Not everyone uses terms like “gifted” and “sophisticated” about mainstream pop hits, but both terms definitely apply to the great Burt Bacharach, who has died at the age of 94. His career is a famously checkered one, with Grammys and Oscars and famous partnerships both on the page and in the recording studio and full of comebacks and new chapters and . But the truth is his life was equally checkered – if not more so.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Bacharach learned the piano at an early age thanks to his mother’s urging. After obtaining a B.A. in music from Montreal’s McGill University, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. There, he met singer Vic Damone and toured the First Army area as a “concert pianist.” From there, he moved to New York, playing clubs but also worked as a songwriter in the famed Brill Building.
It was there that he met his first significant collaborator, Hal David. Together, with David as lyricist, the two composed “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Walk on By,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “This Guy’s In Love With You,” earning the nickname of the “Rodgers & Hart” of the 1960s, thanks to a sound that fused intricate arrangements with earworm-like melodies and jazz and rock elements into a smoother sound. Some of their work echoed Cole Porter, and Bacharach’s ability to integrate Brazilian rhythms into his music recalled Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”
Singer Dionne Warwick didn’t just popularize many of the songs; she served as a muse, encouraging to push their songs harder: “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “I Say a Little Prayer” brought more rhythm to the melodies. Other vocalists who scored hits with their songs were Herb Alpert, The Carpenters, Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield, and B.J. Thomas, who had Hot 100 No. 1 hit with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That film earned Bacharach two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy for best score. He had received three previous Oscar nominations for the title themes of What’s New Pussycat?, Alfie, and “The Look of Love” (from Casino Royale). The Bacharach-David team was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. Forty years later, shortly before David died at age 91, the two received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress.
If you think his early career success seemed impossible to maintain, you’d be right. Eventually a few obstacles emerged. Promises, Promises adapted Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, but a lot of social and cultural changes in the intervening decade made the musical incapable of capturing the film’s mix of sass and cynicism – though numbers from the score, including the title song and “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” continue to be performed by vocalists to this day. Another adaptation, Lost Horizon, did even worse. Bacharach also dissolved his partnerships with both David and Warwick, and eventually divorced his wife, Angie Dickinson, as well. In his autobiography, “Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music,” written with Robert Greenfield, Bacharach said that “it was all my fault, and I can’t imagine how many great songs I could have written with Hal in the years we were apart.”
Bacharach saw new personal and professional highs, however, in the early 1980s, through his collaboration with the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, whom he married in 1982. He won another Oscar for Best Song for “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” which he shared with Peter Allen, singer Christopher Cross, and Sager. Bacharach and Sager won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year for Dionne Warwick and Friends’ 1985 AIDS research charity smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” and were nominated for the R&B song “On My Own,” recorded by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, making history by having two songs top three of pop music’s yearend record lists. (He and Sager divorced in 1991.)
Bacharach continued to find new fans and new partners in subsequent decades. Elvis Costello collaborated with him on the ballad “God Give Me Strength” for Allison Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart, loosely based on the life of Carole King in the Brill Building era. Costello proved to be a terrific late-career interpreter of the Bacharach sound. The two followed that up with the album, “Painted From Memory,” arranged and conducted by Mr. Bacharach, for which they shared music and lyric credits. A track from that album, “I Still Have That Other Girl,” won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Collaboration. Bacharach won a seventh competitive Grammy in 2006 for “At This Time,” which won Best Pop Instrumental Album, followed by a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2008.
Bacharach worked even into his tenth decade: In December 2011, Some Lovers, a musical for which he wrote the music and Steven Sater wrote the lyrics, opened at the Old Globe in San Diego. What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, a New York Theater Workshop production built on his songs, opened Off-Broadway in December 2013. (An earlier revue based on the Bacharach-David catalog, “The Look of Love,” had a brief Broadway run in 2003.) As recently as 2020, Mr. Bacharach was still working on new music, releasing a collaboration with the singer-songwriter Melody Federer.
One honor eluded him: the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor. Despite a profligate career, Bacharach’s output could occasionally be dismissed – his work celebrated emotion over storytelling, evergreen over gravitas. And he emerged in an era when he was surrounded by a more overtly substantive or political sound. Well, there’s no more political rebuke to civil unrest and Vietnam than “What the World Needs Now.” Love, loss, friendship and romance has as much to say as any work of art.
Bacharach’s music provided the soundtrack for a lifetime.
Here are just a few of Bacharach’s greatest hits:
“Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)”
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
“Walk on By,” “Promises, Promises”
“What the World Needs Now”