Hal David dies at 91; songwriting partner of Burt Bacharach
Hal David, the renowned pop music lyricist whose prolific collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach produced a wealth of enduringly memorable hits in the 1960s and early ‘70s, including “Walk On By,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
David died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications from a stroke, according to his wife, Eunice.
“As a lyric writer, Hal was simple, concise and poetic — conveying volumes of meaning in the fewest possible words and always in service to the music,” songwriter Paul Williams, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, said in a statement. David was a former president of the society and a longtime board member.
When David and Bacharach were awarded the nation’s highest prize for popular music in May, President Obama said, “Above all, they stayed true to themselves.”
“And with an unmistakable authenticity, they captured the emotions of our daily lives — the good times, the bad times and everything in between,” the president said upon awarding them the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
David was too ill to attend the White House ceremony, but his wife accepted the award on his behalf.
“It was my great fortune to have ever crossed paths with Hal David. He was a great writer of lyrics. If you need proof, just listen to the lyrics of ‘A House Is Not a Home’ or ‘Alfie’ and that would be as good as you can get,” Bacharach told The Times on Saturday.
James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, called David “an American songwriting treasure.”
“The pairing of Hal David lyrics with Burt Bacharach music gave us powerful and memorable songs that have been embraced across generations,” Billington said in a statement.
Singer and music historian Michael Feinstein told The Times in 2011 that lyrically David was “a very inventive wordsmith” who was “able to take the vernacular of the time and elevate it to poetic heights.”
The Brooklyn-born David already had written a number of hit songs with other collaborators before teaming with the younger Bacharach in 1956 at Famous Music in the Brill Building, the legendary hub of music publishers and songwriters on Broadway in New York City.
They scored their first hit together in 1957 with Marty Robbins’ recording of “The Story of My Life,” which was followed by a 1958 hit for Perry Como, “Magic Moments” — two songs that, David later said, “didn’t exactly break new ground.”
Both David and Bacharach continued to collaborate with others before committing to an exclusive songwriting partnership after discovering what David once described as “their magical interpreter”: a supremely talented young recording session backup singer named Dionne Warwick.
In 1962, Warwick recorded the Bacharach-David song “Don’t Make Me Over” and it became her first hit single.
Warwick recorded a long string of Bacharach-David pop classics, including “Walk On By,” “Alfie,” “Reach Out for Me,” “Message to Michael,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
“She was so right for our stuff,” David said of Warwick in 2003 in the Record of Bergen County, N.J. “You couldn’t find anyone who could sing the melodies so well.”
Of collaborating with Bacharach, he said: “We were really running parallel to rock ‘n’ roll. We were writing songs that I think were original and fresh and seemed to capture the imagination of the people at the time.”
In 1963 — the year Warwick scored with the duo’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” — the songwriters had several other hits, including “Blue on Blue” for Bobby Vinton, “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” for Gene Pitney and “Wives and Lovers” for Jack Jones.
Other Bacharach and David hits of the 1960s included “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart” (Pitney), “Make It Easy on Yourself” (Jerry Butler), “What’s New, Pussycat?” (Tom Jones), “The Look of Love” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’ ” (Dusty Springfield), “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (Jackie DeShannon) and “This Guy’s In Love With You” (Herb Alpert).
“We’d sit in a room and start with maybe a line that I had, or four bars of Burt’s music, and we’d build a song sort of like we were building a house,” David recalled in 2000 in the London Guardian. “Very often we were writing three songs at a time.”
Of his approach to writing lyrics, David told Daily Variety in 1998: “I always looked for an emotional impact and I always looked to tell stories. I like a narrative quality. I look for simplicity as opposed to being simplistic.”
The inspiration for “Don’t Make Me Over” came from a comment Warwick made to the songwriters after she sang “Make It Easy on Yourself” on a demonstration record, only to see it recorded by Jerry Butler.
