TOF75 That Old Feeling: Bacharach's Back

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Monday could have been a wonderful 75th birthday for Burt Bacharach.

Not that he needs it. The composer has enjoyed a long, productive and popular career. He wrote hits for Perry Como ("Magic Moments") and Marty Robbins ("The Story of My Life") in 1957. Then, with his lyricist partner Hal David, he defined the higher regions of Brill Building pop in its last great era: the early and mid-60s. That's when he perfected the genre of jazzy R&B ballads with instant standards written for Dionne Warwick, Lou Johnson, Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield and other soulful crooners. Bacharach's music may be thought of as quintessentially 60s — the lounge music for the Love Generation — but he sailed on the pop charts for decades. He had more #1 hits in the 80s (three: "Arthur's Theme," "On My Own" and "That's What Friends Are For") than in the 60s (two: "This Guy's in Love With You" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head").

In between writing and producing his records, Bacharach kept busy. He was arranger, conductor and pianist for Marlene Dietrich from 1958 to 1964. He composed songs and scores for dozens of films. With David he wrote a successful Broadway musical ("Promises, Promises") and a flop movie musical ("Lost Horizon"). He was a moderately popular recording artist (sometimes singing his own songs, more often leading a breathy-voiced girl group). He has headlined in Las Vegas and around the world. He has been married four times: Broadway actress Paula Stewart, film actress Angie Dickinson, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager and non-showbiz wife Jane Hanson. Each was in her 30s while married to Burt. He continued to age, but never lost the preppy good looks, the dazzling smile. Hollywood lyricist Sammy Cahn once called Burt "the only songwriter who doesn't look like a dentist."

In the 90s, when the new hits stopped coming, the old ones came back. Two smash movies of 1997 had the Bacharach beat: "My Best Friend's Wedding," which featured six classic Burt-and-Hal numbers, and "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," the 60s homage that had Bacharach playing "The Look of Love" on London's Carnaby Street. That same summer, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (veteran of the John Coltrane Quartet) presented an all-Bacharach album, "What the World Needs Now," with lush orchestral accompaniment.

In 1998, Bacharach collaborated on an album's worth of songs with Elvis Costello. The TNT network assembled an all-star tribute called "One Amazing Night" (available on CD): Sheryl Crow doing justice to "One Less Bell to Answer," Wynonna ripping the seams off a down-tempo "Anyone Who Had a Heart," Barenaked Ladies attempting "Close to You," Myers attacking (and losing to) "What's New Pussycat." And Rhino issued "The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection," a fab three-disc box set with 75 songs, including all the hits and some fascinating arcana: (Trini Lopez sings the theme to "Maid in Paris")

Those celebrations got Burt through his 70th year. (And Myers kept putting Bacharach songs into his Austin Powers movies: "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" graced "The Spy Who Shagged Me"; "Alfie" heralded Michael Caine's co-starring role in "Goldmember.") But for his diamond anniversary, a bigger blast was in order: a Broadway show. "The Look of Love: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David," opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre last week, just in time to qualify for this year's Tony Awards — which were announced Monday, the composer's big 7-5.


BROADWAY BURT

But the Broadway show fizzled. "The Look of Love" is an ugly, ungainly concoction. It boasts a lot of talent behind the scenes, including director Scott Ellis and choreographer Ann Reinking, but zero inspiration. It has some talent onstage as well: Liz Calloway always brightens a Broadway stage, illuminates a Broadway-style song; and capacious Capathia Jenkins has a beautiful voice. But the show seems determined to embarrass its cast, forcing them into bizarre cross-period costumes (Day-Glo go-go frocks, dress-down Def Jam sloppies for the guys) and stranger-still dance routines. The crotch-flashing choreography to "What's New Pussycat" was pussy-catastrophic.

Broadway has been ransacking the trunks of pop composers for decades now. Sometimes a book is cobbled around the songs (as in the nouveau-Gershwin musicals "My Only and Only" and "Crazy for You") and the Duke Ellington "Play On!" Sometimes the updaters work without a book, as in the Noel Coward "Cowardy Custard," the Fats Waller "Ain't Misbehavin," the Leiber-Stoller "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and what seems like dozens of Stephen Sondheim evenings over the last 30 years. But all of the shows I've named mined the material for a dramatic and emotional through-line. They turned a bunch of disparate songs into a cohesive evening of theater.

