Burt's Still the Word
Much has been made of the renaissance composer Burt Bacharach has been enjoying as of late. The Maestro's sudden resurgence is the result of a number of high-profile collaborations and media appearances, and a new retro craze that has put the work of classic '60s tunesmiths on a pedestal. But instead of just dissecting his newfound fan base, let's take a look at his longtime acolytes, as well, those folks for whom Burt has always been The Word.
Type A: Burt's adult contemporaries. Lucky enough to experience Bacharach and longtime partner Hal David's songs on first impact, but unlucky enough to suffer it on clackety eight-tracks. These fifty- to seventysomethings watched the annual Bacharach TV specials and religiously attended his concerts, even during the hitless years. And they're still in attendance today.
The first ones out of their seats after a Dionne Warwick hit, they positively glower at the intrusion of an Elvis Costello number cutting into a familiar set list. Given a chance to buy Painted From Memory, Bacharach's 1998 collaboration with Costello, and his best album in decades, Type A fans opted for Dionne Sings Dionne, an album of tepid Bacharach-David remakes.
Type B: Newly minted adults, thirty- to fortysomethings who at some point in the '90s made the connection to their childhood and realized all the Bacharach-David songs were the thread running through it. Having had their hearts broken and reassembled numerous times by then, they could assign the correct adult emotional response to Hal David lyrics heard hundreds of times on their father's car radio. Further informed by the excellent Rhino Records box set The Look of Love, they may have been moved to snap up a best-of Dionne or Dusty Springfield in addition to a few of Bacharach's instrumental albums. Like Type A's, these fans love Bacharach's back catalogue and believe they've already purchased all of it.
Type C: Bacharach fanatics. The same age group as Type B, these fans snapped up Burt's box set and just kept on buying every record with a Bacharach-David credit in brackets.
Generally musicians, or people who first experienced love through music and then spent a lifetime transferring that emotion to other people. They make no distinction among the weird time signatures, clever internal rhymes and breakneck dynamics in Bacharach-David music and the emotional wallop it packs. Once they've had pull-over-to-the side-of-the-road hearings of "Alfie" or "Anyone Who Had a Heart," they keep looking for the same powerful messages in obscure B-sides or out-of-print albums. And incredibly, they're there, in countless undiscovered songs like "Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets" or "Long Ago Tomorrow."
That's why these fans still frantically downloading rare Bacharach cuts from Napster and trading tapes on various Bacharach Internet sites like A House Is Not a Homepage (http://studentweb.tulane.edu/~mark/bacharach.html) and The Hitmaker Archive (http://listen.to/burt), the most comprehensive archive of information on the 577 Bacharach songs and the 1,200 unique artists who've recorded them.
Bacharach's roll call is a virtual who's who of pop. Every adult contemporary singer of the last 50 years -- not to mention many of the biggest rock, pop and R&B groups of the '60s and '70s, from the Beatles to James Brown -- took at least one stroll through the house of Bacharach. As a presence in the last half-century of music history, he's simply inescapable.
Tell that to the man himself and he lets out that almost whispered laughter. "I don't know that for sure. But I know what you're saying. I think when I was writing it was a very fortunate time," he says of the early years. "To be able to establish hits, or near hits, or art records and because of the lyrics, to be able to have longevity . . . you can't plan that. To be discovered or redone. I mean Noel Gallagher [who put a picture of Bacharach on the cover of Oasis' Definitely Maybe] wasn't born when these songs were around. But he got to hear them."
The indefatigable composer agreed to do some quickie (and we do mean quickie) phone interviews to plug his upcoming concert tour. At age 72, when most living legends are happy resting and collecting residuals, Bacharach continues working at a pace that would fell someone a third his age.
Earlier this year, he suffered an injury to his shoulder that forced him to cancel several dates and tack on an hour of daily physical therapy to his already cluttered to-do list. "It'll take a while to heal to be really over it," he says. "It only knocked down 10 appearances. I can conduct fine, but with a little limited range. Who knows, by the time we get to Arizona . . .," he trails off, stopping himself before veering into Jimmy Webb territory.
In the past year, Bacharach has written an Oscar-nominated song ("Walking Tall") with Lyle Lovett for the children's feature Stuart Little, scored another film (Isn't She Great), collaborated with Chicago on "If I Should Ever Lose You," (the only conceivable reason to buy an album called Chicago 26), appeared in a second Austin Powers movie, toured nationally and internationally and acted as musical director for this year's Academy Awards telecast.
