They formed a memorable and one of history’s greatest songwriting duos, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The former passed away on Wednesday, leaving a trove of songs sung by the greatest singers of all time.
He and his artistic exploits defied categories and granted soul singers, rock bands and mum-friendly crooners a place on the firmament.
Bacharach’s career came about when rock ‘n roll music experienced a split into a more pioneering strand and one that would cater to the tastes of an older demographic.
As the 1960s hit, new technology and the outrageous use of drugs pitched music up to teenagers-centered tonalities of adventure, the bizarre and off the beaten track. As Alexis Petridis of The Guardian noted, it was “Strawberry Fields Forever and Purple Haze versus Engelbert Humperdinck and Ken Dodd’s Tears”.
With his music, Bacharach attempted to break the divide, navigating through the uncanny middle of the two categories. While he often got lumbered with the term easy listening, mostly due to his early 1965’s Hitmaker! or 1967’s Reach Out, appearances turned out, as they often do, misleading. But at the real face of things, Bacharach’s songs were seldom easy.
His melodies may have been mellifluous but the eclectic musical education he received left an imprint of shifting meters, off-the-wall harmonic alterations and a good many of idiosyncrasies. Bacharach used to study classical music under the French composer Darius Milhaud. He lent his ear keenly to bebop musicians of New York’s 52nd Street jazz clubs and rubbed shoulders with the way-out John Cage.
It is thanks to this richness of musical conventions that he eluded any concrete labeling and was able to write for Herb Alpert, the Drifters, Gene Vincent, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles.
While Bacharach had his first hits in the 1950s, he really took off, with Hal David, in the 1960s writing classics one after another, The Look of Love, I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, Wives and Lovers, I Say a Little Prayer, (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me, Make It Easy on Yourself and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, to name just a few.
The 1970s, however, were marked by friction between the two that ended in their trading lawsuits in 1973.
The 1980s saw a revival of Bacharach, much to his third wife Carole Bayer Sager’s credit. In this era, the songwriter finally got categorized under silky-smooth, sophisticated adult pop. Think Christopher Cross’s Oscar-winning Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do), Neil Diamond’s ET-inspired Heartlight, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s 1985 duet On My Own.
Bucharach’s exploratory nature returned in the 1990s when he collaborated with Elvis Costello on his 1998’s Painted from Memory, which dazzled with a melodic facility. It is also at this time that he conducted the orchestra for all-stars tribute shows, making cameo appearances in the Austin Powers movies and more.
Bacharach died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, California on February 8, 2023, at the age of 94.