When I was in my 20’s I became obsessed with Burt Bacharach. It was the end of the 1990’s and I was doing a radio show on the local college radio station. At that time Burt Bacharach was going through a little bit of a renaissance. Lounge culture was hot and his music was finding its way back into pop culture, especially via his ridiculous cameos in Mike Myer’s “Austin Powers” comedies. As a result, his recordings were getting rediscovered by a new generation of listeners, and a lot of his material was being rereleased digitally for the first time. I remember going through the volumes of Bacharach material at the station and just being amazed at how massive his body of work was, and how creative some of his arrangements were. I mean, was that a tuba solo in Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now is Love”? Yes, Bacharach dared to do it. That summer I played a lot of Bacharach on my radio show, primarily from his 1974 album Burt Bacharach’s Greatest Hits and his CD box set “The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection” (incidentally one of the few CD sets I have still hung on to), The content on these collections were pure gold.
When we talk about the songs of our life, I challenge you to name a modern composer that dominated our collective culture than Burt Bacharach. In regards to American songwriters, he deserves to be listed in the same breath as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin in regards to the creativity and importance of his work. Compared to Lennon and McCartney, he had a far larger body of work, more top hits and a longer span of creativity. He wrote a thousand ear worms, and everyone recorded his songs. I mean, who else can say that their music was covered by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles? Nearly every artist imaginable took their turns recording a Burt Bacharach song at one point or another, proving how universal his music was.
And that was the beauty of his songs. On the surface, they were pop songs, but depending on the performer, Burt Bacharach songs easy could be translated into jazz, soul, country, rock and new wave. Filled with clever word play, most often provided y collaborator Hal David, and pleasing melodies, Burt Bacharach wrote nice songs for nice people. This is why his music was so widely recorded, loved by so many people and essentially timeless. Its why Burt Bacharach was one of the few song writers in music to have a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
Burt Bacharach died yesterday at age 94. Today I’m reading all the tributes to one of the greatest song writers in music history and all my favorites are singing through my head. Everyone has a favorite Burt Bacharach song, but to pay tribute to him, I want to write about a few of my favorites.
I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself
Written in 1962 when Burt Bacharach and Hal David were working together in the famous Brill Building, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was first recorded by singer Chuck Jackson, but that recording wasn’t released for some reason until the 1980’s. Ironically, I first fell in love with the song via Chuck Jackson, which was on the “Look of Love” box set. A song about that empty feeling of listlessness that comes out of boredom and sadness following the end of a relationship, the song was kicked around between a few artists until it became a massive hit for Dusty Springfield in 1964. The song is one of the few that naturally captures the feeling of emptiness that goes along with heartbreak which would become a frequent theme mastered by Bacharach and David.
Make It Easy on Yourself
One of the greatest heartbreak songs ever written, what I love about “Make It Easy On Yourself” is that its very adult, very diplomatic and has served as the blue print to how I’ve dealt with my own break ups. Another song written by Bacharach and David in 1962, the song acts as sort of a companion piece to “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.” Originally a hit for Jerry Butler, the most popular version of the song was the 1965 version recorded by The Walker Brothers which rose to #16 on the Billboard charts. In the song, Bacharach and David explain the mature way to end a relationship – turn around, walk away, don’t think about regrets or pain. But my favorite version is the one that Bacharach recorded for his 1969 solo collection of the same name. It’s one of the only songs he recorded where he sings the entire song and his voice is flawed, but its so full of brittle emotion. My god, I played that song over and over again during some of the hardest break ups of my life. It brought me comfort. It allowed me to cry, but know that if someone else felt this that I’m not alone.
Its one of the greatest musical questions in movie history. “What’s it all about….Alfie?” Ironically, I don’t like the film or the character “Alfie.” I think it’s a cold and cruel film about an unlikeable character. But, man, I can’t resist that song. In the 1960’s Bacharach was a go to for composing theme songs and scores to films, and many of his best compositions are connected to the films. But, again, there is something so regal, smart and adult about this one. Written in 1966 with Hal David, Bacharach actually dreaded the idea of writing a song for “Alfie” and was given only three weeks to finish it. He watched a cut of the film and just wrote about what he thought he’d want to say to the character, and what came out was pop gold – “Until you find the love you’ve missed, you’re nothing, Alfie.” Originally given to his protégé, Dionne Warwick, whose career was built on the back of Burt Bacharach compositions, the film producers wanted it to go to a British singer and gave it to Cilla Black, who just slayed it with her powerful vocals. Ironically, while he didn’t want to write it, Bacharach would state that “Alfie” remained to be his favorite composition of his career.
