What lingers most after you have spent quality time with songwriter Burt Bacharach is the sound of his voice. In my Wall Street Journal profile last week, I describe it as shearling-soft. Burt's voice still has traces of Queens, N.Y., but it's plenty soothing and assuring. And the way he releases words in a sentence is a bit how kids let out string when flying kites. He seems to like to hear the rhythm of words and how they sound together, as though breaking them into measures. In fact, there's a cadence to everything he says. But the pauses and relaxed pace of his sentence delivery are equally thrilling. In music, these pauses are called "rests."
As it should be, considering how much hit music Burt has turned out since the early 1950s. On a list of post-1956 songwriters, Burt has had 133 hits and ranks No. 6—right after Paul McCartney, John Lennon and the Motown team of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland Jr. Put in perspective, Burt is a direct link to the great composers of the '30s and '40s—and author, with lyricist Hal David, of the American Songbook's final chapter.
Moments after Burt and I moved into his spacious living room to talk, I switched on my digital recorders. Burt then urged me to sit right next to him on the couch, virtually shoulder to shoulder. Which was perfect. We both sat low on the sofa, and it was as if we were in an English sports car, with Burt behind the wheel, both of us watching the road and scenery ahead of us zip by.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Burt, 83, the famed composer and winner of three Oscars and eight Grammys—whose new musical Some Lovers now is in previews at San Diego's Old Globe theater—talked about his dad and the early years:
Marc Myers: Your dad Bert was a men's fashion columnist. What style lessons did you pick up from him?
Burt Bacharach: My dad was never a great promoter of himself. But he was the nicest guy in the world. He did more favors and free jobs for people. Someone from the clothing industry would call and say, “Bert, can you come up to Harrisburg [Penn.] to speak to a group? My dad would say, "Sure." The other guy would say, "How much do you want?" He’d say, “No, I’ll just do it.” So my dad always undercut himself. [Pictured: Burt Bacharach and his father, Bert, in a 1970s ad]
MM: No fashion or grooming tips?
BB: You know, I’m very anti-dressing. I’m going to have to wear shoes tonight for a tribute to Hal David rather than sneakers. But when I get dressed up, I get dressed up. The way you see me now is the way I like to dress casually—in a tracksuit and sneakers. But I’m going to get dressed up tonight to do this tribute. Hal's 90 years old. Jesus, how did that happen? [laughs]
MM: How would you prefer to dress tonight?
BB: I like to go on stage wearing jeans, a blazer and an open shirt. But I wouldn’t be comfortable like that given tonight's event. That's how I dressed during our performances in Italy over the summer on tour. But I keep evading your question because I don’t really know how to answer it. What did I learn from my father? I kind of learned maybe consideration of other people. I’m so grateful my parents lived to see part of my success. They were still around for that.
MM: Are you excited about Some Lovers, your new musical with Steven Sater, who wrote the book?
BB: I really am. We did a reading the other day. It went very well. I’m really proud of the music. Some Lovers is a happy song, and I wish we could reprise it in the show. But I don’t think we can. We can’t find another place for it.
MM: Slightly off topic, but Alfie is one of the greatest songs ever written.
BB: Yeah it’s a damn good song. You know what’s odd? I don’t sing much on tour anymore but I do sing Alfie. It’s sort of like I wait until I’m an hour into the music, after we're through the different medleys and all before I sing, to make sure the audience is on my side.
MM: Aren’t they on your side from the start?
BB: Yeah, they are.
MM: You want to seduce the audience first?
BB: Yeah. Right or wrong, I need to feel that I have their permission to sing. And I can sing Alfie way better than I can sing Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Way better [laughs]. During our recent concerts in Italy, I started changing how we presented Raindrops. I had one of my singers, John Pagano, take it up to the bridge. Then I came in there. It’s better. There’s a comfort factor. I was never able to figure out why that song was so tough for me to sing, but it is—for me. And it isn’t really that tough a song.
MM: Your songs always have female singers sounding as though they’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as though there’s this panic or desperation setting in.
BB: I always felt much more comfortable writing for the female voice.
BB: Women just kind of convey more emotion for me, you know? Even singers who I didn’t conduct, like Dusty Springfield, have that emotional thing on my songs.
MM: You always seemed to understand women far better than any other songwriter. Why is that?
