Burt Bacharach was a talented and popular composer and Academy Award winner who delighted millions with his wacky arrangements and haunting melodies, including “Go Be Around,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and dozens of other hits, at the age of 94.
Bacharach died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, publicist Tina Brausam said Thursday.
Only Lennon-McCartney, Carole King, and a few others have matched his genius over the past 70 years, as songs are still played, played, and hummed long after they were written. From the 1950s to the 2000s, he had consecutive top 10 hits, from “Alfie” and “I Say a Little Prayer” to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “This Guy’s loves with You.”
Dionne Warwick is his favorite translator, but Bacharach often collaborates with lyricist Hal David and has also composed key material for Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and many others. Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra are among countless artists who have covered his songs, and recent performers including the White Stripes, Twista and Ashanti have sung or imitated him. “Walk On By” alone has been covered by everyone from Warwick and Isaac Hayes to British punk bands The Stranglers and Cyndi Lauper.
Bacharach was both an innovator and a throwback, and his career seemed to parallel the rock era. He grew up on jazz and classical music, and had little interest in rock when he broke into the industry in the 1950s. His sensibility seemed more in tune with Tin Pan Alley than that of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and others who came later, but rock composers appreciated his seemingly dated Sensual depth.
“His shorthand version is that he’s about easy listening,” Elvis Costello, who co-wrote the 1998 album “Painted from Memory” with Bacharach, told The Associated Press in 2018 when said. “These songs may be comfortable to listen to, but they’re not easy. Try to play them, try to sing them.”
He has triumphed in many art forms. He’s an eight-time Grammy Award winner, Broadway composer for “Promise, Promise,” and a three-time Oscar winner. He won two Academy Awards in 1970, for the soundtrack to Cubs and for the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (shared with David). In 1982, he and his then-wife, the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, won an Academy Award for “Best That You Can Do,” the theme song from “King Arthur.” His other film scores include “What’s New, Pussycat?”, “Alfie” and the 1967 James Bond parody “Casino Royale.”
Bacharach was handsomely rewarded and well-connected. Whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, he is a regular at the White House. In 2012, he was presented with the Gershwin Prize by Barack Obama, who sang “Walk on By” for a few seconds at a campaign event.
In his life, in his music, he is different. Fellow composer Sammy Kahn likes to joke that the smiling, curly-haired Bacharach was the first composer he knew who didn’t look like a dentist. Bacharach was a “swinger,” as they were called in his day, and his many romances included actor Angie Dickinson, whom he married from 1965-80, his wife Sager was married from 1982-1991.
He has been married four times and has developed his most enduring ties to work. He’s a perfectionist, and it took three weeks to write “Alfie,” and could spend hours tweaking a single chord. Sager had observed that Bacharach’s routine remained largely the same—only the wife changed.
It starts with the melody – strong but interspersed with ever-changing rhythms and surprising harmonies. He attributes his style largely to a love of bebop and a classical education, especially under the tutelage of renowned composer Darius Milhaud. He once played for Millau a piece for piano, violin and oboe, which included a melody that he was ashamed to compose himself because 12-point atonal music was popular at the time. Miyo, who likes this piece, advises young people, “Never be afraid of the melody.”
“It was a huge affirmation for me,” Bacharach recalled in 2004.
Bacharach was a pop composer at heart, but his songs became country artists (Marty Robbins), R&B performers (Chuck Jackson), soul (Franklin, Luther Vander Roth) and Synth Pop (Bare Eyes) hits. With the help of Costello and others, he reached a new generation of listeners in the 1990s. Mike Myers will recall hearing sultry “Looks Like Love” on the radio and finding quick inspiration for his retro spy comedy “Austin Powers,” in which Bacharach cameoed.
In the 21st century, he’s still trying new territory, writing his own lyrics and recording with rapper Dr. Dre.
