If the arrival of the Beatles in February 1964 marked a turning point in jazz's commercial viability, then the recording of Alfie by Cilla Black in 1965 was the sound of the door slamming shut. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the U.S. release of the English film starring Michael Caine, the song went on to become a big hit for Black [pictured], Cher and Dionne Warwick. Despite Bacharach and David's initial trepidation about writing the song, Alfie today remains the most significant single penned by the duo, and Bacharach has said it's his own personal favorite.
But Alfie also marked a change in the weather for jazz. The pop song not only eclipsed Sonny Rollins' instrumental soundtrack for the movie, it also greased the wheels of jazz's declining appeal among youthful masses. From Alfie forward, the traditional American Songbook began to age rapidly and lose its hold over listeners. As Bacharach and David turned out a seemingly endless string of catchy, contemporary hits, a melodic coup was underway. For the first time since the 1920s, Tin Pan Alley standards sounded stale, clunky and somewhat meaningless compared with Bacharach's fresh, modern harmonies and David's lyrical vulnerability.
Delivered routinely by husky-voiced soul-gospel singer Dionne Warwick [pictured], the newly introduced Bacharach-David standards sounded so hip that they defied jazz interpretation. Jazz artists certainly covered Bacharach-David tunes, and some with success. But in 1966, jazz artists were unfortunately tied inextricably to an older generation of standards, and most artists were unable to execute the new ones with conviction or credibility. Within a short period of time, jazz artists found themselves weighed down by the older, dowdy material and appeared unsure how to proceed. The answer for some in the late 1960s was to create new jazz standards, some of which had lasting power while most did not.
The story of Alfie begins in 1965, when Bacharach [pictured] and David were asked by Paramount executive Ed Wolpin to write a theme song for the U.S. release of the film about a Cockney scoundrel. Sonny Rollins was due to record a jaunty theme in January 1966 as well as incidental music for the film. But Wolpin felt the release needed a vocal radio hit, which didn't exist in Rollins' planned instrumental pieces.
Bacharach and David almost passed on Wolpin's initial request, fearing they'd have trouble writing a convincing song about a man with a silly name. But after Bacharach saw a rough cut of the film in California, he persuaded David that they should give the song a shot.
English pop singer Cilla Black was chosen to record the result. Bacharach liked the shrill urgency of Black's pop voice, and her accent would add authenticity to the lyrics and film's London setting. Said Bacharach in Stage and Screen:
"There weren't too many white singers around who could convey the emotion that I felt in many of the songs I wrote, but that changed with people like Cilla Black."
Bacharch also fancied Black following her dramatic 1964 cover of his Anyone Who Had a Heart. Black's rendition had mirrored Dionne Warwick's hit and sparked a trans-Atlantic feud between the singers. When Bacharach expressed interest in Black for Alfie, the singer decided to play hard to get. She feared all of this was over her head.
Here's Black in her memoir, What's It All About (2003):
"When Burt Bacharach first wrote to me from New York to tell me that he and Hal David, inspired by the film Alfie, had written another song especially for me, I was very excited... Because I didn't really want to record the song, but didn't want to say an outright 'no,' I thought I'd be really difficult for a change and start putting up barriers.
"So first of all I said I'd only do it if Burt Bacharach himself did the arrangement, never thinking for one moment that he would. Unfortunately, the reply came back from America that he'd be happy to. So then I said I would only do it if Burt came over to London for the recording session. 'Yes,' came the reply.
"Next I said that as well as the arrangements and coming over, he had to play on the session. To my astonishment it was agreed that Burt would do all three. So by this time, coward that I was, I really couldn't back out."
The recording session at London's Abbey Road studio was set for the fall of 1965. A 48-piece orchestra plus Black's three back-up singers were assembled. The producer was George Martin, probably because Black and the Beatles shared the same manager, Brian Epstein. Martin had also produced her earlier Bacharach hit. Bacharach not only arranged and played piano on the date, he also conducted. [Pictured: Burt Bacharach, George Martin and Cilla Black]
And perhaps as payback for Black's petulant demands, Bacharach nearly shredded her voice with successive takes. Black recalls 18, but other sources indicate there were more—some with false starts, some with Black's voice wavering or coming in at the wrong moment. But there also were some seemingly perfect takes, prompting Martin to come onto the studio speaker from the engineer's booth: "Burt, what exactly are you looking for?" Replied Bacharach: "That little bit of magic." At which point Martin said: "I think we had that on take four."
It's unclear how many perfect takes were in the can. What is clear from footage that was surreptitiously filmed during the session, Black was exhausted while delivering what would become the master take. Yet she still delivered a glass-shattering rendition that remains to my ear the most potent, caring and convincing of the thousands recorded since.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, the story continues: Why after Black's single was released another U.S. singer was brought in to record the single, why this new single was placed in the film distributed in the U.S., and what Sonny Rollins thought of it all.
JazzWax clip: Here's the famed footage from the Alfie session in 1965. That's Burt Bacharach conducting and playing piano. No sound was recorded, so someone has kindly matched the original single (albeit scratchy) against the film perfectly. (I have seen the longer version of this footage; it shows George Martin asking Bacharach what he was aiming for with the multiple takes and shows Black erring on one of the takes)...