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13 February 2023

How Burt Bacharach rewrote the rules of pop

The composer’s music was often described as “easy listening” – but it appealed alike to jazz musicians, popstars, rock bands and the avant-garde.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

I didn’t know it then, but we used to listen to Burt Bacharach songs in the car. The cassette tape that my dad loaded up for long summer holiday drives was a mix he’d made for my mum. There were all kinds of sentimental, cross-era songs on there, but most of all I remember the beauty of the many voices that sung almost exclusively of heartbreak: the seismic strings of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”; the child-like simplicity of the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You”; a voice I later learned to be Dionne Warwick leading the jazz-inflected “Walk on By” and the bright but mournful “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”.

It was only when I was browsing my parents’ CD shelves a few years later that I came across The Look of Love, a 1996 compilation of Burt Bacharach songs. Here lay all of these wistful, romantic tracks, sung by many different people but written by the same man.

Bacharach, who died on 8 February aged 94, was one of the finest pop composers of the 20th century. He was best known for writing songs for Warwick, Springfield, Tom Jones and Cilla Black. But his hundreds of songs have been performed by more than a thousand artists since he began writing in the 1950s. At the time of his death, he had written 73 US and 52 UK Top 40 hits.

[See also: Burt Bacharach: a direct line to a lost musical world]

There are trademark features to a Bacharach song – surprising chord structures, asymmetrical rhythms, the appearance of an evocative string quartet, possibly too a smattering of horns – but his ultimate mastery lay in an ability to write for any kind of voice. His melodies sound just as genuine in the mouth of Bobbie Gentry, who performed with a warm country croon, as with the powerful mezzo-soprano of Aretha Franklin. The long life of “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” is a great example: it was first recorded as a demo by Warwick in 1963, then the soul singer Lou Johnson charted with it in 1964. Sandie Shaw made it a hit in Britain that same year, and 20 years later, the new-wave duo Naked Eyes reinvented it entirely. A Bacharach song transcends time.

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His best songs – like the best novels, the best works of art – are highly specific yet immediately universal. I have never been to America; I know nothing of US motel culture. But Bacharach’s harmonic ingenuity on “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” – on which Gene Pitney’s vocal performance is imbued with Americanness – makes me understand just what it must feel like to miss home so much that you fall in love with someone new. Those muted trumpets ache with human vulnerability.

Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1928, and grew up in Forest Hills, New York City. As a teenager he learned classical piano, but much preferred sneaking into the jazz nightclubs of Manhattan’s 52nd Street, where he heard Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie play. After a stint in the US army, his musical career took off when he became music director for Marlene Dietrich in 1956. His partnership with the lyricist Hal David began in 1957, and soared throughout the 1960s. As well as pop tracks, the pair wrote the soundtrack to the 1967 James Bond parody film Casino Royale, the 1968 musical Promises, Promises, and the 1969 western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – its song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won an Oscar. Bacharach and David broke apart in 1973 following the disastrous production of the film Lost Horizon. Bacharach continued writing – now with the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, his wife through the 1980s – for artists including Neil Diamond and Roberta Flack.

Before he became successful, Bacharach wrote many songs that he couldn’t get released. “I thought songs were so simple that I could do five of them a day,” he told the Guardian in 2015, “but songs that sound simple are deceptive.” There is a directness, if not quite a simplicity, to many of his tracks, that is aided by catchy rhythms and a penchant for using familiar instrumentation in unexpected ways.

In fact, Bacharach’s music was often called “easy listening” – which might explain why it so enthralled me as a child. But his wide appeal, from theatre audiences to jazz aficionados, rock bands to avant-gardists, is misleading. Underneath the honeyed melodies is an unmatched dedication to defying expectations. Burt Bacharach’s greatest achievement was convincing us it could ever be so easy.

[See also: What is romantic friendship?]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere