The music world truly lost one of the greats when songwriter Hal David passed away at age 91 following a stroke this past Saturday in Los Angeles. To borrow an old joke, the lyricist wasn't from the old school, he was from the school they tore down to build the old school: The artists who covered his work read like an easy-listening/adult-contemporary hall of fame: Dionne Warwick, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow and Tom Jones.
But so did Bill Evans, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Dusty Springfield, Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. Since 2004 the Songwriters Hall of Fame, into which David was inducted in 1972, has bestowed the Hal David Starlight Award on one promising young newcomer. Past winners include Alicia Keys, John Legend, Jason Mraz, Taylor Swift and 2012 honoree Ne-Yo.
Most often paired with longtime partner Burt Bacharach's intricate and bittersweet melodies, David's lyrics helped send dozens of songs to the Top 10 from the late '50s through 1984, when Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias' "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. He and Bachrach took home the 1969 Best Original Song Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," their only win in four nominations.
His words could be corny -- like "so they sprinkled moon dust in your hair, of golden starlight in your eyes of blue" from the Carpenters' hit "(They Long to Be) Close to You" -- but they had a quiet sophistication that largely got pushed aside when the likes of "she loves you, yeah yeah yeah" came along. He did continue writing successfully long into the rock era, however.
Here are ten of David's best lines out of the 20 songs mentioned in David's New York Timesobituary this past Sunday.
Song: "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" Lyric: "What do you get when you kiss a girl/ You get enough germs to catch pneumonia" Comment: Nothing says romance like potentially contracting a life-threatening illness. But that's what makes it worthwhile. Try This Version: Joe Tex, From the Roots Came the Rapper (Atlantic, 1972)
Song: "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" Lyric: "And all the stars that never were/ Are parking cars and pumping gas" Comment: A showbiz washout is looking for a ride back home; he's got lots of friends there, but needs directions. Huh? Try This Version: Dionne Warwick In Valley of the Dolls (Scepter, 1968)
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Song: "What's New, Pussycat?" Lyric: "I've got flowers and lots of hours to spend with you/ So go and powder your cute little pussycat nose" Comment: Reading David's lyrics today can be like a dictionary of phrases that exited the vernacular long ago. Or if people still say "powder your nose," they don't mean it the way Tom Jones did. Try This Version: Bob Marley & the Wailers, Destiny: Rare Ska Sides From Studio One (Rounder Select, 1999)
Song: "Alfie" Lyric: "And if only fools are kind, Alfie/ Then I guess it's wise to be cruel" Comment: Think Nick Lowe ever heard this song? Try This Version: Stevie Wonder, Live at the Talk of the Town (Motown, 1970)
Song: "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" Lyric: "To all the girls who shared my life/ Who now are someone else's wives" Comment: A gracious and classy way to treat a sometimes-delicate situation. Albert Hammond Sr., sire of the Strokes guitarist, wrote the music. Try This Version: The one with Willie, of course -- Julio Iglesias, 1100 Bel Air Place (CBS/Columbia, 1984)
Song: "What the World Needs Now Is Love (Sweet Love)" Lyric: "Lord, we don't need another meadow/ There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow" Comment: A tart little poke at the kind of purple songwriting so enamored of those amber waves of grain. Try This Version: Wes Montgomery, Bumpin' on Sunset (Verve, 2007)
Song: "Wishin' and Hopin'" Lyric: "Just wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'/ Plannin' and dreamin', his kiss is the start" Comment: That's an awful lot of verbs (and apostrophes) for one tiny little kiss. Try This Version: Dusty Springfield, A Girl Called Dusty (Mercury, 1964)
Song: "The Look of Love" Lyric: "The look of love is saying so much more than words could ever say" Comment: The mark of a skilled songwriter? He knows when even his words aren't enough to accurately describe the big L. Try This Version: Diana Krall, The Look of Love (Verve, 2001)
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Song: "Walk On By" Lyric: "Foolish pride is all that I have left/ So let me hide/ The tears and sadness you gave me when you said goodbye" Comment: The stoicism here is heartbreaking. Try This Version: The Stranglers, The Collection 1977-1982 (EMI, 1982)
Song: "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" Lyric: "And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed/ Nothin' seems to fit" Comment: As someone who has spent much of his life sleeping in the kitchen with our feet in the hall (our grandma's words), Rocks Off can definitely relate. Try This Version: Manic Street Preachers, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of Manic Street Preachers (Sony, 2003)