With a hit-single track record spanning four decades, Burt Bacharach became one of the most important composers of popular music in the 20th century, almost equal to such classic tunesmiths as George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. His sophisticated yet breezy productions borrowed from cool jazz, soul, Brazilian bossa nova, and traditional pop to virtually define and undoubtedly transcend the staid forms of Brill Building adult pop during the 1960s.
Born May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, he studied cello, drums, and piano as a child, and was later transplanted to New York City by his father, a syndicated columnist. The time spent in New York gave him a chance to sneak into clubs to watch his bebop heroes Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; he also played in several jazz bands during the 1940s. Bacharach studied music theory and composition at the Mannes School in New York, at Berkshire Music Center, at the New School for Social Research (with Darius Milhaud), at Montreal's McGill University, and at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA. A period in the Army interrupted his concentration of music study, but even while serving in Germany, Bacharach arranged and played piano for a dance band. He also played in nightclubs and backed Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers, and Paula Stewart. Bacharach was discharged in 1952, and he married Stewart on December 22nd of the following year.
On returning to the U.S., he began writing songs for Lawrence, Patti Page, the Ames Brothers, and others, but his first hit came from Marty Robbins in late 1957 when Robbins took "The Story of My Life" to the American Top 20 and the number one spot in England. The single was also notable for its co-composer, Hal David, who became Bacharach's songwriting partner and collaborated on most of his big hits. The Bacharach/David team followed up in January 1958 with Perry Como's "Magic Moments," another U.K. chart-topper and a Top Five entry in America. Bacharach's marriage dissolved in 1958, and he left for Europe to tour with Marlene Dietrich. He returned in 1961, and wrote several songs for the Drifters with Bob Hilliard (including "Mexican Divorce" and "Please Stay") before reuniting with Hal David. At an arranging session, he found the singer who became the ultimate vehicle for his songs: Dionne Warwick who was working as a member of the Drifters' backup vocal group, the Gospelaires.
By late 1962, Bacharach and David began focusing most of their composing energy on Warwick, who was the recipient of 15 Top 40 singles from 1962 to 1968 (including the Top Tens "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Walk on By," "Message to Michael," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Valley of the Dolls," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"). The duo also remained dominant in England, where Frankie Vaughan, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, the Walker Brothers, and Herb Alpert all hit number one with Bacharach/David compositions. As if their schedule wasn't busy enough throughout the '60s, the songwriters contributed film scores for What's New Pussycat?, Alfie, and Casino Royale. The film featuring their most celebrated score, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Theme Song for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" (plus two non-musical Academy Awards). Bacharach and David began working on the musical Promises, Promises in the late '60s; it won a Tony and a Grammy Award (for cast album) during a popular three-year Broadway run. Bacharach hit the charts himself in 1969, with the show's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" reaching the Top 100. Surprisingly, this was not his only foray into recording; Bacharach had reached number four in the U.K. charts in May 1965 with "Trains and Boats and Planes," and he released several popular solo albums during the late '60s.
The beginning of the '70s looked bright for Burt Bacharach, as the Carpenters took "(They Long to Be) Close to You" to number one in the U.S. in July 1970. The forecast was premature, though, as three of his closest partners — Hal David, Dionne Warwick, and his second wife Angie Dickinson — left him. He gathered several accolades for an eponymous 1971 album featuring renditions of his previous hit compositions, but later albums were disappointing and Bacharach's next hit was over a decade in coming. Finally in 1981, he collaborated with Christopher Cross, Carole Bayer Sager, and Peter Allen on the Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme." Bacharach married Bayer Sager just one year later, and together they wrote Roberta Flack's Top 20 hit "Making Love," as well as "Heartlight" which Neil Diamond took to number five.
Once Bacharach resumed composing he began to hit, and 1986 was one of his finest years, with two American number ones: "That's What Friends Are For" (by an all-star group including Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder) and a duet by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald titled "On My Own." He divorced Sager in 1991, but worked with Dionne Warwick again two years later on "Sunny Weather Love," from her Friends Can Be Lovers album. Also in 1993, Bacharach contributed songs to James Ingram, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Tevin Campbell. Around the same time, many alternative bands began name-checking the hitmaker as an influence, and Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher joined him on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall as well as including a picture of him on the cover of Oasis' Definitely Maybe. BBC-TV focused on Bacharach in a January 1996 documentary, and a three-disc retrospective of his compositions was released by Rhino in 1998. That same year he collaborated with Elvis Costello on the acclaimed Painted From Memory, and was celebrated at an all-star concert at Radio City Music Hall which later formed the basis for the LP One Amazing Night. ~ John Bush