Burt Bacharach is the prince of popular music. He's the
latest in a distinguished line of American popular composers which includes
Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter--a line that goes back to Stephen
Foster and beyond. At 40, Bacharach has chalked up an impressive string of hits,
including "Walk On By," "What the World Needs Now Is Love,"
and "Alfie," each of which has been recorded by hundreds of artists.
He won two Academy Awards this year, for scoring "Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid" and for the movies song, "Raindrops Keep Falling
on My Head," which has sold 3 million copies in the original B.J. Thomas
recording and, more astoundingly, has sold almost a million copies of sheet
music in an era when a big sale is 150,000.
Not only is Bacharach talented and rich beyond the dreams of avarice, he has
a shy, winning manner to go with his princely good looks (lyricist Sammy Kahn
says hes the only composer who doesnt look like a dentist). He has
come out from behind the usual facelessness of composers to become a performer
on his own. This week, in fact, he is starring in his second "Kraft Music
Hall" television show. And late last month he gave a series of live concerts
at the Westbury Music Fair before sold-out, enraptured houses. David Merrick,
producer of the Broadway hit "Promises, Promises," which was Bacharachs
first musical comedy, says, "Burt has turned out to be a sex symbol. Hes
probably the biggest instant success since Barbra Streisand."
The essential Bacharach was in evidence at Westbury. The lights dimmed, the
drums rolled, a messianic voice cried, "Ladies and Gentlemen, MISTER Burt
BACHARACH." Down one of the aisles in the theater in the round sauntered
a jaunty Bacharach, grinning broadly as if to say, "Im as surprised
to see me here like this as you are," pausing to shake hands along the
aisle with well-wishers, most of whom he insists are cousins. He was raised
not too far from Westbury, N.Y.
Centering himself onstage, alongside two pianos (one electric) surrounded by
30 musicians and four girl singers, he led an hour and a half of his own music--suites,
medleys and solos of a whose series of his hits written with lyricist Hal David:
such songs as "Ill Never Fall In Love Again," "The Look
of Love," "This Guys in Love With You," "Do You Know
the Way to San Jose," and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." He has a
calisthenically emotional style of conducting that involves doing simultaneous
knee bends at the pianos, swiveling to fire musical directions at the different
sections of the band, using his hands like karate choppers, generating an excitement
among the musicians and--especially when he sang a littler--among the audience.
"I mean, to get the emotion, it has to be generated by somebody,"
said a perspiration-drenched Bacharach afterward. "Im not trying
to prove anything as a conductor. Or as a pianist. Technically, Im probably
rotten at both. But its heartfelt, its honest. Its my music.
Ive got a feeling, you know, Im not just beating time. Im
free and I dont care what I look like."
Significant at Westbury was the fact that the youthful Bacharach has already
composed enough marvelous songs for an entire evenings entertainment and
that his audience was a cross section from 8 to 80. Recently he received a letter
from a young girl in Catholic school asking him to write a school yell for her.
"What would take me two weeks will take you only five minutes," she
wrote. "P.S. The nuns dig you too."
The tradition of popular song in America is distinctive because the musical mainstream was fed from the ethnic melting pot, chiefly, of course, by Negro music. The songs of Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers in their own way refracted the time in which they were written. Bacharachs music is as much the 70s as Cole Porterss and George Gershwins was the 20s and 30s. It pulsates restlessly, charges up and down the scale recklessly, rouses itself from a dying fall into an atomic explosion. The dynamics of "Walk On By" range from a double pianissimo to a triple forte.
Its a lopsided kind of music, full of surprises which keep it fresh and
vital and keep the listener off balance. More than anything, its alive,
with an inner tension, a restrained energy that is intensely dramatic. Even
a cantering song such as "Raindrops" seethes with tension; each downbeat
is restrained violence and the loping meter is like the gait of a horse ready
to gather its bulging muscles and surge over some high fence.
Bacharachs remarkable record of hits is all the more astonishing in view
of the fragmented universe of contemporary pop music. None of his illustrious
predecessors had to contend with a youth culture concentrated in hard rock and
with large separate audiences on one hand for rhythm and blues and on the other
or country and Western.
"Times change," says Irving Berlin, "not music." But Hoagy
Carmichael, composer of "Star Dust," played a new song in California
last week and said, "Ill bet you anything nobody will ever record
it." It was simpler when Berlin was at his height," says Richard Rodgers.
"Songs were so beautifully simple. I dont think Burt Bacharach would
have been possible in the 30s. Hes not interested in the 32-bar
form or in 8-bar phrases. And I think its healthy."
