Pulling into Burt Bacharach's driveway a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I looked in the open garage. There, parked neatly, was a relatively new white Jaguar XJ12—exactly the kind of car I had imaged Burt would drive: Sporty, comfortable, powerful and, once upon a time, English-made. Entering his ranch-style home, I waited in his music room for a few minutes before he arrived. Naturally, his walls were covered with photos of celebrities and musicians. There was even one of Burt and Dizzy Gillespie. Which made me think: If not for Burt and Hal David's music, jazz might have suffered even more than it did during the rock era. [Photo at top of Burt Bacharach at A&M's Los Angeles studios in 1972 recording Living Together, by Paul Slaughter]
Think about how many jazz artists in the '60s recorded Burt's music, in many cases devoting entire albums to his songs. Burt's compositions were billed as pop, but jazz musicians knew they were a sophisticated hybrid that gave jazz artists plenty of space for improvisation. Unlike many of the restrictive tunes by singer-songwriters of the '60s, Burt's melodies were adaptable by anyone who could pull them off.
In Part 3 of my conversation with Burt for a profile that appeared in last week's Wall Street Journal, the composer talks about a big turning point in his career and the reasons behind his quest for complete artistic control:
Marc Myers: What was turning point in the ‘60s for you? Was it the Anyone Who Had a Heart and Walk on By session of ’63?
Burt Bacharach: That was pretty good, because if you look at where I was [pause]. Actually, the first turning point was in '56 when I started working with Hal [David], when we finally got two heads. Things like The Story of My Life for Marty Robbins  and then Magic Moments for Perry Como . But that wasn’t going to be the way, by writing old-fashioned pop tunes.
MM: How so?
BB: We needed a new sound. I think the really big turning point for us was in ’62. Calvin Carter, the head of a&r at Vee-Jay records in Chicago took a chance on me. I had never done a record date. Calvin said, “If you want to cut Make It Easy on Yourself with Jerry Butler, do it the way you feel it. I’ll be in the booth. You write the arrangement, you conduct the orchestra and play piano on it.” So that was a big break in terms of seeing through my vision.
MM: Were you nervous?
BB: I was. But the fact was, I think there were so many times before on my songs where the tempos were too fast, the string parts were overwritten—I was determined that Make It Easy on Yourself was going to be different. I was going to break the mold. I was going to arrange the way I wanted to. I never liked crowded recordings. And many arrangers who took on my songs often put too much in there—wall-to-wall strings and so on. So Calvin’s [pictured] challenge was a big break, creatively. It gave me the license to say, “OK I’ll take the responsibility. If it comes out really good, I win and I’ll take the credit. And if it comes out bad, well…”
MM: Didn’t you have this kind of freedom before?
BB: Not really. There were songs I wrote that were pretty damn good. But the a&r man [producer] would cramp my style. He’d say, “Well, it’s weird because, you know, I like it but you’ve got that first phrase, and it’s a three-bar phrase instead of four bars. If you fill it out and get a four-bar phrase, it will be more magical.”
MM: A lot of second-guessing.
BB: It was. I'd really want it to be a three-bar phrase but I said to myself, “Maybe the guy’s right because he’s in charge.” But then I’d always think, “Maybe he’s also the guy who gives the order to rush forward and everyone gets killed." But I'd also get in line since he was running the session. When Make It Easy on Yourself became a hit, the experience gave me license to take full control to get the results I wanted.
MM: What did Dionne Warwick think of Butler’s version?
BB: [Laughs] Butler’s track came out beautifully—so beautifully that Dionne was pissed. Dionne got pissed about a lot of things back in the ‘60s. Certain things… well listen, I understand. She was our voice for some time. She really was. And she didn't like that other artists were singing the same songs. But there are certain things you can’t control. Dionne would get angry at the female British singers, and I’d tell her, “Look, I can’t control that.” To her credit, Dionne's versions always came out on top. Her voice was so fluent and fluid. Aretha, too. Nearly everyone else sounded under duress singing my melodies.
