Let’s Hear It For Burt Bacharach!!!!
In the first half of the 20th century, something wonderful happened in America. Out of vaudeville and music hall theaters, jazz and folk, and the native songs of Stephen Foster, there arose an amazing outpouring of great songwriting. Popular songs, Broadway show tunes, jazz standards, and eventually songs from movies. Some were all four. Some artists, like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and the like performed and recorded in a way that put them in multiple categories. The songwriters were numerous. Many are household names: Rogers and Hammerstein, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington. Many are less well known: Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, John Green, Ray Noble. All in all, Alec Wilder lists over 150 songwriters and lyricists in his definitive American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 (Oxford, 1972). The craft of these composers explodes in so many directions. Many of them explored the possibilities of incorporating complex rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and chord changes without losing a mainstream audience.
Then along came Elvis and rock and roll. While popular songs continued to be crafted, rock ‘n’ roll took center stage and beckoned the young public of the 1950s to swing to America’s simpler and more raw country, blues, soul, and jump band roots. New dances, harder-hitting rhythms, sexier inferences. Good stuff!
And the market for non-rock popular music shrank.
But soon enough there were songwriters and artists who took up the challenge of creating popular songs in the new popular vein, but again, with innovative time signatures, chord changes, harmonies, and melodies. The list of those who consistently innovated in the 1960s is much much shorter. It starts with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, who were soon surpassed in popularity by John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles. Then you have Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. And maybe Paul Simon, Laura Nyro, Jimmy Webb, Carole King & Gerry Goffin and Smokey Robinson. There were bunches of others with the occasional hit or two, but this short list of twelve has, in my opinion, only one glaring omission: Burt Bacharach, who likely penned more Top 40 hits, many of them made popular through Dionne Warwick’s interpretations, than any one of the above. Here’s an incomplete list:
Song followed by Artist
“The Story of My Life” Marty Robbins
“The Blob” The Five Blobs
“Please Stay” The Drifters
“Baby It’s You” The Shirelles, The Beatles
“Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)” Chuck Jackson, Eddie Kendrick, Percy Sledge
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” Gene Pitney
“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” Tommy Hunt, Dusty Springfield, The White Stripes
“Make It Easy on Yourself” Jerry Butler, The Walker Brothers
“Only Love Can Break a Heart” Gene Pitney, Bobby Vinton
“Don’t Make Me Over” Dionne Warwick
“Wishin’ and Hopin’ Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield
“Blue on Blue” Bobby Vinton
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” Richard Chamberlain, The Carpenters
“Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” Gene Pitney
“Wives and Lovers” Jack Jones
“Anyone Who Had a Heart” Dionne Warwick
“Walk On By” Dionne Warwick, Isaac Hayes
“A House Is Not a Home” Dionne Warwick, Brook Benton
“You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart)” Dionne Warwick, The Stylistics
“(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” Lou Johnson, Dionne Warwick
“A Message to Martha/Michael (Kentucky Bluebird)” Lou Johnson, Dionne Warwick
“What the World Needs Now Is Love” Jackie DeShannon
“What’s New Pussycat?” Tom Jones
“My Little Red Book” Manfred Mann
“Are You There (With Another Girl)” Dionne Warwick
“Alfie” Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick
“Casino Royale” Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
“The Look of Love” Dusty Springfield, Sérgo Mendes
“I Say a Little Prayer” Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin
“One Less Bell to Answer” Keely Smith, The 5th Dimension
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose” Dionne Warwick
“This Guy’s in Love with You” Herb Alpert
“Promises, Promises” Dionne Warwick
“The April Fools” Dionne Warwick
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” B. J. Thomas
“Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” Christopher Cross
“That’s What Friends Are For” Rod Stewart
“On My Own” Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald
“Toledo” Elvis Costello
On July 14, 2017, I got to see and hear Mr. Bacharach perform many of these songs at Seattle’s Jazz Alley. With impeccable arrangements and a quality band of studio musicians featuring five singers, counting Mr. Bacharach, the 89-year-old tunesmith brought the house down all night long. Originally inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and later a student of composer Darius Milhaud, Burt Bacharach has taught America to sing in odd time signatures and make difficult melodies seem as simple as 1-2-3 (try to count out Promises, Promises for example). We tend to think such artistry just spills out of these creative souls, but more often than not, it is a hard-fought dedication to craft and the 90% perspiration that gets started with that 10% inspiration. Thank you, Mr. Bacharach, for the chance to be in the same room with you and hear these great songs performed tonight.
If you think there is a great songwriter of the 60s I’ve left off, one who consistently utilized innovative harmonies, chord changes, melodies, and rhythms, by all means, comment and edumacate me!