It's easy to be awed by Burt Bacharach. He's one of the most prolific quality pop songwriters of the past four decades. His melodic tunes have broken into the Billboard Top 40 on 66 occasions, beginning with Marty Robbins's version of "The Story of My Life" in '57, and 28 of them have hit the Top 10. He has nabbed the No. 1 position six times, and his music has won a few Academy Awards, a few Grammys and a Tony. He was also married to everybody's favorite Police Woman, superbabe Angie Dickinson. Not bad for a guy who really wanted to play football and hated taking piano lessons.
Today, Bacharach is considered cool. He wasn't always. There was a time when he was considered little more than king of the middle road, the guy who wrote all those syrupy ballads. Now, his music is the subject of CD boxed sets and TV specials. The ever-growing "lounge" culture is promoting Bacharach as a songwriter without peer. His appearance in Austin Powers lent a certain elegance to the movie's proceedings. (Bacharach also makes a cameo on the new Powers film.) The Posies' remake of Bacharach's 1965 gem, "What the World Needs Now Is Love," stands out as one of the soundtrack's hippest moments. Bacharach has even recorded an album with new wave/punk's founding father, Elvis Costello, and the alternative rock scene has embraced him as one of the best composers of all time as such artists as Oasis, R.E.M. and former Cardinal Eric Matthews have paid homage to Bacharach in interviews and on record.
"I'm very glad that they have," Bacharach says of the praise. "A lot of these songs, when they were hits the first time around, these guys like Noel Gallagher [of Oasis] weren't even born yet. It's not like they're rediscovering it. They're discovering the music maybe for the first time. It's great when something like that happens."
Of course, Bacharach has always been cool, whether "hip" musicians or the rock press knew it or not. Bacharach experienced his greatest success throughout the duration of the '60s. Before the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones topped the charts, Bacharach was writing hits for the Shirelles and the Drifters, and by '62 he and lyricist/partner Hal David had found a young singer named Dionne Warwick to sing their songs ideally.
That partnership consistently delivered hits, even as Warwick's beautiful love-torn voice was the antithesis of the rock movement. In fact, during the psychedelic period of the late '60s, Bacharach was a chart-producing machine, writing hit after hit for Warwick and other acts such as Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and B.J. Thomas. It wasn't until '71 that Bacharach's ability to write a hit single at will faded; but one can hardly attribute that to his style going out of vogue. David Gates had become the new pop ballad king.
Though the '70s were lackluster for Bacharach, the '80s found him knocking out chart toppers, including "Arthur's Theme" and "That's What Friends Are For." His current revival began in the mid-'90s, as pop icons began to laud his work and baby boomers, who grew up with his brand of songwriting, longed to hear him again. If a Bacharach revival seems unlikely on the surface, consider this: Bacharach is one of the most original pop songwriters of the second half of the century. Many of his compositions have unique little twists, such as the pacing shifts in "What the World Needs Now Is Love." Though very sweet in nature, Bacharach's songs rise above typical pop ballad fare because they are far from formulaic. Even his most standard songs have some personality and nuance.
Bacharach's stylist techniques can be traced back to his formal and informal music education. Formally, he studied theory and composition under such modern classical heavyweights as Darius Mulhaud, Bohuyslav Martinu and Henry Cowell. Informally, he made fake IDs and sneaked into clubs to catch bebop legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. "I always gravitated toward jazz," Bacharach says. "One of my heroes was Dizzy Gillespie. It was just a wonderful form of music, very advanced from what I had been used to hearing when I was a kid."
Hearing jazz interpretations of popular standards no doubt affected Bacharach's style of songwriting, which uses ornamental phrases jazz musicians often incorporate into pop standards. His songs are jazz-friendly, as Bacharach is one of the few songwriters of the past several decades whose melodies have enough substance for jazz interpretation. Yet, even some in the jazz community were slower than others to give Bacharach full props, Stan Getz's '67 commercial tribute to Bacharach, What the World Needs Now notwithstanding. The jazz world may have been divided on the weight of Bacharach's legacy, but when jazz icon, revolutionary and former John Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner cut an album of Bacharach songs in '97, the debate was over. Bacharach's canon was obviously some serious stuff.
"Anytime you get a giant like McCoy who does an album of your material, it kind of blows you away because he's brilliant," Bacharach says. "It's in the same league as having dinner with Miles Davis, and Miles is saying, 'That's a really good song, "Alfie."' That's really good validation. Boy, if you have a lot of doubt or some doubt as a writer and you hear somebody like Miles Davis say that's a really good song... that changes your view because you have such respect for him."
Bacharach, of course, needs little validation. One listen to his collection of pop songs is all it takes to realize he is a master songwriter. His songs are becoming American Popular Standards, a term usually reserved for music by the likes of Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin. To that end, Bacharach has become a living legend of sorts.
"Whenever I hear something like that it's very flattering," Bacharach says. "It also makes me a little nervous, and I'm not sure about that position for me. Somebody mentions Cole Porter and me in the same breath. That's kind of like all too powerful and a little intimidating for me, and I'm not ready to accept that. I can't. But let me say that maybe if the world chooses to, hey," he says with a laugh, "I'm certainly grateful."
Burt Bacharach performs with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street, on Thursday, May 6, and Friday, May 7, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. Call (713)224-4240 for ticket information.
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