MM: Anyone Who Had a Heart in 1963 was a different kind of song for you—a little darker, a little more painful and a lot tougher to sing.
BB: I never intended to break the rules. But if you look at the music for Anyone Who Had a Heart, it changes time signatures quite a bit. It starts out in 5/4, then it's in 4/4 and ends in 7/8. I remember going to the Apollo Theater in New York when the record was a fair-sized hit by then and Dionne was singing it. The house band surrounded me backstage and said, “Why do you make it so difficult? Why don’t you just write metrically?” [laughs] Believe me, I’m not doing it intentionally to break rules. I’m really not.
MM: What did you say to them?
BB: I said, “Just play the music. Hear it in your heads. Don’t count bars. Feel it. It will be very natural.” But I don’t know if it ever was natural to them [laughs].
MM: In addition to composing, you often arranged, produced and conducted your music on recording sessions. That’s a ton of work. Why bother?
BB: Control, I guess. Control. Creative control. I eventually got crazy with the Jerry Butler record. I was afraid they were going to press it on real crap. So I went out to Vee-Jay’s record factory. They were using an injection molding system or something lousy like that. I said to the record company heads, “Hey, you went a cheaper way.” They said, “Hey, you sold 7,000 copies in Philadelphia alone today.” I said, “Yeah, but if it was pressed right, with the right material…”
MM: So for you, control was and is about getting what you hear in your head out of a singer and orchestra?
BB: Yes. It's not a power trip. I’m just going for the maximum. I always go for 100%. There’s this famous film of Cilla Black recording Alfie. You can find it on YouTube. And there’s Sir George [Martin] in the control room producing and wondering what I’m doing calling for so many takes.
MM: Were you lost in the moment?
BB: What it really comes down to is this: I’m very nice, I walk into the studio I stay nice. But I get very confident when I’m in there. Nervous and confident. And I wind up doing all kinds of things, you know? Like, I never asked Sir George whether an earlier take was acceptable as I plowed on. He finally came on the monitor speaker and said he thought we had what we wanted on a much earlier take [laughs].
MM: Which probably wouldn’t have mattered to you anyway.
BB: [Laughs] I always keep driving with one goal in mind. And, yes, I call for too many takes sometimes and go back to take No. 3 or No. 4 for the master. And that’s OK. I need to exhaust all efforts before I’m satisfied that we have what we need.
MM: Promises, Promises is another back-breaker.
BB: One of the things about the original Promises musical in 1968… Sure, Jerry Orbach [pictured] by the third month was saying to me, “Why did you write this thing? Why does it have to be so fast?” But you know, there’s urgency in what that song is supposed to be about. “Promises, promises I’m through with promises, promises…” Dionne sang it beautifully, and her voice was really shining through.
MM: Actually, it strikes me that you're actually seeking a kind of imperfection.
BB: How so?
MM: By pushing singers and musicians, you seem to be seeking a bit of sheer desperation, a near-cracking feel.
BB: That’s true. But there are many aspects to this. In addition to the singer, I’m trying juggle a range of things as the conductor. I’m trying to get the best performance from the drummer and from the bass and strings. And so I’m trying to get everyone up to the top of their game. When I call for multiple takes, it might be because just one instrument was off.
JazzWax tracks: There are two great collections of Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The most complete is Dionne Warwick Sings the Bacharach & David Songbook. Or there's a remastered collection Dionne Warwick: The Definitive Collection.
JazzWax clips: Here's Jerry Butler's Make It Easy on Yourself (1962)...
Here's Cilla Black recording Alfie with Burt conducting (1965)...
Here's an exhausted Cilla Black messing up a take of Alfie. Move the bar to 1:52 if you want to see it immediately, but I'd recommend watching the entire clip, which details what went on during the session and includes fabulous studio images...
Here's Jerry Orbach's Promises, Promises (1968)...