When the time came to finally talk with Bacharach, we found ourselves choosing to take a different route and avoid questions about his better-known works, instead focusing on his least-known songs. Curios like "Peggy's in the Pantry," a bizarre Sherry Parsons B-side from 1957 in which a jilted girl threatens to scratch her rival Peggy's eyes out for stealing her date. Or "Two Hour Honeymoon," a 1960 Paul Hampton death disk complete with car-crash sound effects and morbid spoken-word passages, which not only predates The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" but merges it with a swanky "Harlem Nocturne" coda.
Is it possible to tell the Bacharach story without concentrating on his parade of hits? Sure. Following are more than a dozen important Bacharach numbers that have been completely forgotten, some even by the man himself. Songs the world doesn't need now and didn't need then but were critical because they led to the ones that defined a sound that's influenced four generations of music.
Because of a pressing Bacharach engagement (taking his kids to a Dodgers game), we didn't hit on all of them, but maybe you can call out for some of these tunes at his upcoming engagement at the Celebrity Theatre, if only to see a grown man wince. Those of you who want to know what Dionne Warwick was really like or how Hal David came to write the lyrics to "One Less Bell to Answer" should get the excellently annotated Look of Love collection. We're here to play "Stump the Composer."
"Once in a Blue Moon" (1952) as recorded by Nat King Cole
This instrumental, the first known recording of a Bacharach song, remains one of his most obscure compositions, its lack of recognition compounded by the fact that he's rarely given the proper label credit for it. The 1997 CD reissue of Cole's Penthouse Serenade still incorrectly attributes it to Jerome Kern and Anne Caldwell.
Bacharach recalls this one instantly. "That was a song I wrote with my dad when I was in college. And Nat King Cole recorded it. Actually, it's Rubenstein's 'Melody in F,' so it was a real cop or a hat's off. Or maybe it was public domain. I can't even say."
"Keep Me in Mind" (1954) as recorded by Patti Page
It was during his road work as musical conductor with the Ames Brothers that Bacharach noticed that every tune the song pluggers were pitching to the quartet sounded suspiciously like "You You You," the group's number-one hit from the year before. Buoyed by the notion that he could do better, he quit the road to try his hand at songwriting full time. For the next year and a half, he would not be able to get a single song recorded.
Bacharach's persistence eventually paid off when a tune he'd written with lyricist Jack Wolf was recorded by the popular Patti Page. Bacharach doesn't ever refer to this first attempt at a pop tune by name -- "It was awful" are generally his first and last words on the matter. "Keep Me in Mind" isn't quite the musical hemorrhage he maintains it is, but Bacharach is doggedly dismissive of most of his work during this period.
"I wasn't having hits yet. I wasn't having any success. A lot of these songs, I couldn't give you the first note," he says.
As if to prove that notion, I have to sing four bars before there's even a glimmer of recognition on the other side of the phone for . . .
"The Morning Mail" (1956) as recorded by The Gallahads
Who was the first artist to have the honor of recording a Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune? All signs point to these guys, a white East Coast vocal group that was so thrilled with the number they relegated it to a B-side.
But "The Morning Mail" has a steady rockabilly beat and some persistently cheerful whistling that will be the hallmark of the first two Bacharach-David hits, "The Story of My Life" by Marty Robbins and "Magic Moments" by Perry Como. Bacharach laughs when he finally remembers the song, but can't confirm if it was actually the first B&D composition.
"Presents From the Past" (1957) as recorded by Cathy Carr
Another early B-side, notable only for being the first truly unhappy Bacharach and David song. Like a despondent cousin to the soon-to-be-hit "Magic Moments," the song finds Cathy Carr ruminating over a locket, a pressed rose and a high school sweater, mementos which no longer hold any magic for her.
The arrangement is even less magical, fashioned by some staff producer to sound like "The Tennessee Waltz." Bacharach would meet with greater success when he returned to the waltz idiom for the jazzy "Wives and Lovers," the snazzy "What's New Pussycat" and the classy "What the World Need Now Is Love."
"Sad Sack" (1957) as recorded by Jerry Lewis
Signed to Paramount's music publishing arm (Famous Music), Bacharach and David penned more than a dozen commissioned songs for the movie studio, with only a handful actually winding up in any films. The first Bacharach-David movie theme ever used was for comedian Jerry Lewis' second flick sans partner Dean Martin.
Here, Hal David shows his knack for encapsulating two hours of film stock into two minutes of song by letting Lewis sing about what a lovable schlub he is. Maybe the word "sing" is a bit of a stretch -- on the turnarounds, he moans, "How can I make her love me?" as if he's being shaken awake from an overdose of sleeping pills.
"That Kind of Woman" (1958) as recorded by Joe Williams
Another Paramount Pictures assignment, this "exploitation" song was named after the Carlo Ponti directed flick but wasn't actually featured in it. It's just as well, since a torch ballad hardly seems appropriate for a light comedy that struggles to find some kind of chemistry between Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter.
