Bacharach with an Isley twist

Times Staff Writer

Burt Bacharach is in a familiar place: seated at an electronic keyboard in a Hollywood recording studio leading seven instrumentalists and singers in rehearsal. They're running through "This Guy's in Love With You," the song the composer wrote with longtime lyricist Hal David that gave trumpeter-turned-record mogul Herb Alpert his first No. 1 hit single 35 years ago.

This version, however, little resembles that jaunty arrangement of long ago, as the featured singer slows the tempo, stretching syllables almost to the breaking point while hitting a battery of silky high notes Alpert could reach only in his dreams.

Bacharach only recently started working with Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, but when Isley gets to the line "When you smile I can tell/We know each other very well," they grin at one another as if on cue, telegraphing just how musically simpatico they feel.

"The Lord shined his light on me with this one," Isley, 62, says. "A lot of singers look their whole careers for that one song that lets the world know what they can really do. For me, I feel like I'm starting with 13 hit songs."

To which Bacharach responds, "He's got the feminine and masculine thing going. It's an ideal voice for me."

They've teamed up for "Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach," to be released Tuesday. The three-time Oscar recipient and five-time Grammy-winning composer also performed, arranged, conducted and produced Isley's renditions of his songs, including "Alfie," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "Close to You" and "The Look of Love."

The album delivers striking new takes on many of Bacharach's best-known songs for a new generation of listeners, while casting Isley, the voice of such raucous '50s and '60s R&B; hits as "Shout" and "Twist and Shout," in a new light as an intensely soulful balladeer.

It's fitting that these two have come together (at the request of DreamWorks Records executive John McClain, who dreamed up the idea). Unlike many contemporaries who have resigned themselves to the oldies circuit or disappeared entirely, Bacharach and Isley have courted connections with younger audiences through alliances with musicians decades their junior.

Isley scored a No. 1 album earlier this year with "Body Kiss," for which prolific R&B; singer, songwriter and producer R. Kelly wrote and produced nearly all the songs.

Although the Bacharach-David credit was ubiquitous on pop recordings of the '60s and '70s, in recent years the silver-haired composer, pianist and occasional vocalist has won the admiration of musicians from Oasis and R.E.M. to Elvis Costello and the White Stripes. The Stripes covered Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" on their latest album.

Bacharach's 1998 collaboration with Costello, "Painted From Memory," garnered the British singer-songwriter his only Grammy to date. And Bacharach wrote the two new songs on "Here I Am" -- "Love Is The Answer" and "Count on Me" -- with erstwhile New Wave ironist Tonio K..

What it all means is that Bacharach, once a symbol of pop sophistication whose time seemed to have passed in the era of brash punk rock, repetitive dance-pop, assaultive hip-hop and rap-rock, is au courant once more.

But being considered hip couldn't matter less to one with Bacharach's credentials, who at 75 would seem to have scaled every peak pop music has to offer, right?

"Oh yeah, it's been great," Bacharach says, leaning back into a black leather sofa at the end of the day's session, his voice like ultrafine sandpaper. After spending most of the day rehearsing for a few showcase concerts, including Thursday at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles, Bacharach is looking forward to getting home to his wife, Jane, and their two children, Raleigh, 7, and Oliver, 10, whom he's promised by cellphone to tuck into bed.

"One of the high points of my life came at the MTV Video Music Awards, when Mike Myers said, 'I'd like to thank Burt Bacharach for the inspiration.' And this was after he'd thanked his wife. That just blew me away."

Bacharach and Isley are optimistic that the album will connect with listeners who bought Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me" and Rod Stewart's albums of American pop standards.

And in at least one way, the project brings Isley full circle.

Bacharach doesn't remember this, but Isley swears he interrupted an Isley Brothers recording session in 1962 when they were about to record his song "Make It Easy On Yourself," previously a hit for Jerry Butler.

As Isley tells it, the producer of the session asked the group to alter one lyric, and when Bacharach caught wind of the change, he rescinded his permission for them to record it mid-session. With only 20 minutes of studio time left, they had to fall back on a Bert Berns-Phil Medley song intended as the B-side of the "Make It Easy" single: "Twist and Shout."

If Bacharach draws a blank on the specifics of that incident, the general theme -- a fierce protectiveness about the integrity of his composition -- rings true.

Recently the familiar two-note -- pause -- two-note melodic motif from "The Look of Love" caught his ear in a TV commercial for a luxury car. "We may have to go after them. You can't do that," he says with the "Naughty, naughty!" tone of a disapproving parent.

So what, then, of the enormous liberties Isley takes with his carefully sculpted melodies in the songs on "Here I Am"?

"The idea was to give him freedom, to give him a cushion [with the arrangements], leaving him room to do what he does best. And what he does with these songs," Bacharach says, pausing to let loose a sigh of utmost pleasure, "I love it."


Burt Bacharach and Ronald Isley

Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $50 (limited number of tickets available at door only. Box office opens at 6 p.m.)

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