My Little Red Book
Although his songs werae more in the vein of pop music, “My Little Red Book” was one of Bacharach’s few rock compositions. Another song about the emptiness after a break up, “Little Red Book” is about a man trying to move on after a break up by calling every girl in his little red book, but finding nobody could replace the girl that broke his heart. Originally recorded by Manfred Mann for the film “What’s New Pussycat?” the song is a total bop, but surprisingly was a flop and stalled out at #126 on the Billboard chart. However, the song would gain a new life and a wider audience when California based garage band Love recoded it for their 1966 debut album and released it as their first single. Becoming a regional hit and a garage rock classic, ironically Bacharach didn’t like the Love version as he was unhappy with the way they played around with the chord changes. However, both the Manfred Man and the Love versions have become favorites for connoisseurs of 60’s music, and it remains to be Bacharach’s best rock song.
The Look of Love
I consider “The Look of Love” to be one of the greatest love songs ever written. It’s sensual, sexy and slicker than slick. Written in 1965 for the film “Casino Royale,” the original version was an instrumental and first recorded by jazz musician Stan Getz. However, when the producers of “Casino Royale” decided that they wanted Dusty Springfield to sing it in the film, Bacharach got David to write some pretty smoldering lyrics. The song gained Bacharach and David an Oscar nomination, and it became a pop standard. It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite version of it berceuse I think I love every version I’ve ever heard, but highlights would be Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66’s bossa nova flavored version, Isaac Hayes’ 1970 take on it from his album “To Be Continued” and Susanna Hoff’s 1997 recording for the Austin Powers soundtrack.
I Say a Little Prayer
Burt Bacharach and Hal David rarely got political in their songs, but while it successfully avoided getting into the dark details, “I Say a Little Prayer” was one of the few exceptions, at least in its origin anyways. Hal David was inspired by a conversation he had with a woman whose boyfriend was serving in Viet Nam, and how she prays for his safety as she goes through her daily life. David wrote the typical clever lyrics associated with his and Bacharach’s body of work about a woman just going about her day – “The moment I wake up, before I put on my make up, I say a little prayer for you.” It was first given to Dionne Warwick who had a massive hit with it in 1967, and later found new life under a year later with a cool soul version by Aretha Franklin. But I first became aware and fell in love with the song in the unlikeliest of ways. I remember being about twelve years old and seeing the British vocal group The Ladybirds perform it on an episode of “The Benny Hill Show.” I didn’t know much about music at that time, but I knew what as good song sounded like and that performance stuck with me forever. It was probably my first time loving a Burt Bacharach song.
This Guys In Love With You
A favorite of music fans, record collectors and fans of pop culture kitch, musician and record executive Herb Alpert had a long reach during the 1960’s. With the sound of his horn, and his band, The Tijuana Brass, made up of primarily studio musicians, Alpert recorded a series of feel good instrumental albums which sold in the millions, and have found their way into record collections all over the world. But the one time he actually recorded vocals on a song was in 1968 when he recorded Bacharach and David’s “This Guys in Love with You” for his album “Beat of the Brass.” Now David and Bacharach had a bit of trouble findhing the perfect home for this song, and it went through a few changes before Alpert took it on. David originally thought it’d be a song for a woman and titled the song “This Girls In Love with You” and it has been recorded with that title over the years. An early version of it was recorded by singer Danny Williams called “That Guys In Love with You” in which Williams is calling out his lover for stepping out on him with another man. Its an interesting take, but is a more cutting and cynical song. But the story goes that Alpert was visiting pal Burt Bacharach and asked if he had some dusty gem of a song that didn’t go anywhere that he could take a stab at. Bacharach remembered the song and he and Alpert pulled it out and did some fast rewrites to make it work. It was pop gold and became one of Alpert’s biggest hits, going all the way to number one on the Billboard charts, and despite being a vocal track it became his signature song. It remains to be one of the most charming romantic ballads of all time.