Of all the obscure Bacharach-David '50s-era recordings, "That Kind of Woman" easily stands alongside their best-known works. But it's one Burt Bacharach can't stand listening to, and his annoyance at how it was handled still rankles 42 years after the fact.
"I ran into things with A&R men, when they'd say, 'Well, I'll give you the record of that song, but first you've got to change this from a three-bar phrase to a four-bar phrase. Then it will make sense.' And it would ruin the song, y'know? 'That Kind of Woman' was a song that got recorded by Joe Williams and the Count Basie band."
It's still quite a beautiful song, though.
"It would've been better," he interjects, "if they'd left it alone. Nobody else ever recorded it. And nobody else ever will."
"I Could Make You Mine" (1960) and "Somebody Else's Sweetheart" (1961) as recorded by The Wanderers
In the '50s, only overly elocuted black singers like Johnny Mathis, Joe Williams, Gene McDaniels and Della Reese recorded Bacharach-David songs. But it's with rougher R&B artists like Chuck Jackson and the Drifters that the team would find their true voice.
But before all that happened, there was the Wanderers -- a group criminally overlooked by all but the most rabid doo-wop aficionados. This New York quartet had both the elegance of the Platters and the comic elements of the Coasters, plus a lead singer in Ray Pollard whose Herculean octave leaps make both these songs unexpected treasures of the genre.
For the team's first forays into "black music," Hal David employed the "triangle" song formula -- where the protagonist falls in love with his best friend's girl -- while Bacharach makes a musical joke of actually inserting a tingling triangle on "Somebody Else's Sweetheart." For the next few years, no song will escape a Manhattan recording studio without having some union player tingling a triangle.
While neither song was a hit, "I Could Make You Mine" is the only pre-Dionne song that Bacharach and David ever went back to the studio to recut with Ms. Warwick. It appeared on her Anyone Who Had a Heart album in 1964.
"Three Wheels on My Wagon" (1961) as recorded by Dick Van Dyke
"I think my writing started to get to where I was eventually going when they let me put things together in the studio, make the record and write the orchestrations," says Bacharach, referring to the turning point of his career.
Calvin Carter, A&R rep at Vee Jay records, was the one who suggested that Bacharach arrange Jerry Butler's recording of "Make It Easy on Yourself." However, the first time the composer was officially listed as a producer on a record label, it was for this admittedly less-than-prestigious Dick Van Dyke single, which carried the rare "Produced by Hilliard and Bacharach" credit on both sides.
From 1961 to 1963, Bacharach was writing as frequently with Bob Hilliard as he was with Hal David. The earliest Bacharach-Hilliard collaborations were novelty songs like this rousing ditty, which casts Van Dyke as a cheerful pioneer captured by Cherokees who still manages to lead them in a spirited chorus of "Higgedy haggedy haggedy hi!"
"Waiting for Charlie to Come Home" (1962) as recorded by Etta James
Not until the arrival of Dionne Warwick will luck be a lady for Burt. In the years between "Keep Me in Mind" and "Don't Make Me Over," 16 different female vocalists will record Bacharach tunes, and only one will get within spitting distance of the Top 40 -- Jane Morgan, with a meek No. 39 showing for "With Open Arms." Morgan also recorded a Bacharach-produced version of this Bacharach-Hilliard song, but her vigil for Charlie is a rather bland one; it's as if she's waiting for him to come home to bring her some aspirin.
On the definitive version of "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home," on-again, off-again junkie James sounds as if she won't make it for her next shipment of horse, emitting the kind of mercurial screams and pathos that Janis Joplin killed herself trying to emulate.
Bacharach often speaks of Dionne Warwick's ability to pull off difficult numbers and make them seem "effortless, without stress." Usually he left the audible discomfort to favored male singers like Chuck Jackson and the Drifters' Rudy Lewis. This record shows what might've happened if he'd let the ladies vent a little more.
"Fender Mender" (1966) as recorded by The Celestials
Revisionists have offered On the Flip Side as a candidate for the first rock opera, but there's too much script and too few songs for that description to stick. It is, however, Bacharach and David's first stab at writing a musical, albeit an hourlong TV special with commercial interruptions for Fab, Singer and Alka-Seltzer thrown in.
Teen idol Rick Nelson couldn't have felt great about portraying Carlos O'Conner, a rock star who's washed up at the age of 25. In real life Nelson was 27, and hadn't seen a Top 40 hit since the British Invasion of '64. Realizing that groups are the "in" thing, O'Conner enlists the talents of a backing troupe called the Celestials.
The forerunner to the Tony-winning Promises, Promises, On the Flip Side is the only time Hal David allowed lyrical references that date the songs to the '60s. "They're Gonna Love It" mentions miniskirts, and "Fender Mender" pays verbal homage to the Fab Four ("I wanna do the things the Beatles do," shriek the Celestials, with "yeah yeahs" inserted just in case someone missed the point).
Unlike peers who made fools of themselves to get a hit with the youth market (see Bob Hilliard's "Ringo for President" or Jack Wolf's "My Boyfriend Has a Beatle Haircut"), David wisely chose to maintain a respectable distance, while Bacharach made conservative use of a fuzz-distorted bass line. Somewhere underneath this Fifth Dimension foreshadowing track is a hard rocker that the Move might've been able to sledgehammer onto the charts.
"Long Ago Tomorrow" (1971) as recorded by B.J. Thomas
Coming off an Oscar win for "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," this stunning final collaboration between Thomas, Bacharach and David must've seemed like a sure bet. It's chockfull of horns, big buildups and odd breakdowns, plus a brilliant false ending.
Put out in the fall of 1971 and added to the American release of this British movie about paraplegics in love, neither the film nor the record was a hit, although Bacharach's arrangement was nominated for a 1972 Grammy award.
As "A House Is Not a Home" proved, a great song can't save a mediocre film. Take the recent score Bacharach did for the Jacqueline Susann bio-pic starring Bette Midler.
"I like the songs I wrote for Isn't She Great," says Bacharach. "I liked the lyrics Hal wrote for Dionne and Vanessa Williams, but the picture was a stiff. It doesn't matter what you write. If a picture dies, the music goes down with it."
"If I Could Go Back" (1973) as recorded by Peter Finch
Director Charles Jarrott should've known casting George Kennedy in 1973's Lost Horizon would've doomed it to be a disaster movie. And letting Sally Kellerman sing and do the twist is a move that has "box office turkey" written all over it. Just like having the best song in the score be sung by Peter Finch, the guy who played Howard "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Beale in Network.
The failure of Lost Horizon dragged quite a few careers down with it, especially Bacharach and David's. With quite a few good songs to commend it, we wondered whether Lost Horizon could ever be salvaged or revived as a stage musical, but Bacharach quickly dismisses that notion.
"You can't think that way because there ain't no chance that that's gonna happen," he chuckles.
"While I was doing it, it was just an unbelievable amount of work, and it was still fun. And I thought the songs were good. But the movie . . . it was a disaster. It doesn't matter if Peter Finch sings 'If I Could Go Back,' which is really a damn good song. That song by itself has a lot of heart. But you saw it in the movie and you don't give a fuck if he goes back or not.
"The whole experience was pretty bad because I kept fighting for the way the music should sound, and they wound up banning me from the dubbing stage and the mixing stage. It should've been thrilling because that's the way it was on tape. But it came out sounding compressed."
"After that," he sighs, "it was just 'I wanna get away from everybody, live down on the beach,' and that's what I did."
When reminded that he hasn't released a proper album of new songs under his own name since 1979's Woman, he says, "I know, I know. I've been approached by a couple of people. But for me to go in and make an album and put six or seven months into it and then they can't sell it, can't get it played on the right radio format at the right level, or the company is suddenly acquired, taken over by somebody who doesn't give a shit about it . . ." He pauses. "I'd rather just keep writing for other people. And maybe there will be an opportunity to come up there."
Fast forward to 1997 and the fortuitous pairing of Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Finally, Bacharach found an intense sparring partner after years of writing by committee with Carole Bayer Sager and any number of outside third parties like Bruce Roberts, Peter Allen and Neil Diamond.
And Costello, in keeping with Bacharach's exacting parameters and metering, finally trimmed the excess which marred his late-period writing. Cuts like "I Still Have That Other Girl" and "This House Is Empty Now" find Costello once again ruminating over his favorite subjects, guilt and remorse -- this time in a tuxedo! While the former song won the pair a Grammy last year, their album received little airplay.
"No. I don't think we even put out a single. That record company was going through a change," says Bacharach. "Mercury was falling apart; that was around the time everyone was getting fired. You can't do anything. It's out of your control."
Bacharach says he's keeping the door open for further possible collaborations with Costello. But in the meantime, do yourself a favor and attend the Maestro's concert this week. Thrill as he accents even the tiniest triangle with a subtle wrist twist, and hear him and his fine singers go through the whole legendary canon: "What the World Needs Now," "Trains and Boats and Planes, "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," "Walk On By," Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" -- all the usual suspects.
He even promises he'll try to find a song to play at the concert that you've never heard. But don't hold your breath waiting for "Peggy's in the Pantry."
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