Bacharach has flourished brilliantly by breaking most of the accepted rules,
beginning with the cardinal principle that the melody must be accessible to
the man in the street. Except for professionals, few people can sing or whistle
Bacharach. Everyone can begin "Alfie," but who can go on to the second
line? Or who can reproduce the last line of "Ill Never Fall in Love
Again" (the hit tune from "Promises, Promises") with its provocative
and tantalizing switches between a 4/4 rhythm to a 2/4 rhythm.
Bacharchs musical pulse fibrillates constantly, as in the multiple time
changes of "Dont Make Me Over," or the perversely accented lyrics
in "Do You Know the Way to San Jose." "When I first started to
write," says Bacharach, "the A&R man would say, Oh, theyll
never be able to dance to it. And because A&R men were like second
lieutenants I listened and ruined some good songs. What Ive found is that
if its a good tune people will find a way to move to it."
Bacharachs songs are performers songs--and not every performer
can do them. "Youve practically got to be a music major to sing Bacharach,"
says Dionne Warwick, who was a music major at Hartt College in West Hartford,
Conn,, when Bacharach discovered her in 1962. Perry Como, who recorded Bacharachs
first hit, Magic Moments, in 1957, says "Raindrops is a helluva
tune. You dont quite know what youre doing. Bacharach thinks wild.
But its premeditated." Polly Bergen, with whom Bacharach first worked
fifteen years ago, says, "I did A House Is Not a Home recently--a
great song. But I never did find the timing. I made them write it so I could
end up with the band--regardless of how I got lost along the way, and did I
"Ive never deliberately set out to break any rules," said Bacahrach
recently, lazing in the spring sun beside the pool at his rented Beverly Hills
house where he lives with his wife, actress Angie Dickinson, and their 4-year-old
daughter, Nikki. "I look back at songs and wish I could have simplified
them. Its not done to be clever. Youve got less than two minutes
in a song and you just want every second to count. Forget rules. Just listen
and feel. My trouble is that these so-called abnormalities seem conventional
and normal to me."
Bacharach reacts to todays changing musical scene like a hungry lion.
"When rocknroll happened," he says, "the authorities,
the second lieutenants, missed it, the way I missed Hair,"--I didnt
get it until the sixth hearing. The teen-agers had better taste. They were right
about their music, about its beat and validity. In ten years, how the Beatles,
and others, have kept growing."
To make an unmistakable sound all his own, Bacharach has assimilated the sounds
and rhythms of his time in his music: the electronic wave, the rock beat, the
tempos of Brazil, the electricity of rhythm and blues, the fervor of gospel
("I put that there," says Dionne Warwick). The Bacharach sound is
hard rather than soft, more physical then emotional, more body than heart. It
make you want to dance, not sing.
Bacharach is a new breed in more than musical form. For him the song is only
the first step. "I get a greater kick out of making the record," he
says. For him the record is the song and the ultimate goal. "You can have
a hell of a song," he says, "and have it spoiled by a bad arrangement
or production. Because of the competition today and the enormous influence of
the record industry, you need the right showcase for a song."
The classically trained Bacharach not only composes the song but orchestrates it, conducts the recording session, oversees the mixing of tapes and has even gone so far as to recall a record--"Raindrops"--after it was already pressed, because he was disappointed in it. Twentieth Century Fox, about to release the movie, put up flak. But Bacharach, who was in England, was firm. "For me, if its off per cent and a half, that looms large. Its my life. And I felt the beginning was too fast." He flew back to New York, dug out some of the previous tapes he remembered liking and spliced number five--actually a monaural take--onto the original master.
A Bacharach record, stamped from beginning to end with his style and vision,
begins with the songs composition. "I usually know Ive got
something if I cant sleep," he says. "Its a healthy sign
even if Im exhausted in the morning. What I hear is pure melody, no beat.
I never write at the piano. You want to get free of your hands--theyll
go to the familiar, trap you in the pretty chords. I never ever orchestrate
at the piano except to check. The better you are as a pianist the easier youre
trapped. Its lucky Im not so good."
He and lyricist Hal David have been working together since 1957. Except in
a song such as "Alfie," in which the lyrics had to come first because
of the movie, theres no pattern to their collaboration. It may be a title,
a line of Davids, a snatch of melody, a complete stanza, an idea. "The
key to Hal," says Bacharach, "is his flexibility. Hes a terribly
nice guy. When he writes What the world need now is love, sweet love,
he believes it. Hes kind and gentle, which is important when you have
to stay in a room with him all day. Of course he smokes a lot," adds Bacharach,
who cant abide tobacco odors. "But I remember when he stopped smoking
once for about three months--his whole personality changes. I was glad when
he started again." "He never looks for an edge," says the 49-year-old
David about his partner. "So we dont wind up telling each other what
we dont believe and dont want to hear. The air--except for my smoking--is
For Bacharach, the painful process in producing the record is the orchestration.