He was married to his first wife, Paula Stewart, from 1953-58 and married a fourth time to Jane Hansen in 1993. Brausham said Hansen is alive, along with his children Oliver, Raleigh and Christopher. His daughter with Dickinson, Nikki Bacharach, predates him.
Bacharach knew the heights of applause, but he remembers growing up as a loner, a small, self-conscious boy who felt uncomfortable about being Jewish and even laughed at other Jews. His favorite book as a child was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; he related to the impotent Jack Barnes and considered himself “socially incompetent”.
He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but soon moved to New York City. His father was a syndicated columnist and his mother was a pianist who encouraged the boy to study music. Although he prefers sports, he practices the piano every day after school, not wanting to disappoint his mother. When he was a minor, he would sneak into jazz clubs with a fake ID and listen to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.
“They were so incredibly exciting that all of a sudden, I was exposed to music in a way I’d never been before,” he recalled in his 2013 memoir, “Anybody with Heart.” The club turned my head when they heard it.”
He was an underprivileged student in high school but managed to secure a place at the McGill University Conservatory in Montreal. He wrote his first songs at McGill and listened to Meltom’s “Christmas Carols” for several months. Music may have saved Bacharach’s life, too. He enlisted in the late 1940s and remained in service during the Korean War. But stateside officials quickly knew of his talent and wanted him around. When he did go abroad, he went to Germany, where he wrote orchestrations for a recreation center at a local military base.
After being released from the hospital, he returned to New York and tried to break into the music industry. At first, he had little success as a songwriter, but later became a popular arranger and sideman, with Vic Damone, the Ames Brothers and Polly Stewart Stewart, and Polly Stewart became his first wife. When a friend who was touring with Marlene Dietrich couldn’t perform in Las Vegas, he asked Bacharach to step in.
The young musician and timeless singer quickly rose to fame, and Bacharach toured the world with her in the late 50s and early 60s. Every time she performs, she introduces him domineeringly: “I want you to meet this man, he’s my arranger, he’s my accompanist, he’s my conductor, I wish I could say he’s my Composer. But it’s not. He’s everybody’s composer… Bert Bacharach!”
Meanwhile, he meets his ideal songwriter partner, David, who is as pragmatic and mercurial as Bacharach, so tame that he leaves at 5 every night to catch a train back to Long Island. Around wife and kids. Working in a small office in Broadway’s famed Brill Building, they produced their first million-selling song, “Magic Hour,” sung by Perry Como in 1958 . In 1962, they found a backup singer for the Drifters, Warwick, who had a “very special grace and grace,” Bacharach recalls.
The trio played song after song, starting with “Don’t Let Me Down,” followed by “Walk Over,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Trains and Ships and Planes,” “Hearts “etc. The songs were recorded to be complex yet easy to listen to. Bacharach liked to experiment with time signatures and arrangements, such as having two pianists play “Walk on By,” whose performances were slightly out of sync, giving the song “a jagged feel,” he wrote in his memoirs.
In addition to Warwick, the Bacharach-David team is also producing award winners for other performers. Among them: “Take It Easy” by Jerry Butler, “What the World Needs Is Love” by Jackie DeShannon and “This Guy’s love with You” by Herb Alpert.
The partnership ended disastrously with the fiasco of the 1973 remake of the musical Lost Horizon. Bacharach became so depressed that he isolated himself in his vacation home in Del Mar, refusing to work.
“I don’t want to write with Hal or anyone,” he told The Associated Press in 2004. He also didn’t want to fulfill his promise to document Warwick. Both she and David sued him.
Bacharach and David eventually reconciled. When David died in 2012, Bacharach praised him for writing lyrics “like a miniature movie”. In the meantime, he keeps working, vowing never to retire, always believing that a good song can make a difference.
“Music can soften the heart, make you feel something good, bring out emotions that you might not have felt before,” he told the Associated Press in 2018. “If you can do it, it’s a very powerful thing. thing, if that’s what you have in mind.”