The Bacharach-David songs are dramatic enough — they're often melodramatic, beginning in quiet rumination, escalating to fever or fury pitch. Many inhabit a tone of wistfulness, yearning, despair; they could be knitted into a story about the dreams and frustrations of a young woman in the big city. That would have made a good, dark musical — 60s songs reflecting the dour mood of New Yorkers today. But "The Look of Love" has nothing on its mind or in its heart.

To the surprise of no one who's seen it, "The Look of Love" was shut out in the Tony nominations. This in itself is not a foolproof method of determining a show's worthlessness. "Dance of the Vampires," Jim Steinman's overblown but vigorously melodic pop musical, was also denied any nominations. (The Tony committee went out of its way to insult Steinman by naming the 30 songwriters whose ditties were used for "Urban Cowboy The Musical" as finalists for Best Original Score.) But don't take Tony's word for it. Take mine. "The Look of Love" is so bad, I'm not writing about it at any greater length. It would hurt too many feelings, especially mine.

As discouraging as the show was the tenor of its reviews — rather, their incredulity that any sensible Broadway types would deem these songs worth putting on the stage. Bruce Weber in the New York Times was blithely condescending to the Bacharach-David canon. New York 1's Roma Torre, doyenne of theater critics, scratched her head and found a thought: Why, with all the worthy composers in nolstalgia-land, did they pick these outmoded purveyors of elevator music?

These music scholars might cop a listen to Broadway's most successful composer, and one of its most revered. In 1970, Richard Rodgers said he thought Bacharach's music was an advance on the standards created decades before by Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Cole Porter — that lot. "I don't think Bacharach would have been possible in the 30s," Rodgers told Newsweek. "He's not interested in the 32-bar form or in eight-bar phrases. And I think it's healthy."


BECOMING BURT

Bacharach, born in Kansas City on May 12, 1928, was the son of syndicated columnist Bert Bacharach. Bert-with-an-e had been a star football player at Virginia Military Institute, and Burt-with-a-u wanted to be an athlete in the worst way.Which is exactly the way he was an athlete. Too small for team sports, he turned to music, studying composition and theory at McGill University in Montreal and the Mannes School of Music on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where his teachers included composer Darius Milhaud. Modernism, the first post-melodic Western music, was the thing, but Milhaud detected a tunesmith's gift in Burt's early pieces. He told his bright student not to be afraid of writing something the man in the street can whistle.

Did Bacharach take the advice literally? Or, since he didn't write the arrangements for "The Story of My Life" and "Magic Moments," was it just coincidence that they both feature male-chorus whistling? (Pitney does some smooth whistling to lead into the Bacharach "Only Love Can Break a Heart.") Whichever, he wasn't pleased with the productions of his early songs. Other arrangers ironed out the bold assonances of his orchestrations, the stutter-steps of his tempi. And their bosses, the A&R (Artists & Repertoire) producers who oversaw the choice of songs for their labels' singers, fretted that the sound was way too experimental. Columbia's Mitch Miller had gone to music school too, but he wanted the pop songs on his label to be simple and cheerful. As a businessman, Miller didn't dig Milhaud.

"All those so-called abnormalities seemed perfectly normal to me." Bacharach told Bill DeMain, author of the excellent biographical essay in the Rhino box set. "In the beginning, the A&R guys ... would say, 'You can't dance to it,' or 'That bar of three needs to be changed to bar of four,' and because I wanted to get the stuff recorded, I listened and ended up ruining some good songs. I've always believed if it's a good tune people will find a way to move to it."

