The story goes something like this: Driving home from ice hockey practice, Mike Myers flipped on the radio and heard The Look of Love by Dusty Springfield. When it was finished, the comedian said to himself, "Where have all the swingers gone?" He also must have realized that the movie it was for, Casino Royale, was a jape of the James Bond series. Then and there he conceived the Austin Powers character. Enamored by the song's composer, Myers cast Burt Bacharach in each of his three Austin Powers films—not as a character but as a performer playing his own music to set the scene. The cameo was similar in some ways to Mel Brooks' casting of Count Basie and his orchestra in Blazing Saddles (1974).
Burt has that effect on people who love music. It's pop, but with jazz sensibilities and sophistication. If he was the prototypical swinger-bachelor in the '60s and the nouveau-riche
Beverly Hills composer in the '70s and '80s, Burt was a bit of a throwback by the '90s—until his album with Elvis Costello came out, along with his Austin Powers scenes. Then came the revival. With the music industry drifting and older listeners weary of classic rock, baby boomers began to rediscover the value of '60s pop and Burt's poetic, dramatic touch.
In Part 4 of my five-part conversation at Burt's Los Angeles home for my Wall Street Journal profile last week, the composer talks about writing The Look of Love, how England grew so fond of his music so quickly during his invasion in the early '60s, and his thoughts on songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney:
Marc Myers: When you first traveled to England in the early ’60s as a composer, did you hear something new going on over there musically?
Burt Bacharach: No. Actually, I brought something new over there. I went there to do two television shows [Ready, Steady Go! in 1964 and The Bacharach Sound in 1965], and then to record an album.
MM: When did you do the album?
BB: In the fall of ’64. I remember driving down to Bucks County, Penn., where I had a house to put my dog down. Anyone Who Had a Heart was out, and the power of that song… it was a real groundbreaker, you know? Time changes throughout.
MM: Why record in London?
BB: I went over to make The Hit Maker for Kapp Records. Dave Kapp wanted me to make it in England because it would be cheaper. So I went and stayed in a single room at the Dorchester, where I used to stay when I worked with Marlene Dietrich. I sat in my room and wrote arrangements for the album. Then we went into Pye Studios and made all these songs as instrumentals with background vocals on some tracks.
MM: When the album was released there in the spring of 1965, your music had already rubbed off on English pop singers.
BB: Yeah, the Beatles recorded Baby It’s You in ’63. By the end of ’64, Cilla Black had a hit with a cover of Dionne's Anyone Who Had a Heart, Sandie Shaw had (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me, and Dusty was out with I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself. I think that’s when they first got me. I know Hit Maker came out in the spring of ’65. But if it sold 5,000 records in the States, that was a lot. But it was a Top 10 seller in Britain. I also appeared in this British TV special called The Bacharach Sound in ’65, which featured my music.
MM: What do you think Britain loved so much about your music?
BB: They’ve always had a strong pop tradition, as you know, and my songs were different... Edgy, young, I suppose. I think they also probably liked how I arranged background singers, which was different. Or that I was a young artist who was visible. Whatever it was, they started calling it the “Bacharach Sound.” [Pictured: From Britain's The Bacharach Sound]
MM: Dusty Springfield’s The Look of Love for Casino Royale in 1967 is still haunting.
BB: I still remember how I came to score the song. I was scoring the film, and I wrote that theme while watching it on a Moviola machine. There were no DVDs then, just reels of film. I was married to Angie [Dickinson, pictured] at the time, and she had to change the reels for me because I didn’t know how. But on this particular evening Angie was asleep in the next room.
MM: What did you do?
BB: I kept watching the one reel with Ursula Andress [pictured] in it. She was so seductive. And I kept checking her. God, she was great, and she was so hot. All I was doing was trying to write to the situation. On most films, I write the only way I know how: Not from memory or notes but I just keep watching and watching. That’s how I got What’s New Pussycat. It’s a crazy song, crazy melody. And I got it all from watching Peter Sellers’ face [pictured]. Just watching his actions and behavior. So it had to be a lopsided, out of joint melody.
MM: And that smoky sax solo on The Look of Love?
BB: That was going to be an instrumental cue. I worked off of Ursula, and what you hear is what I was seeing. Just the rhythm section and the sax. Kind of an ersatz Brazilian guitar thing, a baion.
MM: Did you feel that Lennon and McCartney spoiled the Burt Bacharach and Hal David party?
BB: I think we were traveling on different paths. I never felt like I was in competition with anyone. I wasn’t above or below. The ones who were really turning me on and getting me hot and getting me really lovin’ were coming out of Detroit. Papa was a Rolling Stone. That’s an incredible song. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Diana Ross could easily be the greatest record ever made. You listen to the bass line on there by James Jamerson. That Motown house band, that rhythm section. Wow. What was coming out of Detroit then was something. And then there was Marvin’s What’s Going On. What a record.
MM: Your At This Time album has traces of What’s Going On in it.
BB: That’s nice to know. I appreciate that. [Producer] Rob Stringer said, “I’ll let you make that record.” He knew it would be bought by just a small cult of buyers, if that. I wanted to really go for what I was feeling, socially and politically.
MM: It’s so tender, like What’s Going On.
BB: [Laughs] Not quite. To be mentioned in the same breath as Marvin’s What’s Going On… No, it’s not as good as Marvin. Marvin just made this unbelievable record. Sexy, too. Sensuous.
MM: Do you still write music in your head and then write it down before ever touching a keyboard?
BB: I may fool a little with the keys to get fragments. On record dates, what I used to do, if I was stuck and had an orchestra in the studio… I mean, the clock is always running. So it’s a recurring nightmare of not being ready, not having the arrangement finished. I used to play games with myself by pretending the copyist is going to come to the door demanding the music. [Pictured: Burt Bacharach at the piano with Hal David and Dionne Warwick rehearsing in the studio]
MM: Are you a slow writer?
BB: I like to have time to write, yeah. The thing I admire so much about [lyricist] Steven Sater is his brilliant speed in turning out unreal words, like for our new musical Some Lovers.
MM: You were saying, you had a strategy that came in handy when you were stuck.
BB: Right. When I got stuck in studios, with the musicians all out there, with the singer and background vocalists waiting on me, I’d take 10 [minutes] and go into the men’s room. There, I'd go into a stall, close the door and stand there thinking this thing through. “OK, what’s the problem?” Just not to be at the piano, not talking to the musicians—nothing. Just working through the piece in my mind. Where’s the problem? And most of the time I’d solve it that way.
MM: What allowed that to happen?
BB: In the quiet, I’d just hear the whole thing in my head, with no interruptions or diversions, nobody suggesting anything. Ahhh, I’d think, the strings are in too early, that’s it! Let’s take the strings out or revoice them. Then I'd come back to the studio.
JazzWax tracks: One of my favorite Burt Bacharach albums is At This Time, which Burt recorded in 2005 as a pop symphony with a socio-political statement. He sings on one of the tracks and plays piano on most of them. The orchestra is huge, and Burt's arrangements sigh with nostalgia and throb with contemporary beats. You'll find this one at iTunes and Amazon.
JazzWax clips: Here's Can't Give It Up from At This Time...
One of the Hollies best recordings was for the movie After the Fox (1966), with Peter Sellers singing lead. Here's the witty theme by Burt and Hal David...
Here's Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love. Dig that right hand...
I love Burt's singing voice. It's raw, unpolished, passionate and spare—almost like a sketch artist using the briefest lines to convey the whole. What matters most is the melody and orchestration; the words are just along for the ride. Here Burt is singing Make It Easy on Yourself...