Burt Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world

The effect of seeing Bacharach live at the Royal Festival hall was to be hit by more top-40 songs that you'd think a single act could be capable of producing.

Burt Bacharach.
Walk on by: Burt Bacharach in 2005. Photograph: Rob Greig/Time Out/Camera Press.

Burt Bacharach
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Many men admit that they became musicians in order to meet girls. Burt Bacharach, the writer of 73 top-40 hits in the US alone, is no different. Piano players look so shy and clever tinkering away onstage – but we know they’re controlling the show.

Marlene Dietrich fell for Bacharach when she took him on as musical director in 1956 (he was 28; she was 55). She propositioned him one night and, when that didn’t work, focused on mixing his energy drinks, washing his tennis shorts and promoting his career in an intense mother/son relationship that took him some years to wriggle free from. On 7 July, at one of two sold-out gigs at the Royal Festival Hall, he said of the Dietrich years, “The music was terrible but I got to see the world.” His new autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, is full of such shrugging observations, of which the most misleading is probably: “I was just the piano player.”

When Mike Myers had Bacharach serenading Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), it was a moment of high kitsch. For a while, no one could admit they liked the great 1970s songwriters – Bach - arach, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters – without saying “guilty pleasure” first. Luckily, all that has changed and while many of the crowd at the Royal Festival Hall clearly discovered him grooving to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”behind the ironic retro cocktail cabinet, they gave an incredibly enthusiastic reception to the 85-year-old, who looked comfortable in a lounge suit and big, white trainers.

Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world. As a teenager in Queens, he met Leonard Bernstein on a bus. (His parting words were: “See you on top some day.”) The French modernist composer Darius Milhaud taught him how to eat tacos between tutorials at McGill University. He has a great memory for the mundane and, in his book, he seems to glide through his early years – playing piano for Vic Damone, fruitless months at the Brill Building – more interested in tennis and women than in music.

He drifts from the Korean war to the Oscars like a kind of musical Forrest Gump but behind the deadpan voice is a complicated youth who, ashamed of his Jewish roots, rails against his sense of inadequacy by jumping on any job or girl that lands in his path.

He is openly neurotic – an entire chapter is given over to his insomnia – and exhibits many of the kinds of obsessive behaviours that his first child, Nikki, later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, suffered in adult life. Bacharach sent Nikki to a medical institution when she was 16 against her mother’s wishes, where she remained for a decade. In 2007, aged 40, she committed suicide. He takes the unusual step of printing a running commentary from Angie Dickinson, his exwife, which blames much of Nikki’s tragedy on his lack of understanding. He also recalls the time he approached Dickinson with a list of 26 things he wanted her to change in their relationship. “I don’t recall the list,” she counters. “You’d think I’d have saved it – held it up to say, ‘See what a prick I married?’”

At his show in London, Bacharach’s small, plush band – strings, trumpets, flugelhorn – fades down while he sings “Alfie” alone in the spotlight and the frailty of his voice is moving. He rarely performed in his own right until he won an Oscar for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (sung by B J Thomas) in 1969. Residencies in Vegas followed, as did a friendship with Sinatra, who once introduced him as “the man that writes music in hat sizes – seven and three-fourths”. While many of his bestknown tunes are presented in annoying, clapalong medleys, you can still hear the quirks and complexities that set them apart, such as the missed beat in “I Say a Little Prayer” that speeds the chorus along.

Best of all, you can see what music still excites him: “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (originally sung by Dionne Warwick, tonight by Josie James) stretches out in all its breastbeating glory and Bacharach jumps up, bent over like a grandpa, hammering the keyboard. His lyricist Hal David died last year at 91 but more recent collaborations with Elvis Costello and Steven Sater still have the right kind of old-fashioned titles (“I Still Have That Other Girl”, “Every Other Hour”), not to mention a luxuriant sadness that recalls a more leisurely time for the love song, when men and women let themselves lie around feeling blue, waiting for the landline to ring.

The effect of this show, like the Abba and Queen musicals that play in the West End, is to hit you with more top-40 songs than you’d think a single act could be capable of, from the stuff you’d expect to the ones you’d forgotten (“Magic Moments”). When he shouts, “Let’s modulate!” during a singalong rendition of “Raindrops”, you are watching the composer keeping himself interested. And at exactly 12.15am, if his book is anything to go by, he’ll be inserting wax earplugs, after his nightly dose of sleeping pills.

“Anyone Who Had a Heart” is out now (Alcourt, £20). A box set of the same name is released on Universal Music (£39.99)