What Burt Needs Now

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Raindrops are indeed falling gently on Burt Bacharach’s head as he steps toward a beachfront restaurant in Santa Monica, wearing one of his trademark sweaters under a jacket.

It’s a perfect opportunity for a quip from the composer who co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” almost three decades ago, during his phenomenally successful partnership with lyricist Hal David.

But Bacharach lets the moment pass. It’s not his style to draw attention to himself. For someone blessed with an actor’s good looks and who has been in the public eye for so long from concert tours and TV specials, he is surprisingly shy and understated.


In fact, Bacharach seems a bit uncomfortable looking back at it all. At 69, he prefers to focus on the work ahead, including an album of songs he is writing with Elvis Costello.

It sounds like one of pop’s all-time odd couples: the king of ‘60s pop teaming with a singer-songwriter who was once called the angry young man of rock.

But Costello is just one of many contemporary rock artists who have expressed their love of the hits that Bacharach and David wrote and produced, chiefly for Dionne Warwick. Among them: “Alfie,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Walk on By” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

In an article in the British rock magazine Mojo, Bacharach’s music was described as a marriage of “unexpected rhythms with daring melodies. It shimmered with rich jazz-like changes and complex harmonies. It teased with its uneven form and challenged with its mild yet exotic dissonance.”

Several rock acts--including Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five--joined Bacharach onstage to perform his songs last week in New York. The program, which also features such artists as Warwick, Luther Vandross and Wynonna, will be aired Wednesday at 6 p.m. on TNT.

In addition, several of Bacharach’s songs with David are featured in “What the World Needs Now . . . A Musical Fable,” a new Broadway-bound musical revue that opened April 3 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. But reviewers didn’t like much about it except the music.

Bacharach, who has also written such hits as “That’s What Friends Are For” and the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” with other lyricists, lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Jane, a former ski instructor. They have a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Bacharach also has a son, 12, from his marriage to songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and an adult daughter from his marriage to actress Angie Dickinson.

Bacharach spoke about the hit years with an attention to detail that underscores the drive that still pushes him as a songwriter.

Question: When you were turning out the hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s, what was the biggest thrill? Was it finishing the song, or getting it down on record, or seeing it go up the charts?

Answer: They were all thrills--particularly once the labels started letting us make the records. You didn’t have some A&R; man who’d go, “Burt, I like that song, but it’s in 3/4 time. If you put it in 4/4 time, we’ll record it.”

The trouble is if you made it in 4/4 time, you ruin the song, which I did a few times in the early days. I wanted him to use the song and I also thought that maybe he’s right--he’s been in the business a long time and so forth. But once they let us produce the records and we were turning out hits, we didn’t have to deal with that anymore.

Q: When you had that string with Dionne Warwick, was there a point where you felt invincible?

A: Heavens no, not at all. Each record was a new challenge. Even if you start off with what you think is a good song, there’s the question of whether you are going to capture it on record. Can you get all the musicians to play it just right and then get the right vocal? Remember, these records were cut live. We’d normally do three songs in a three-hour session.

Today, you can go on forever. If the guitarist doesn’t work out, you can bring in another one the next day. You can do each instrument at a time. I’m not putting down what they do today. In fact, I find it very addictive . . . taking the time to get just the right, say, bass part. But it’s not the way we did it in those days.

Q: Did you ever have second thoughts about a song once you got into the studio?

A: We were always wrestling with the music. I can’t tell you how many nights I’d make a record, then we’d maybe go out for a couple of drinks and get home exhausted about 2 or 3 in the morning. I was living alone in an apartment in New York. Everything was done on the record and you felt good. But then I’d wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning and go, “I should have put strings in this part” or “I should have done the voice different.” But it was too late and it was torture every time, the second-guessing.

I remember playing “What the World Needs Now” for Dionne and she didn’t like it. So I put the song away in a drawer. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when we were working with Jackie DeShannon that Hal said, “Why don’t you play the song you played for Dionne?” And it turned out to be one of my favorite records.

Q: Could you pretty much predict which songs would be the biggest hits?

A: No. Take “Say a Little Prayer,” Dionne’s record. I thought I blew it. The tempo seemed too fast. I never wanted the record to come out. So what happens? They put out the record and it was a huge hit. I was wrong.