Despite his good intentions, he never seems to start writing until the messenger
is sitting there waiting to collect the parts and get them copied. "Its
a question of what you hear," he says. "Whats going to fit,
in the rhythm section, on the second and fourth beat--not how can you show everybody
what great orchestrations you can write. Its a goddam crossword puzzle
and what I keep is what I think will help the song and free the singer. Of course,
if the song isnt there, youre not going to disguise it with beautiful
What Bacharach calls the moment of truth came in the recording studio on an
evening not long ago in the A&M Records studio in New York. Along with Bacharach
and David were sound engineer Phil Ramone, Bacharachs second pair of ears,
four girl singers, and 30 musicians led by the rhythm section whose nucleus
is drummer Gary Chester, bassist Russ Savakus and guitarist Bill Suyker. And,
of course, the star, Dionne Warwick, ready to record "Paper Mache"
(to be released this week), "Let Me Go to Him" and "Ill
Never Fall in Love Again."
"I feel," said Bacharach, "as if my whole life stands or falls at this moment. Its really a great challenge, with the musicians, some of whom have played sessions earlier that day, some of whom have colds, and Dionne who has to be hot. A lot of records are made piecemeal, great records too, with the rhythm section on one track and the singer two months later in another country on another track. But I prefer it live, like a crap game, with everyone hearing everyone else at the same time."
As it turned out, it was Dionne who was sick but uncomplaining even when the
compulsive Bacharach held up the session for twenty minutes trying to get a
subtle hollow sound only he could hear from the marimba. "Honey, youre
the heroine of the century," he said to her as she sipped tea for her sore
He started each song by playing it through on the piano. Only Dionne had seen
the song before. One man sat in the back reading Yachting magazine and Burt
glanced up but didnt speak and the man put the magazine down. Every four
or five takes, Burt repaired to the control room and listened with his eyes
closed. "I dont want to be distracted," he says. "I want
the sound low, I want it monaural, I dont want to dupe myself or let anybody
talk me into anything."
Bacharahc drove himself and the musicians relentlessly. "Hes possessed,"
says Russ Savakus, "and a little of each mans flesh is left in the
session." Dionne Warwick notes, "Its uncanny how the musicians
absolutely adore him." Occasionally one, like Gary Chester, who has played
for Bacharach for fourteen years, might say something like, "This feels
a little left-handed," and Bacharach might let him try it his way. "Were
all extension of him," says Chester. "Mostly the problem is to find
out how to do it his way."
He finally seemed satisfied with "Ill Never Fall in Love Again"
after about fifteen takes. "Sensational," he grinned. "It really
kills me. Lets do it one more time," bringing forth a mixture of
laughter and catcalls. They were used to his perfectionism. "If it doesnt
work, Ive only myself to blame," he says.
Throughout the session he seemed never to take his eyes off Dionne. "Weve
got a tremendous thing going between us," he says. "Theres a
great kind of love transmitted, a happiness, shes the thing that makes
everything lighter." He discovered her when she was a background singer.
"She had pigtails and dirty white sneakers," he recalls, "and
she just shone, as she shines now. Our first record was Dont make
Me Over--she had to sing an octave and a sixth and did with her eyes closed."
Dionne has recorded all of the 192 songs Bacharach and David have written and
sold 12.5 million singles. "his music is my college degrees," she
says. "Hes fiercely loyal to anybody and anything he loves. Hes
a groovy cat."
At the last Westbury concert, Bacharach, exceptionally close to his parents,
introduced his mother and walked over and kissed her. She was responsible for
his taking piano lessons. It was lucky because he also tried drumming. "I
couldnt keep time to the radio," he says of those days growing up
in Forest Hills, N.Y., where he was the smallest boy in high school. "I
was also a cellist," he says. "It was a rented cello. They even gave
me a bow. The whole outfit."
What he really liked at 15 was Dizzy Gillespie and Harry James. Once in a bus
on his way to a piano lesson in Manhattan he was whistling and the young man
seated next to him said, "Is that The Two OClock Jump?"
He was a musician too, it turned out, named Leonard Bernstein. "I never
heard of you," said Burt. And when he got off at his stop he said, "So
long, Lenny see you at the top."
