention.
He broke the rules but remained steadfast to one principle: The melody must be acceptable to the average listener. “His songs are a lot more musical than the stuff we write — and a lot more technical,” Paul McCartney told Newsweek in 1965. (Five years later, Bacharach would become the rare composer to grace the cover of the magazine.)
Bacharach’s songs were covered by scores of artists, including Perry Como, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, The 5th Dimension, Herb Alpert, Tom Jones, The Carpenters, BJ Thomas, Alicia Keys and The White Stripes.
Bacharach received eight Grammy Awards, including the organization’s lifetime achievement honor in 2008, and was nominated 20 times. In 2011, he and David were given the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Bacharach also won two Academy Awards for his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): best song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and best musical score. He also won the song Oscar for “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” from Arthur (1981), which he shared with his third wife, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager; Peter Allen; and singer Christopher Cross.
Bacharach’s compositions received three other Oscar noms, all of which he shared with David: “What’s New Pussycat?,” from the 1965 Woody Allen comedy; “Alfie,” the title tune from the 1966 Michael Caine classic; and “The Look of Love,” from Casino Royale (1967).
David and Bacharach received a Tony nom and a Grammy for the score of Neil Simon Promises, Promises, which debuted in 1968 on Broadway. Bacharach said working on the musical was one of the most difficult experiences of his career.
As he told THR‘s Scott Feinberg in 2017, the production’s pre-Broadway run involved many months of adjustments and rewrites. “Even though we got pretty good reviews, I was under the weather and I had pneumonia and ended up in the hospital,” he recalled. Even while Bacharach was bedridden, producer David Merrick kept pushing for a new song. Within a week of being discharged, he wrote “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
Sleepy-eyed handsome and suave, Bacharach was somewhat of a matinee idol: His 1965-80 marriage to sexy actress Angie Dickinson fueled that hip image. Mike Myers included him as the epitome of smooth in the first Austin Powers film in 1997 and its sequels and referred to Bacharach as his “good luck charm.”
As The Atlantic wrote in 1997, “Bacharach has seen his name become synonymous with the craft of songwriting at its most elegant and imperiled. He is a cultural signifier — far more meaningful than being the face on a posthumous postage stamp.
“Just as John Coltrane’s name is dropped by black essayists and novelists to signify artistic commitment and racial pride, Bacharach’s is pressed into service by pop-record reviewers to commend groups that at least recognize the value of good songs, even if they haven’t figured out how to write anything yet.”
Burt Freeman Bacharach was born May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Mark Bertram “Bert” Bacharach, soon moved the family to New York City, where he served as the men’s fashion editor for Colliers and became a nationally syndicated columnist.
As a child, Burt was known as “Happy” by his family. He had early dreams of becoming a football player but acquiesced to his mother’s wishes that he take piano lessons.
Bacharach played in a band at Forest Hills High School and discovered “bop” music. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and shipped to Germany, where he became an acquaintance of singer Vic Damone and toured Army bases as a uniformed concert pianist.
After the service, Bacharach enrolled at McGill University in Montreal and studied at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and the Mannes School of Music in New York. During the next several years, he toured with Damone and became the personal conductor and arranger for Marlene Dietrich.
Of his early success, he said: “I wasn’t chasing it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was caught in the drift of things. I’m not a person who will walk over people, kill people, step on people to get to the next place where they want to be. Things just happened for me; I was very fortunate.”
Bacharach became a songsmith inside New York’s vaunted Brill Building, where such teams as Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich churned out hits. In 1957, he partnered for the first time with David, and two of their earliest compositions, “The Story of My Life” and “Magic Moments,” were recorded and became top sellers.
The duo discovered Warwick, a music major at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, who was singing back-up on a Drifters session, and asked her to record their tune “Don’t Make Me Over.” It was a hit for Scepter Records in 1962, and the trio would collaborate for more than a decade, earning Warwick eight top 10 hits during that time.
“Dionne had this kind of voice that let me challenge her from session to session,” Bacharach told Feinberg on how she became his muse. “I could do one thing; I could see she was capable of that and say, ‘She can do more than that — she can sing louder, she can sing softer, she can sing in a wider range’ … so it enabled me to stretch.”
In the mid-’60s, Bacharach ventured seriously into motion picture songwriting, creating such movie songs as “The Look of Love” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’” during this fertile period. He and David teamed to score films into the ’70s, including Lost Horizon (1973), after which they separated for a spell.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bacharach hosted Kraft Music Hall specials on NBC and the ABC variety show The Hollywood Palace with Dickinson and headlined at Harrah’s and The Riviera in Las Vegas.
Bacharach later wrote and produced songs with Bayer Sager including Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” which won the 1986 Grammy for song of the year; “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To,” recorded by Kenny Rogers for Tough Guys (1986); and the theme from Baby Boom (1987).
He wrote an album of songs with Elvis Costello in 1998.
In 2016, Bacharach crafted the original score for John Asher’s indie drama Po. He identified with the story in the film, which shows the struggles of a family of a child with autism. Bacharach’s daughter, Nikki (with Dickinson), had died of suicide in 2007, at age 40, after a lifelong struggle with Asperger’s syndrome.
His first marriage, to singer Paula Stewart, lasted five years in the 1950s.
Bacharach’s survivors include his fourth wife, Jane Hansen (they married in 1993), and their children Oliver and Raleigh, as well as son Christopher from his marriage to Bayer Sager.
Asked by Feinberg what he would most like to be remembered for, Bacharach responded: “I was a good father … to have kids that late in life, everything shifts — the whole value and the importance that they bring to your life and the value in it.
“That’s what it’s all about.”
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