BB: It’s the feminine side of me, I think. I don’t know. It’s sheer emotion. I can get more with women. How am I going to get that with a guy. Luther [Vandross]? Yeah, but that was different when we worked together back in 1998. Think of Aretha on A House Is Not a Home—I mean, Jesus. And also what Luther did with the same song back in 1988.
MM: Did studying with Darius Milhaud help shape your sensitive side?
BB: Darius Milhaud [pause]. That was a small composition class, just five of us, out at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. At the time I was hanging out in New York with Lou Harrisson and John Cage thinking maybe this is where I’d wind up, writing 12-tone classical music and things like that. So I went to study with Milhaud. And he was very nice. Let’s see, what did I learn from him? [pause] How to eat tacos?
MM: How to eat tacos?
BB: Milhaud [pictured] liked taking the class—the five of us—to a little taco stand in Carpinteria. The other thing I learned from him came early and was quite authentic and quite major. We all had to write a work for our summer project, for the composition class. And I wrote a sonatina for violin, oboe and piano. The middle movement was very lyrical and very melodic, and I was very kind of almost ashamed of it?
BB: Yeah, embarrassed by it. Because we all were doing things like [pause] studying with composer and pianist Henry Cowell. You know, fist to the piano and extreme heavy stuff. But when I played my sonatina for Milhaud, we didn’t even talk about it. He just [pause] maybe he sensed my discomfort with the second movement. He said, “Never be afraid… of something… that is melodic… and can be remembered.”
MM: Sounds like a big transition.
BB: Yes, it was. And Milhaud knew how to eat tacos, so what could be better than that for the summer? [laughs] He was a very kind man.
MM: Were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller an influence?
BB: Great. I mean, I learned a lot. I did write one song with Jerry [pictured] and his son Jed [Falling Out of Love in 2003]. We were always friends. That’s how I met Dionne [Warwick]. I was rehearsing a background vocal group for the Drifters in 1962 on a song I wrote with Bob Hilliard called Mexican Divorce. Which is where I got to work with and observe Jerry and Mike in the studio.
MM: What was the big takeaway?
BB: The big takeaway was I never saw or figured out how Jerry did it.
MM: What do you mean?
BB: Mike stayed in the booth mostly. But to go into Bell Sound, which was just a box of a room, and put the Drifters or Ben E. King in there with a background vocal group or a string section plus four guitars and three percussionists—things that are unthinkable now. Nobody could think in those terms then. To get things going like Jerry’s Spanish Harlem , with the leakage in that room. Wow. But watching Jerry, you didn’t know how he pulled it off.
MM: Leiber was quite a producer—an unusual combination for a lyricist.
BB: It was. Jerry didn’t know how to write music. He was just a soulful guy. Everyone thought he was part black, but he wasn’t. He was just totally immersed in the culture, the music. We used to hang out together in New York. I learned a lot about recording and producing records just by watching him.
MM: What did you see?
BB: He was doing stuff like crowding studios and layering with tape years before Phil Spector. Phil was brilliant—and very nuts. I learned a lot from Jerry, and we remained friends. We always said that in this lifetime we had to write one song together before it’s over. And we finally did in 2003. It took a long time to write, and Aretha got it to record.
MM: Do you like the recording?
BB: I made the record... produced the record. It’s called Falling Out of Love. It’s a good song. Could I have made a better record? Yes I could have. Could I have written a better arrangement? Yes, I could have. Should have. You’re not going to get that many cracks at that. I did record Aretha a couple of other times as well, you know. Love her.
JazzWax tracks: Burt Bacharach's recordings divide into several different large categories. There are his pre-1962 hits, his early '60s recordings with Marlene Dietrich when he was her musical director and conductor, his recordings with Hal David for Dionne Warwick, his instrumental sessions for A&M in the '60s and '70s, his theater and movie hits, his non-Warwick hits in the '70s and '80s, and his 1990s recordings and artists who have recorded his works recently.
For starters, Burt's pop recordings from the 1950s are neatly packaged on Burt Bacharach: The First Book of Songs 1954-1958 at Amazon. There's also Rare Bacharach: 1956-78 at Amazon. Or The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three CD set at Amazon. Marlene Dietrich With the Burt Bacharach Orchestra also is superb. You'll find it at Amazon.
JazzWax clip: Here's Luther Vandross singing A House Is Not a Home in 1988...