First, though, he had to find someone to write the words. In the Brill Building, a songwriting partnership was rarely monogamous. As David notes in the DeMain essay, "You'd write with one composer in the morning and another in the afternoon." Bacharach collaborated with Hal David on the 1957 songs; with Hal's brother Mack on the novelty tune "The Blob" and the Shirelles hit "Baby It's You"; with Bob Hilliard on the Gene McDaniel "Tower of Strength," the Chuck Jackson "Any Day Now" and two Drifters songs. Burt and Hal didn't become an official team until 1962. <+P> They didn't socialize much, but they saw plenty of each other at the office. "It was a smoke-filled room with no view, a window that didn't open, and a beat-up piano," Bacharach recalls. "Your typical image of how songwriters wrote in those days." And they kept writing; the music publisher that employed them, the notorious Famous Songs, demanded product, as if they were cutting patterns in the Garment District. "I was always writing lyrics," David says, "he was always writing melodies. We'd meet around 11 o'clock every day: ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?' It was like show and tell. Either my lyric would spark him to write a melody or vice versa."

Down the hall, or up a few flights, other songwriters were creating the melodies teens would be making out to. Many of them — Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — were teens themselves, or just had been. David and Bacharach, in their 30s, were also older than their first important producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had been crafting R&B and rock hits since the early 50s. No wonder, then, that Burt and Hal's songs were more mature and complex: they had been nurtured on swing, big-band, the finely-crafted pop song, and on lyrics that located the art in heartbreak.

And no wonder that, for all the potent pieces they hatched, it took more than a decade from their first song together to their first #1 hit: the Herb Alpert "This Guy's in Love With You." Truth is, though, that their best stuff was a little less hummable, and lot more complex.


LET THE MUSIC PLAY

Even his admirers want to believe that Burt's songs sounded the way Burt looked: handsome, cool, casual, even-featured. In fact, they were — well, handsomely crafted — but their style was agitated, demanding, jagged. The title tune of the musical "Promises, Promises" (a hit for Warwick nearly a year before the show opened) jitters from something like 13/8 tempo for the chorus to waltz time for the bridge. Even a relatively simple sing-along like "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" ultimately discards the ukelele plunking and 4/4 time for a hipster trumpet fade-out figure that's four-and-a-half bars long.

A total musician, Bacharach was determined to seize the means of production. In the Rhino collection, his first song as official arranger was "Baby It's You" in late 1961; his first song as producer was about six months later, with the Jerry Butler hit "Make It Easy on Yourself." Now Burt could get the big, bold sound he wanted, engrave it on black plastic and get it out untainted. Typically, 30 musicians might be assembled in those cramped Broadway studios: the lead singer, two trios of backup singers (the white girls and the black girls), eight violins, four other string-men, four to six horns, a rhythm section (bass and percussion), pianist Paul Griffin, and Burt and Hal and the engineer — first Eddie Smith, then Phil Ramone. Sometimes Burt played piano, but he didn't trust his sense of tempo. He wanted to oversee these cast-of-dozens superproductions, not be lost inside them.

Bacharach drove some of his singers nuts with his quiet insistence on the exact interpretation of a song — his interpretation. He also wrote detailed charts for the musicians: "I liked to write out a drum part, a piano part, a guitar part. ... The drummer would know where I wanted a cross stick." It's corny but true: Burt wanted listeners to hear, exactly, the music he heard in his head. (This explains why the jazziest pop songs of the day were not routinely covered, stretched and spindled by jazz interpreters. The pieces were so densely constructed, they didn't allow for much vamping. The schizophrenic time signatures robbed jazzmen of their subversive fun. The songs were their own variations, their own subversions.)

It's thrilling to behold, even in retrospect, the speedy development of Bacharach's artistry in 1962. At this time he was writing two kinds of songs for two kinds of male voices: catchy pop for tenors with a catch in their throat (Gene McDaniel, Gene Pitney, Bobby Vinton); and soulful, more strenuous ballads for R&B belters (Chuck Jackson, Lou Johnson, Tommy Hunt). You get the sonic picture from a pair of songs that emerged in April 1962. Though Bacharach wasn't credited as arranged or producer on either one, they offer signposts to his abundant ambitions:

Pitney's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (arranged by Chuck Sagle, produced by Aaron Schroeder): John Ford, who preferred cowboy laments and prairie hymns on the soundtracks of his Westerns, nixed Bacharach and David's attempt at a theme song. They released the record anyway and it went to #4. It's a fine example of a movie song that (like many of today's movie trailers) packs its 2min.54sec. with a whole lot of plot — except the info on which man shot Liberty Valance. It's an apotheosis, and maybe a parody, of the many Dimitri Tiomkin Western movie themes: it opens with a country fiddle that sounds like helium let out of a balloon, is punctuated by rim-shot gun shots, and closes with the fiddle now mimicking a train wheezing down the tracks — the train whose departure ends Ford's movie.

