Burt Bacharach has never understood the term ‘easy listening’. ‘Songs don’t come easy,’ the 91-year-old assures Weekend. ‘They never did. Everything is a challenge. Some of the songs I’ve written are not easy to sing, but I’m fine with that. You challenge the audience with what you write, and you challenge the artist.’
Case in point: Cilla Black’s 1966 recording of Alfie, for which Bacharach demanded 32 takes (only for producer George Martin to tell him take four had been just fine). ‘It drove her crazy,’ he laughs. ‘I was looking for a 100% performance from her, and from the whole orchestra. So I went on a little longer than expected, you know. But it’s my belief in what I’m trying to do. With a song, the moment of truth – whether it lives or dies – is in the studio.’
If Bacharach’s songs have habitually attracted the ‘easy’ label, it’s probably because they sound so effortless: perfect pop gems that might have fallen fully formed from the sky. His collaborations with the late Hal David, in particular – on swooning, romantic classics like I Say A Little Prayer, Walk On By, Anyone Who Had a Heart and The Look of Love – amount to perhaps the finest songbook of the past hundred years, and the ‘Bacharach Sound’, with its delicate flutes, silky bossa nova rhythms and cooing female voices, remains the embodiment of cocktail lounge cool. The list of more than 1,000 artists who have recorded his songs, meanwhile, – Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross among them – reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century popular music. ‘I think it would scare me if I looked at it,’ he says of the extraordinary path his life has taken. ‘But I do sometimes think: yeah, that was weird.’
Though born in Kansas City, Bacharach is a New Yorker through and through, raised in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of Queens. His dad was a syndicated newspaper columnist, his mother an amateur artist and songwriter who introduced him to the piano at an early age. Following formal music training, and a tour of duty in the US Army, he began his professional career as a pianist and conductor for the singer Vic Damone, after which he toured the world as musical director for Marlene Dietrich, who later stated: ‘As a man, he embodied everything a woman could wish for.’
That’s quite an endorsement. ‘Yeah, it is,’ he chuckles. ‘She treated me very kindly. She had this great perspective on me. She said, “Never marry, Burt. Over my dead body.”’
Dietrich would be disappointed several times over on that score: Bacharach has three ex-wives – the actresses Paula Stewart and Angie Dickinson and the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager – and has been married to Jane Hansen since 1993. In 60s Manhattan, meanwhile, he was known as ‘the Playboy of the Western World’ – a soubriquet he’s now keen to play down, insisting: ‘I was really just writing most nights, or orchestrating a grand song. So, playboy… I dunno about that. Though I was married to Angie Dickinson, movie star.’
He met lyricist Hal David in 1957 when they were both working at the Brill Building – the legendary Broadway songwriting factory that also housed the likes of Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller and Neil Diamond. They scored their first breakthrough with The Story of My Life, a US number one for Marty Robbins, followed by Perry Como’s worldwide smash Magic Moments – one of those Bacharach and David songs which, like Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) now feel almost as familiar as Happy Birthday.
For a decade, the pair only communicated via their lawyers, after falling out over royalties, but later made up. How would he describe their relationship, looking back?
‘We treated it like a business,’ he says, unsentimentally. ‘We’d meet in the Brill Building and work. We didn’t hang out together, we didn’t have dinners together, with him and… whatever wife I was on at the time.’
But there was an alchemy that happened when they got together?
‘Yeah, it was very special. He’s a brilliant lyricist.’
This summer, Bacharach is coming to London to perform two evenings of his music as part of the Apollo Nights Summer Series at London’s Eventim Apollo. He’ll be joined on stage by Joss Stone, who first appeared on his radar when she recorded Alfie for the 2004 remake of the 60s film classic. ‘She’s terrific, and a lovely person,’ he says. ‘And England discovered me way before the States [Bacharach and David were the first songwriters to enjoy back-to-back UK number ones], so I am grateful for the support. Always have been.’
While such events serve to showcase his indelible back catalogue, Bacharach is not content to trade solely on his past and, in his tenth decade, has unexpectedly found himself embracing the art of the protest song.
He has ‘no choice’, he says, but to ‘speak about the disbelief that many of us are feeling in this country’, and recently collaborated with the Cuban-American musician Rudy Pérez on a song, Live to See Another Day, to raise money for survivors of school shootings. ‘I think it’s important to use your voice,’ he explains. ‘As long as you don’t overuse it. You don’t want to beat up an audience.
‘I’ll never say his name on stage,’ he adds, of the current occupant of the White House. ‘But it’s just every day, you wake up and it’s like a cloud over your head, you know?’
He’s known personal heartache, too. Nikki, his daughter with Angie Dickinson, was born prematurely, and grew up with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome. Aged 16, she was sent to a psychiatric treatment facility for a decade – a decision his parents now believe was wrong – and later took her own life at the age of 40. ‘I know exactly what’s in the [suicide] note,’ he said in 2013. ‘I never read the note. I never will.’
For the most part, though, he’s a man at peace with the world. ‘It’s very unfortunate when people hold on to regrets, or anger,’ he says. ‘Or when people don’t talk to one another for years. It’s no good. Don’t hang on to anything like that. Let it go.’
He’s even learned to go easier on himself as a songwriter. ‘It’s not as important now – that fight with myself, asking: is it good enough? I’ve let it go a bit. There are more important things, like family.’ (He adopted a son, Christopher, with Bayer Sager, and has a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Raleigh, with Hansen.)
Weekend asks if he’s ever considered what music he’d like played at his funeral. After some thought, he opts for That’s What Friends Are For, the 1982 song with lyrics by Bayer Sager (‘And if I should ever go away / Well then close your eyes and try to feel / The way we do today’) that won him the fourth of his eight Grammy Awards (he also has three Oscars).
He’s squeamish about being described as an American icon – ‘I never think about myself that way’ – and, when pushed to consider his legacy, says simply: ‘Hopefully I made people feel something, care about something. That’s the heart of it. Maybe I got them feeling better in rough times. Because I’m not a rock and roll composer. I write music from my heart to people’s hearts. It’s honest music.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 23 May, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend