Soon after English pop star Cilla Black and Burt Bacharach recorded Alfie in London in late 1965, the single was released by Parlophone in Britain in January 1966. Paramount's English marketers intended for the single to stir up interest for the movie prior to the film's release in London in March. But Black's single exceeded expectations, inching up the U.K. charts for three months, topping out at No. 9 shortly before the film opened at month's end. The contrast between Black's impassioned crescendos and girlish innocence on the song's softer moments attracted listeners young and old who had no idea about the film's saucy subject or theme.
But as Paramount geared up for the film's U.S. release in August 1966, its plans to include Black's song in the film hit a snag: Alfie director Lewis Gilbert didn't care for it and felt the Bacharach-David hit trivialized the film's artistic edge and undermined Sonny Rollins' sophisticated jazz score and playing. Gilbert, a jazz fan, didn't understand why the film even needed a pop theme when it had Sonny's Alfie's Theme.
Gilbert's view mattered little to United Artists, the company tasked with marketing the film and distributing it to theaters in the U.S. UA knew only too well from its recent experience distributing three James Bond films and two Beatles movies that a pop theme with radio support would translate into an enormously lucrative bonus. UA also knew that such a tie-in could be doubly valuable if that pop tune were released on one of its record labels.
So UA turned to its Imperial Records subsidiary, which had Cher under contract. Cher in 1966 was already a red-hot property. With her singing partner Sonny, the duo had had six charted hits in 1965 and would have four in 1966. As a solo act, Cher was atop the Billboard pop chart in early 1966 with Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), which reached No. 2.
So UA decided to have Cher's singing partner Sonny Bono write an arrangement for Alfie, which he penned with an ersatz "wall of sound" backdrop. Unfortunately, Alfie was more demanding than the talk-sing hits Cher had previously recorded, and the result was a detached, pitchy version that paled by comparison to Black's tour de force.
UA knew it couldn't simply add Cher's version to the movie without upending Sonny Rollins' score and incurring Lewis' wrath. So it compromised by placing Cher singing at the tail end, when the credits came up. To create buzz, Cher's version was released a month before the film's U.S. release (it only reached No. 32 on Billboard's pop chart).
Meanwhile, Cilla Black's manager Brian Epstein was furious that UA had robbed his singer of her shot at the American market. Capitol Records in the U.S. tried to make good by releasing Black's version in the States just before the movie premiered in New York in August. But Black's version only managed to reach No. 95 on Billboard's pop chart. Sadly, Black would never have another U.S. hit.
But Cilla Black's misfortune was also a timing issue. American radio by August 1966 was saturated with Alfie renditions. In fact, by the time Alfie opened in New York, seven versions of the song had already been released as singles by Black, Cher, Tony Martin, Jack Jones, Joanie Sommers, Carmen McRae and Billy Vaughan. Interestingly, Jerry Butler recorded one in June 1966, before Cher's version, but it wasn't released until a year later.
Black also was up against two blonde British pop stars, Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. In 1966, Clark had five hits on the Billboard pop chart while Springfield had two. With the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five and other British Invasion groups dominating the charts, not to mention a sea of American girl groups like The Supremes, there was little room left for Black or any other British female pop singer to gain traction.
"When Dionne's Here Where There Is Love album came up one song short, Scepter A&R man Steve Tyrell suggested they record the song, with Bacharach varying the arrangement slightly."
Warwick's approach was softer than other pop renditions and she was reported to have recorded the single in one take. Warwick's version peaked at No. 15. Even her sister and recording artist Dee Dee Warwick recorded a version.
Perhaps the most unusual of the Alfie hits was Stevie Wonder's instrumental on harmonica, recorded as Eivets Rednow, the singer's name spelled backward. How did the single do? In 1968, it peaked at No. 66 after six weeks on the Billboard pop chart.
As for Sonny Rollins, Alfie was just another recording session in a life-long search for the meaning of art and his own creative development. When I interviewed Sonny in 2008, his response reflected a healthy detachment from the commercial bumper-cars aspect of the events:
JW: Alfie is a fantastic recording. How did it come about?
SR: You like it? I'm so glad. I was playing at Ronnie Scott's club in London in early 1965. I was playing with three other English jazz musicians, and the movie was being made there at the time. While I was at the club, I was asked by the director Lewis Gilbert to write sketches [incidental music] for the film. We recorded the sketches for the movie with a small group. For the soundtrack, Oliver [Nelson] arranged a beautiful score for 11 pieces based on my sketches. Oliver fleshed out what I wrote. He was a beautiful arranger.
Sonny also learned a valuable lesson. According to Ashley Kahn's book, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records, Sonny looked back on Alfie philosophically:
"I enjoyed writing and playing the score for Alfie very much. However, if I were offered another opportunity such as this, I would only do it if the film highlighted the music rather than the story itself."
JazzWax clips: Here's Cher's version of Alfie, which was added to the end of the film for its U.S. release...
Here's Dionne Warwick's 1966 version...
Here's Stevie Wonder's instrumental version on the harmonica...
And here's one of my favorite pieces of instrumental music from the film—Sonny Rollins' On Impulse from the original Alfie soundtrack...