It’s Turkey Lurky Time
Something a little different, this song is part Christmas song, part novelty song but a rip roaring rambunctious bop of pure energy with the Bacharach stamp all over it. Written by Bacharach and David for the 1968 Broadway show “Promises Promises,” “It’s Turkey Lurkey Time” is a fast paced nonsense song which finishes the first act of the show and was the de facto highlight of the production. The scene is an office Christmas party, the singers are three of the women who work in the office, and the dance number brought down the house. The magic of this song is not the lyrics. They are fun, but dumb. The glory of it is the music,, the vocal arrangement and the joyous mood which captures sheik uptown 1960’s life. Its hip and square all at the same time. It’s pure Bacharach at its best. One of Bacharach’s best deep cuts, the song has slowly started seeping its way back into public consciousness when a jaw dropping performance of the original cast performing it at the 1969 Tony’s went viral. Its some of the best Broadway you’ll ever see and just drips with that signature Bacharach sound.
South America Getaway
Another one of Bacharach’s best deep cuts, “South America Getawaay” was his instrumental from his Oscar nominated soundtrack to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Everyone remembers the monster hit “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” performed by BJ Thomas which earned him and David an Oscar for best song. But I think the real musical masterpiece on the album is “South America Getaway,” which was used over the montage near the end of the film. An instrumental featuring the “skat” vocals by The Roy Hinklin Singers, its upbeat and quirky and, once again, has that trademark Bacharach sound which is so infectious. It’s another one of Bacharach’s wonderful instrumentals which doesn’t get nearly the attention it should.
Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)
Want to hear something crazy? Just last night I was watching the latest episode of “Poker Face” and they opened the episode with “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” which was the theme to the 1981 comedy “Arthur.” I remember sitting there thinking “man, I love this song,” not realizing that less than 24 hours later I’d be writing about it. A collaboration between Bacharach, singer Christopher Cross (who performed the vocals) and Bacharach’s then wife Carole Bayer Sager, the song earned the song writing team an Oscar for best song in 1982. After a period of inactivity during the mid to late 1970’s, Bacharach reemerged at the forefront of pop with this tune and adopted a very modern sound. The kitsch of his sixties period was far behind him, and the song introduced one of the best lyrics of the 1980’s – “If you get caught between the moon and New York City, the best that you can do is fall in love.” Although the de facto version is the Christopher Cross recording, its worth looking for the version recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. It was one of the stranger choices for one of their albums. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of a lot of Bacharach’s 80’s work, but this song is irresistible.
God Give Me Strength
In 1996 Burt Bacharach had kicked off a renaissance when he joined an unlikely partnership with Elvis Costello, releasing a beautiful album titled “Painted From Memory.” Bacharach once again created interesting melodies, but this time he was paired by the poetry of Costello’s clever wordplay and intense emotions. It was a magical collaboration which introduced a new audience to Burt Bacharach. The single from the album was “God Give Me Strength,” which was originally featured on the soundtrack to the 1996 film “Grace of My Heart.” Another passionate and painful song of the hardship of recovering from a broken heart, the song has a throwback sound that goes back to Bacharach’s 60’s period, but it trembles with despair making the song tragically haunting.. Bitter and beautiful, it remains one of Bacharach’s best compositions. Although the album received a limited rerelease on vinyl in 2017 and 2020, these things are impossible to find and extremely expensive. “Painted From Memory” is possibly one of my favorite albums from the 1990’s, and one of the albums I most want see a wide and affordable release on vinyl.
I could keep writing about Bacharach songs, and I haven’t covered all of my favorites, and I’ve probably left out many of yours. But while Burt Bacharach may have left us, his music will live on in our hearts and our voices forever. His songs are timeless and will be recorded again and again. Surely there is another artist somewhere in the world ready to cut a Burt Bacharach recording right now.
Thank you for the music, Burt Bacharach. We will say a little prayer for you,