“She was very upset, thinking that she should have been the one to record it,” David recalled in 1997 on National Public Radio. “And so she said, you know, ‘Don’t make me over’ — I mean, let me record my own songs once you write them. And so we went into the studio and we wrote this song, ‘Don’t Make Me Over,’ and recorded it with Dionne.”
Don’t make me over.
Now that I’d do anything for you.
Don’t make me over.
Now that you know how I adore you.
Don’t pick on the things I say, the things I do.
Just love me with all my faults, the way that I love you.
I’m begging you …
David’s lyrics for the title song for “Alfie,” the 1966 film starring Michael Caine as a self-centered womanizer in swinging London, were “a very poignant expression of the pathos of romance,” Feinstein said, and “a big hit, to boot.”
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
or are we meant to be kind?
Music historian Paul Grein said the songwriters’ “natural inclinations” made for an ideal partnership.
“Hal’s lyrics were simple and direct and conversational; he would understate,” Grein told The Times in 2011. “Without even being conscious about it, they balanced each other perfectly. Burt’s melodies were complex and intricate. I think if Hal’s lyrics had been fussy and complicated it might have been too much.”
Their film work during the 1960s resulted in Academy Award nominations for the title songs “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “Alfie” and for the song “The Look of Love” in “Casino Royale.”
In 1970, they won the Oscar for best original song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which became a No. 1 hit single for B.J. Thomas.
Bacharach and David also wrote the music and lyrics — and Neil Simon wrote the book — for the long-running 1968 Broadway hit “Promises, Promises.” The songwriters were rewarded with a Grammy.
A 1972 Times profile on David noted that the easygoing lyricist had been referred to as “the shadowy, retiring” member of the partnership, while Bacharach — who also had a solo career as a performer and was married to actress Angie Dickinson — had a glamorous public persona.
“My life is more private than Burt’s,” David acknowledged, “and I like it. If I could try being a celebrity one day and then decide if I liked it or not, I would. But that’s impossible.”
Moving into the 1970s, Bacharach and David’s winning streak continued with hits such as the Carpenters’ recording of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and the 5th Dimension’s “One Less Bell To Answer.”
They collaborated on the 1973 musical remake of “Lost Horizon,” but after the film flopped, the celebrated songwriting team broke up. Warwick sued them over an album they failed to produce for her, and Bacharach and David sued each other.
“Things just sort of peter out at a given point,” David said in a 1983 Times article of the split. “A partnership such as we had is a case of one plus one equals three. There was a chemistry, and when the chemistry stops working you don’t know why. But, my God, regrets I have none.”
David’s later songs included “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (with composer Albert Hammond), which became a 1984 hit for Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson; and the title song of the 1979 James Bond film “Moonraker” (with composer John Barry).
The youngest of three sons of Jewish-Austrian immigrant parents who owned a delicatessen, David was born May 25, 1921.
“I loved music and we always had music at home,” David said in the 1975 book “In Their Own Words.”
He learned to play the violin as a child and later had a band that played for weddings and bar mitzvahs. But from a young age, David said, he saw himself as a writer and as a teenager began penning songs.
He spent two years studying journalism at New York University and wrote advertising copy for the New York Post before serving in the Army during World War II. Stationed in Hawaii, he wrote sketches and songs for military shows.
Following the lead of his older brother Mack, a successful lyricist who wrote for the movies and television, David launched his songwriting career after the war.
In 1949, he was living in an attic on Long Island with his first wife, Anne, when he teamed with Don Rodney and had his first hit with “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas,” which peaked at No. 3 for Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra.
Collaborating with different composers over the next several years, David had a number of hits, including “American Beauty Rose” for Frank Sinatra, “Broken-Hearted Melody” for Sarah Vaughan and, in 1953, “Bell Bottom Blues” for Teresa Brewer.
“That was an important hit,” David told The Times in 1972, “because it got us out of our attic.”
His first wife died in 1987.
David is survived by his second wife, Eunice, of Los Angeles; two sons from his first marriage, Jim David of Studio City and Craig David of Clyde, Texas; two stepsons, KC and Donald Forester; and three grandchildren.
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