Burt Bacharach, legendary composer of pop songs, dies at 94

Composer Burt Bacharach, whose hits such as Do You Know the Way to San Jose and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head provided a mellow alternative soundtrack to rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at the age of 94, his publicist said on Thursday.

Bacharach died of natural causes on Wednesday at his home in the Los Angeles area with his family by his side, Tina Brausam told the Reuters news agency.

His songs, many written in a 16-year collaboration with lyricist Hal David, were neither rock nor strictly pop. They filled American radio broadcasts and were featured in major movies, making them as frequently heard in the 1960s and early 1970s as works by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

Bacharach wrote more than 500 songs, many featuring a tinkling piano and subtly seductive horn hooks. He penned hits for singers ranging from Dionne Warwick to the Carpenters. More than 1,200 artists performed his songs, which won six Grammys and three Oscars. Bacharach and David had 30 Top 40 hits in the 60s alone.

“He was just different,” David once told an interviewer. “Innovative, original. His music spoke to me. I’d hear his melodies, and I’d hear lyrics, I’d hear rhymes, I’d hear thoughts and I’d hear it almost immediately.”

For Bacharach, his talent was simple: “I’m a person that always tries to deal with melody.”

With suave good looks and a cool demeanor, Bacharach was described by songwriter Sammy Cahn as “the only songwriter who doesn’t look like a dentist”.

Bacharach’s songs were recorded by an A-to-Z of artists, literally – from Aretha (Franklin) to Zoot (Sims).

Burt Bacharach, left, and Elvis Costello hold their Grammy Awards for best pop collaboration with vocals for I Still Have That Other Girl in 1999 [File: Kevork Djansezian/AP]

“The shorthand version of him is that he’s something to do with easy listening,” Elvis Costello, who wrote the 1998 album Painted from Memory with Bacharach, said in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press. “It may be agreeable to listen to these songs, but there’s nothing easy about them. Try playing them. Try singing them.”

A box set, The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, is due to come out on March 3.

In addition to six Grammys for his songs, he was honoured with a seventh for an instrumental album and the lifetime achievement award,

He received two Academy Awards in 1970 for the score of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and for the song Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, which he shared with David. In 1982, he and his then-wife, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, won an Oscar for Best That You Can Do, the theme from the movie Arthur. His other movie soundtracks included What’s New, Pussycat?, Alfie and the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale.

Bacharach was a frequent guest at the White House whether the president was Republican or Democrat. In 2012, he was presented the Gershwin Prize by Barack Obama, who had sung a few seconds of Walk on By during a campaign appearance.

Married four times, Bacharach formed his most lasting ties to work. He was a perfectionist who took three weeks to write Alfie and might spend hours tweaking a single chord. Sager once observed that Bacharach’s life routines essentially stayed the same – only the wives changed.

Burt Bacharach, from left, appears with Carole Bayer Sager, Christopher Cross and Peter Allen, winners of the Oscar
Burt Bacharach, from left, appears with Carole Bayer Sager, Christopher Cross and Peter Allen, winners of the Oscar for best original song for Best That You Can Do from the movie Arthur in 1982 [File: Reed Saxon/AP]

Bacharach was essentially a pop composer, but his songs became hits for country artists (Marty Robbins), rhythm and blues performers (Chuck Jackson), soul singers (Franklin, Luther Vandross) and synth-pop musicians (Naked Eyes). He reached a new generation of listeners in the 1990s with the help of Costello and others.

In the 21st century, he was still testing new ground, writing his own lyrics and recording with rapper Dr Dre.

He was married to his first wife, Paula Stewart, from 1953 to 1958 and married for a fourth time to Jane Hansen in 1993. He also wed the actor Angie Dickinson. He is survived by Hansen as well as his children Oliver, Raleigh and Cristopher, Brausam said. He was preceded in death by his daughter with Dickinson, Nikki Bacharach.


Composer Burt Bacharach accepts the Oscar for Best Original Score for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"
Burt Bacharach accepts the Oscar for best original score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the Academy Awards in 1970 [File: AP]

A pianist passionate about jazz, Bacharach was born on May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri, and studied the art of composition in several American universities.

Bacharach was drafted into the army in the late 1940s and was still on active duty during the Korean War, but officers stateside soon learned of his gifts and wanted him at home. When he did go overseas, it was to Germany, where he wrote orchestrations for a recreation centre on a military base.

After his military service, he was hired by Marlene Dietrich as an arranger and musical director for her tours.

The young musician and ageless singer quickly clicked, and Bacharach travelled the world with her in the late 1950s and early 60s. During each performance, she would introduce him in grand style: “I would like you to meet the man – he’s my arranger, he’s my accompanist, he’s my conductor, and I wish I could say he’s my composer, but that isn’t true. He’s everybody’s composer – Burt Bacharach!”

In 1957, he met David, who died in 2012 and with whom he would form one of the most successful partnerships in the music industry.

Working in a tiny office in Broadway’s celebrated Brill Building, they produced their first million-seller, Magic Moments, sung in 1958 by Perry Como. In 1962, they spotted a backup singer for the Drifters, Warwick, who had a “very special kind of grace and elegance”, Bacharach recalled.

Burt Bacharach (R) stands with President Obama
Burt Bacharach, right, receives the 2012 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from US President Barack Obama during a concert at the White House honouring Bacharach and his songwriting partner Hal David on May 9, 2012 [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The trio produced hit after hit. The songs were as complicated to record as they were easy to hear. Bacharach liked to experiment with time signatures and arrangements, such as having two pianists play on Walk on By, their performances slightly out of sync to give the song “a jagged kind of feeling”, he wrote in his memoir.

The Bacharach-David partnership ended with the dismal failure of a 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon. Bacharach became so depressed he isolated himself in his vacation home in Del Mar, California, and refused to work.

“I didn’t want to write with Hal or anybody,” he told the AP in 2004. Nor did he want to fulfil a commitment to record Warwick. She and David both sued him.

Bacharach and David eventually reconciled. When David died, Bacharach praised him for writing lyrics “like a miniature movie”.

Meanwhile, Bacharach kept working, vowing never to retire, always believing that a good song could make a difference.

“Music softens the heart, makes you feel something if it’s good, brings in emotion that you might not have felt before,” he told the AP in 2018. “It’s a very powerful thing if you’re able to do to it, if you have it in your heart to do something like that.”

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