Burt Bacharach’s discography reads like an AM and FM radio play list. His musical accomplishments include 48 Top 10 hits, nine number one songs, 70 Top 40 hits, Academy Awards for Best Song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (1969) and “Arthur” (1981), and more than 500 compositions throughout the course of his career. Yet, in his teens, Bacharach was without direction and alienated, except for his piano studies. His piano playing saved him from what could easily have become a life of poverty and despair.
Bacharach will give a concert at the McCarter Theater gala on Saturday, June 7. Also appearing is actor BD Wong, who will star in McCarter’s first production of the 2008-’09 season.
Bacharach was born on May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, the son of nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Bert Bacharach and a housewife. His family moved from Missouri to Kew Gardens, Queens, in 1932, during the Great Depression.
“I took piano lessons because my mother wanted me to,” Bacharach says in a phone interview from his home in southern California, “and I didn’t like it, even in high school. I’d come home and it was drudgery to have to practice for a half an hour before going out and playing with my friends.”
But something happened to Bacharach during his second year of high school, as he took an interest in music that went beyond classical. “I didn’t think I had any real talent, I didn’t have much interest, and I didn’t like classical music. I used to listen to the philharmonic with my mother and father and it was heavy — it was Beethoven and Brahms,” he says. But during his sophomore year he discovered jazz and found some classical composers that he actually liked. It was at that point that he had his first inklings of wanting to become a composer.
“We formed a little band at school, and I played piano, and that turned into a great way to meet girls. There was also the connection of playing with somebody else, and then hearing music that I really liked, the French impressionists like Ravel and Debussy,” he says. “Then I heard some music that really got me excited — Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and their big bands, and the Tad Dameron big band, I’d go and hear those guys on 52nd Street with a photo ID card. It was all very exciting to me.”
At this point in high school, he says, he still didn’t know he wanted to be a musician or pursue a career as a composer. “I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew I was interested in at least studying composition.”
After graduating from high school, Bacharach studied at McGill University, the New School for Social Research, and the Mannes School of Music. He studied composition with Darius Milhaud, Boguslave Martinu, and Henry Cowell.
The young Bacharach soon learned that being a classical composer is not unlike being a jazz composer; both are notoriously low-paying professions, unless you somehow establish a name for yourself.
Did he at least consider a career in jazz, since that music was so exciting to him? “I didn’t think I was good enough as a jazz pianist, and there wasn’t a lot of money in contemporary classical composing either, unless you got an endowment. I kind of just drifted with the flow, and I can’t recall if I had a fierce desire to do anything. My marks in high school were horrible, and when I was interested in going to college, there were no schools that I wanted to go to that would accept me, because my marks in high school were so bad,” Bacharach says.
“I was a little interested in music composition, so I came out to Santa Barbara and studied with Milhaud, and then I went into the Army and when I came out I needed to make some kind of living, so I played piano in bars and did some conducting for acts like Vic Damone and Marlene Dietrich. It was a way to make a living and see the world, certainly with Dietrich, anyway.”
By the late 1950s, he had a hit with Perry Como with “Magic Moments,” not to be confused with the Doc Pomus hit, “This Magic Moment.” He wrote a few country tunes for Gene Pitney and Marty Robbins, but when he began working for the Ames Brothers, he says, “I realized I could write pop songs very easily, so I got off the road and went back to New York and worked in the Brill Building,” he says. The Brill Building was a place where songwriters, singers, musicians, and arrangers would gather in offices to collaborate. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a hotbed of rock ‘n’ roll activity, at least not initially. Songwriter Doc Pomus recalled in a 1990 interview that the place was filled with stodgy old songwriters and big band arrangers who hated the up-and-coming rock ‘n’ roll songwriters and everything that the new rock ‘n’ roll music represented.
“I would write with different people in the Brill Building, someone in the morning and someone else in the afternoon,” Bacharach says, noting it was there he first met lyricist Hal David, with whom he would collaborate on all his great songs of the 1960s: “Alfie,” “Close To You,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” “The Look of Love,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Walk On By,” “What the World Needs Now,” and “Wishin’ and Hopin,’” to name a few.
Bacharach considers his first
real hit a song that he had creative control over, that he and David were able to produce themselves, thanks to the foresight of executives at Vee-Jay Records, who later released the first Beatles 45 singles in the U.S. The classic R&B singer Jerry Butler, many years later one of the founding members of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, had a hit with Bacharach and David’s “Make It Easy On Yourself,” in 1962.
Bacharach and David were off and running, and their collaborating continues to this day. (Bacharach turned 80 on May 12, and David turned 87 on May 25.)