Q: You started playing the piano at an early age. Do you always remember being in love with music?

A: No. My folks bought me lessons and I was being a good boy. I tried to play, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I was just kind of treading water for a while. What really hooked me on music was the first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk--all these wonderful artists who were like 30 years in front of everything else around. At the same time, I was listening to classical music and that was also thrilling.

Q: When did songwriting become important?

A: I didn’t plan to write songs. I was studying with Henry Cowell, Boguslav Martinu and Darius Milhaud, really heavy-duty composers. I thought I wanted to write serious contemporary classical music, but I guess I didn’t want to enough and life took me in a different direction. When I got out of the Army, I had an opportunity to go on the road conducting for Vic Damone . . . and later the Ames Brothers, Marlene Dietrich. . . . But I must say that the ground rules I learned from [classical music study] certainly stood me well when I did start writing because it enabled me to move beyond the boundaries.

Q: In the beginning, did you try to write lyrics as well as music?

A: No, never tried lyrics. I thought I had my hands full writing the music. Besides, there were some gifted lyric writers around. I wrote a couple of good songs with Bob Hilliard, and then I met Hal David, and he wrote so many brilliant lyrics.

Q: Why did you start producing records rather than just write the songs?

A: I don’t know if I had enough chutzpah to ask people to let me produce the records. It just happened when we were talking to Jerry Butler about recording “Make It Easy on Yourself.” Calvin Carter, who was the A&R; man at Vee-Jay Records, said: “You feel the song. Why don’t you go in and make the record with Jerry?” So we did it, and I realized that it was a way to prevent people from messing up your song. It was a self-defense move.

Q: How did you find Dionne Warwick?

A: Dionne was a blessing. She was in the background group when the Drifters recorded “Mexican Divorce.” She later came and sang for Hal and myself and she had this perfect voice, absolutely stunning. The more I did with Dionne, the more I saw we could do. She was so fluid. With some artists, they’d make a recording sound labored. But Dionne was understated as opposed to these singers who always try to blow you away. It’s like someone with a great smile. You have to know when to show it. You can’t use it all the time.

Q: What about the pop scene today? Do you hear many good writers out there?

A: There are excellent pop writers out there. Babyface would have been a great writer in any decade. There’s also Diane Warren, who is terrific, and I like that Tony Rich record, “Nobody Knows.”

Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” is one of the best records you’ll ever hear. It’s so economical, so sparse. I can’t say enough about David Foster [who produced that single]. He’s a great musician, great talent. There’s a reason these guys [Babyface and Foster] win producer of the year at the Grammys every year.

Q: How flattering was it when so many rock artists started talking about you as an influence?

A: It felt great. It started in England with Oasis and a couple of other groups, which is interesting because England was always good to me. “Hitmaker,” the first album I did on Kapp, sold maybe 5,000 copies in the States [in 1965], but it was Top 10 in England.

Q: How did you start working with Elvis Costello?

A: Allison Anders, the director, wanted us to write something for the film “Grace of My Heart.”

Q: What was your reaction?

A: I loved the idea. I think he is one of the great lyric writers. I love that he is an adventurer, that he takes chances as an artist. But there was a problem when we started working on the song for the film. He was in Ireland, and I was in Los Angeles. So we had to communicate through fax machine and tapes. He wrote a couple of verses and sent them to me, then I’d write out a lead sheet and send them back, and it just snowballed. We never got together on that song until New York when we made the record. Now we’ve written 11 songs for his new album, which will be recorded in June.

Q: Are you nervous about how it’ll turn out, or are you so secure with your body of work that you can just relax and enjoy it all now?

A: I’ve never been good at looking back. This is another time in my life. I’m still excited about what there is to come. Is this reality? Is what I write now as good as I used to write? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I have the tools I used to have? Maybe. Maybe not.

But that’s not the point. I look forward to this project with Elvis. It’s a very collaborative effort. He’s so careful about his work. He’s someone who lives like I live, someone who can be writing a tune at 4 in the morning. I bet I could call him at whatever hotel he is in on any given night and the chances are he’ll be up, poring over some note or some word for a song. It’s something in your blood, something that keeps you going.


* “Bacharach: One Amazing Night” airs Wednesday at 6 p.m. on TNT.