Jackson's "Any Day Now" (arranged by Burt Keyes, produced by Luther Dixon): Begin with Paul Griffin's Hammond Organ, noodling away like birdsong or a bird-call. The lyric, by Bob Hilliard, is a prime example of a theme that Hal David will mine for the next decade: erotic anxiety. The singer is hugging his woman — his "wild beautiful bird" — , but in what should be a moment of security, he's hanging on for dear life, or certain death. He anticipates the worst: "Any day now, love will let me down/ 'Cause you won't be aroun'." The bridge in this 3min.20sec. song doesn't come until the two-minute mark. By this time the singer's misgivings explode into paranoia: "I'll be holding on for dear life/ Holding you this way/ Begging you to stay." The organ figure returns at the end, as the singer screams, "Don't fly away, my beautiful bird..."


BURT & HAL & DIONNE

Bacharach and David, now a team, would enlarge on both types of songs. One of their strongest ballads of manic self pity is "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," introduced by Hunt. A few soulful guitar chords presage the story of a man in love with his misery. His woman done left him, and he's been crippled by her desertion. He can't go to movies or parties: "When I'm not with you / I just don't know what to do." The mewling crescendoes into a bridge that tries to woo the wandering beloved back with the promise of co-dependency: "I need your sweet love to ease all the pain." Then he sinks back into mewling (beautiful mewling), declaring he'll be around if her new love turns her down. By the end, with dramatic, Chopin-y descending chords and the violins kicking it as a misanthropic exclamation point, Bacharach's arrangement is declaring the song a masterpiece. Which it is.

The duo wrote lots of movie theme songs, and when there was no movie, they wrote their own. "Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa" would have made a cool movie, of the sunburned indie persuasion. The narrative — a message from an erring man to his done-wrong gal — is basically an excuse for a one-night stand ("I asked her if she could stay/ She said, 'Okay.'") in some erotic outpost where trumpets blare and mariachis are strummed. Is Tijuana 24 hours from Tulsa? I guess almost any place is, depending on your means of travel.

Then again, Burt always had a cinematic vision. "When I was doing songs with Dionne," Bacharach says in the Rhino liner notes, "I was thinking in terms of miniature movies, you know? Three-and-a-half-minute movies, withy peak moments and not one intensity level the whole way through. ... You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute, then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution."

Bacharach knew singing. And he knew he had a sublime interpreter in Mary Dionne Warrick (the label misspelled her name Warwick) when she and her family sang backup on an early Bacharach record. Her first release was the result of a misunderstanding that led another singer to record a Burt-Hal song she thought she should have done. "Don't make me over, man," she spat out (meaning, apparently, don't bullshit me). David took the phrase literally and the two built a song around it.

"Don't make me over / Now that I'd do anything for you." In other words, now that I'm your slave, let me tell you a thing or two. The song is at once submissive and bossy. It's tough to sing, too, but Warwick had a way of making Bacharach's challenging melodies seem, if not easy, natural — natural to a woman about to come apart. In the bridge, Warwick leaps into a tantrum, an octave higher and 100 degrees hotter. "Accept me for what I am!" she screams. "Accept me for the things that I do!" What it lacks as a sales pitch (threats are a lousy way to begin a love affair), it makes up for in intensity, vitriol. It's a peak into the madmen and -women love can turn us all into.

For the panoply of sophisticated miracles that Bacharach-David worked with this marvelous thrush, get "The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-time Greatest Hits." In fact, if you were to buy all three CDs I've mentioned, it would cost you less than a single ticket to "The Look of Love."

So we bid adieu to Broadway's "Loook of Love" and hail the Burt Bacharach Nostalgia Express. I'd rather forget the musical, which gave me two hours of pain, and think of the music, which has given me 40 years of pleasure.