“Hal and I just wrote a song together about a month and a half ago, and it was a very good song. But at the Brill Building, I got a lot of rejections and turn-downs, and I think my success really started when I was finally able to make the record myself — write the arrangement, conduct the orchestra, make sure it was the tempo I wanted,” he says. He first got that chance with Chicago vocalist Jerry Butler on his birthday, May 12, 1962.
“Back then, when songs got in the hands of another arranger and record producer, things didn’t always work out; this is why I’m always grateful for the chance to work with Jerry Butler. That was a springboard,” he recalls, adding, “it wasn’t the first hit I had, but it was the first in a different direction, and it was where I was going.”
Asked about getting his first big check from his publishing company, ASCAP, he says, “I recall getting $5,000 for the B-side of “It’s Not for Me to Say,” the Johnny Mathis record. After that, I just kept trying to get other hits and of course, continued to work with
Dietrich at the same time.”
Bacharach says he would come out to southern California for a week or two at a time in the early days in the 1960s, and then go back to New York. But then he met Angie Dickinson, who would become his wife, in 1966. (They later divorced.) “After I met Angie, she kind of motivated my move out here,” he says. “By the time I met Angie, I’d had my first movie score, ‘What’s New Pussycat,’ and we’d had a string of hits by then, too. The first film score you do is like the first record you do: someone’s got to say, ‘Ok, I’ll take a chance on you.’ Again, it was only because I was with Angie at the time. She met the film producer in the lobby of the building and she said, ‘I’m with this guy, he writes music,’ and he asked, ‘Is he any good?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, he’s good,’ and that was Charlie Feldman, and that’s how I got the job, just falling in, being lucky, right place, right time.”
After experiencing something of a career rebirth in 1998 with Elvis Costello’s “Painted From Memory” on Mercury Records, which earned a Grammy Award for “I Still Have That Other Girl,” Bacharach avoided social and political commentary until 2005, when he released an album filled with protest and indignation, “At This Time.”
I ask Bacharach why he wasn’t writing protest songs in the 1960s, the decade his career first blossomed. “It’s a different time now,” he says, adding the Vietnam War was in all its raging lunacy in the 1960s, but he and David were frantically busy, continuing to churn out hits and involved with composing film scores. “It’s true, we wrote ‘Windows of the World’ and ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love,’ but they weren’t protest songs, they weren’t angry songs.”
Bacharach pauses to think. “My awareness of things going on back then was much less at the time, and I don’t take pride in that. I kept on writing my music, and we kept working because we were doing quite well at the time, and Vietnam was kind of far away. You didn’t have 24-hour news channels like you have now,” he says.
‘Now, when everything is breaking loose after Bush is in, you go to bed with cable news, you wake up with cable news, and it was affecting me much more. In 2000, I thought it was outrageous that the election kind of got stolen and then in 2004 I was like, I can’t wait for this administration to go on home,” he says. “My feeling is that had Gore won in 2000, we would never have gone into Iraq, and we would have had a handle on global warming right from the get-go. In those two regards, he was really there, but I don’t know what kind of a President he’d have made otherwise.”
Bacharach received a Grammy for “At This Time,” which he called “the most passionate album” of his career. “When I got the award in 2005, I went through the press line with my two young sons, and they asked me the same basic question you’re asking: why did I get involved now? My answer was, ‘I never could stand a girlfriend who lied to me, I never could stand an agent who lied to me, and I can’t fathom a President who lies.’”
At the McCarter gala concert on June 7, Bacharach will be accompanied by vocalists Donna Taylor, John Pagano, and Josie James; David Coy on bass; Dennis Wilson on woodwinds; Rob Schrock on keyboards; David Crigger on drums; and Tom Ehlen on trumpet. Bacharach says he enjoys working with this eight-person group — actually 11, if when you include Bacharach’s light and sound men — as well as occasional tours with a large orchestra with strings. Bacharach says his live shows “are a very careful balance of things that they remember from the 1960s, as well as some more recent things, things I did from the album with Elvis Costello.”
The octogenarian is still working. “Elvis Costello and I are writing together now, by phone, and I’m writing a lot of other new stuff lately, still with Hal David and with Stephen Seder, who just won seven Tony Awards earlier this year.”
Gala Benefit, Saturday, June 7, 5:30 p.m. McCarter Theater at the Berlind, 91 University Place. Legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach is the featured performer. Also appearing is actor BD Wong, who will star in the first production of McCarter’s 2008-’09 season. Cocktails, dinner, dessert, and dancing optional. $175 to $1,000. Concert tickets $50 to $100. 609-258-2787.