During that summer just after the war he as selected to go on a USO tour of
Army hospitals, playing boogie-woogie piano. "The first place was in Martinsburg,
W.Va., a special hospital for plastic surgery, for guess with their faces shot
off. It was my first time away from home and my mother let me take off my braces
for the tour. When I came back I wouldnt put them back on."
The next summer he got a quintet together, whose members included Eddie Shaughnessy,
currently a drummer with the "Tonight" show band, to play at a hotel
in the Catskills. They slept across the road from the hotel on five cots in
a converted chicken shack. They were getting 200 a week, most of which went
to Shaughnessy, who was taking care of his mother. Business was bad and the
manager kept cutting their salary. Eventually they were down to $40 a week,
which went to Shaughnessys mother. "We couldnt go home,"
says Burt. "The city meant polio in those days. We were like prisoners.
One morning we work up to five engines. The hotel had burned down. We cheered."
Bacharach spent three years studying music seriously at McGill University in
Montreal, going out in the summer to Tanglewood and to SantaBarbara to study
composition with Darius Milhaud. His ambition to become a serious composer wavered
during his two years in the Army and when he got out he became the accompanist
for a series of performers including Vic Damone, the Ames Brothers and, memorably,
Polly Bergen. They worked together on a ship that cruised nightly between Washington
and Baltimore. "I had a terrific crush on her," Burt says. Polly recalls,
"What an accompanist. He knew when I was going to breathe before I did."
It was seeing the songs offered to the Ames Brothers that turned Bacharach
to writing his own. "I figured they were so simple I could turn out four
a day. I got an office in the Brill Bulding in New York and my songs sounded
as if I turned out ten a day. Its not so easy to write a simple song.
I worked there every day for ten months and never got a song published. Ive
got a lot of friends there still, but I cant go into that building. Never."
At night Bacharach moonlighted, playing piano for Georgia Gibbs, for Joel Grey
and for Steve Lawrence. Because he loves sports, in 1957 he went on a tour of
Army bases in North Africa with the Harlem Globetrotters. "I brought my
sneakers," says Bacharach, because I hoped that Abe Saperstein, the owner,
would let me into at least one game. Saperstein used to say to me, Bacharach
I may have you suit up tonight, and Id say, Just one jump
shot, Abe, please. It never happened."
From 1958 to 1961, long before Bacharach became famous as a composer, he was
the pianist and conductor and arranger for Marlene Dietrich, and her career
blossomed into a beautiful Indian summer. "Shes the most generous
and giving woman I know," he says. "If I had a cold shed swamp
me with vitamin C. She once pulverized six steaks for their juice to give me
energy. She used to wash my shirts. On the first day I met her, I played a song
of mine called Warm and Tender and she went to the phone and called
Frank Sinatra, who wasnt too interested. Youll be sorry,
she told him. Youll ask him to write for you one day."
Has he? "Yes."
Dietrich says, "He used to tell me, just relax and sit back and let the
notes come. When you know he is looking after you, you can sit back." For
a long time after he returned to songwriting, Burt would drop everything to
fly to Dietrich in Copenhagen or London and prepare the musicians for her concerts.
At the end of a London concert she said, "I cant love him any more
than I love him now. Hes my teacher, hes my critic, hes my
accompanist, hes my arranger, hes my conductor, and I wish I could
say his is my composer, but that isnt true. Hes everybodys
Being everybodys composer has made Bacharach an outrageously wealthy
man. Hes wealthy enough to afford a racing stable, whose most recent acquisition,
his sixth, a filly called Lalellah, cost $37,000. It cost him $10,000 a year
to maintain each horse. He ahs a music publishing house valued at around $2
million. He gets $35,000 a week for concerts alone, plus half the publishing
rights to his movie scores. His 8 per cent share on his own records for A&M
so far amounts to $640,000. Scepter Records, which records both Dionne Warwick
and B.J. Thomas, palys him and Hal David more than $1.5 million a year. He has
also earned 2 per cent of the $8 million gross from Broadways "Promises,
Promises," as well as a sizable sum from the five other companies in the
U.S. and abroad.
All the money he makes goes to his business manager, who has brought him two
restaurants, the Dover House and Rothemanns on Long Island, a car-washing
service in New Jersey, and 500 head of cattle and a lot of real estate in Georgia.
Burt gets an allowance which he can spend in any way he wants. And free meals
in the restaurants.
"Money means freedom to work on what I want," says Bacharach. "And
how I want." If he didnt have so much money he would probably be
less of a perfectionist. Personally, hes soft-spoken, quick to laugh,
warm toward people. Professionally, hes a charioteer who considers himself
and musicians as horses. His pulsating, driving, explosive music is his own
reflection, his restlessness and his insistent search for new challenges that
somehow will satisfy his impatience.
"Promises, Promises" was just such a challenge. Burt remembers composer
Jule Styne saying that you havent done anything until youve written
a Broadway show. Producer David Merrick says, "Ive known composers
who wrote a hundred songs to get fifteen numbers." In Burts case
all but two of his songs were used. One of them was written to order in Boston
the day after Burt got out of the hospital where he had had pneumonia. He and
David wrote it in a day and it went into the show the following night. It was
"Ill Never Fall in Love Again." Burt has words of advice to
musical comedy writer: "Dont get pneumonia on the road."
Bacharach approached "Promises" with the idea of turning the theater
into a recording studio, using Phil Ramone, putting seventeen microphones and
four girl singers in the pit and speakers all over the theater. "Six days
after it opened," he says, "I couldnt listen to it without breaking
into a cold sweat at the distorted sound and the speeded-up tempos. That was
a year and a half out of my life."
Along with supervising new companies of "Promises, Promises," weighing
offers of film scoring, doing TV shows, and writing new songs with Hal David,
Bacharach has in the last six months embarked on a whole new challenge of public
concerts. "Were exposed, naked, like in a fishbowl," he says.
"The music can be damned difficult but you cant stop as if it were
a studio. Its a competition with on chance to win, and what you win is
the live audience, to make them really listen and care about the music."
Bacharach sings a couple of songs in the course of the concert. "I dont
have as much difficulty in listening to myself as I used to," he says.
"They say nobody can sing a song like its composer. Thats probably
why I shouldnt sing at all. I sing on my records--a little. A deejay called
me to say, I love the album but why did you have to sing?"
Actually he sings well and with great effect. Nobody can sing a song like its
The audiences apparently think so. Hes besieged by autograph seekers.
"This kind of acclaim is new to me," he says. "And I wouldnt
be human if I didnt like it." His wife, Angie, says, "Hes
surprised that he likes performing and the applause. Its different for
the rest of us. We work for fame, to be public personalities. He works to write
great songs, not be the one they scream for."
She admits that his latest venture puts a strain on their marriage. "Im
a day person and so is our Nikki. I dont think I could be married to a
nightclub performer. Anyway, I think that if the dent in his creative life gets
any deeper hell give everything else up. He knows whats important.
I think that one proof of how good our marriage is, is that he hasnt stopped
writing good songs. The reason its good is probably separate bathrooms."
Bacharach is acutely conscious of the syncopated tempo of his life. Im
more highly strung than I was," he says. "You have to pay a price
for being what you are. If I could put my head down at night, go to sleep like
everyone else, I wouldnt write the music I do. The trouble with being
busy is that you either neglect and thus hurt people--or yourself by trying
not to hurt them."
Horseracing is his great escape valve. He was inconsolable last week when his
horse, Nikkis Promise, finished third at Hollywood Park. "My misfortune,"
says Bacharach, "was to have my first horse, Battle Royal, win my first
race. I had the No. 1 and No. 4 songs in the country and they didnt compare
with that feeling. I like the people too, like Bill Shoemaker and my trainer,
Charley Whittingham. They dont talk about the movie they just lost or
the record that was a smash in Chicago. Its a no-crap world." Trainer
Whittingham says, "Burt and I have an agreement. As long as I dont
write songs, hes wont train horses."
"Sure I do too much," says Bacharach. "Youve got to do
it all, youve only one chance. How long are you going to live, stay healthy,
keep you mind sharp, your body strong? Im an impatient man. I go one month
at a time. Thats why Angie and I rent the house. I couldnt wait
for one to get built. Thats why I dont won a yearling. I cant
wait for it to grow into a racehorse
But there are moments when he gets fed up with his harried life. In a rare
moment of introspection, he said, "Maybe work is a private little torture
chamber you inflict on yourself to shut out the world. Sometimes I have this
fantasy that Ill just stop, go into one of the restaurants, greet the
people, play the piano a bit and go to the track every day. A mans a fool
if success is more than trying to forget the day that just passed. Happiness
is a question of percentages. Youre lucky to get a 50-50 split.
"I know its time for me not to be a public person. I just turned down both Dick Cavett and David Frost. Theres writing to do. I have to record Dionne in a week and a half. Ive got to get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and write music. Or improvise, or make contact. Touch music. Touch it.