Burt Bacharach, 1928-2023

Burt Bacharach and Hal David were perhaps the missing link, the tandem who rode the bridge from the old world to the new, bringing old-fashioned songcraft into the heart of the sixties pop revolution and crafting dozens of enduring classics along the way

Burt Bacharach, 1928-2023

The phone buzzed just after one o’clock on Thursday afternoon. I glanced down, a news flash from The Guardian. Ho-hum, what now? More governmental nonsense? And then I read the headline – Burt Bacharach has died, aged 94. And just for a moment, I froze, unable to go on with the day. Burt Bacharach? Gone? No, surely not, just… no. I know, I know, he was 94 and bla bla bla… but so what? Some people should just live forever, shouldn’t they? And in my mind, or in my musical mind, anyway, which at times like this is almost the same thing, Burt was one of those. This shouldn’t happen.

Scroll back the years to some point in the early seventies. Primary school, mucking about in the playground, aged 7 or 8 or thereabouts, singing a song with one of my mates. I knew three-quarters of nothing about pop music – or indeed, any music – back then, but I knew about Burt Bacharach. I couldn’t spell his name – as I type this, I still can’t, albeit for different reasons – and I’m not sure I really knew that much about him, either, but I knew two things. (1) I’d seen him on television and (2) he made some music that I liked. No idea now what that music was but hey! I was only a kid. And Burt’s stuff was cool, in a way that the other stuff on the radio was not cool.

I have no idea which was the first Bacharach-David record to find its way into my collection. Cilla’s version of “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, maybe? Gene Pitney’s “Twenty-Four Hours To Tulsa”? Something by Dusty? No idea. Too long ago. But I do know that they all kind of came at me in a bunch during the early eighties, when I lost myself into a sixties pop whirlwind. Aretha. Dionne. Manfred Mann. Perry Como, for Gawd’s sake (yep, Burt wrote “Magic Moments”. Who knew?). The Shirelles. Herb Alpert. Bobbie Gentry. Tom Jones. And on, and on. I loved these singers, musicians, bands, whatever, pretty much whatever they sang or played. But I could always tell a Burt Bacharach tune a mile off.

There’s something special about Burt’s greatest work. Sure, he and Hal fit neatly into the Brill Building pantheon, alongside Goffin and King, Mann and Weil and all the others. Yet in other ways, they don’t quite belong there. They are equally at home in the pages of the Great American Songbook, the last of that hallowed production line that included the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart. But they don’t quite fit there, either. Burt and Hal were perhaps the missing link, the tandem who rode the bridge from the old world to the new, bringing old-fashioned songcraft into the heart of the sixties pop revolution and crafting dozens of enduring classics along the way.

I’m not a musician. I can’t tell you what Burt did, or how he did it, any more than I can tell the difference between one chord progression and another (I mean, I can hear the difference, but I can’t tell you what it is). So I don’t know how or why Burt was special – I just know that he was. Listen to Lennon and McCartney – they’re wonderful, inventive, creative, fun – but then listen to Burt and you’re in a whole different place. His tunes wander off into places that other tunes don’t go, where tunes shouldn’t go, and yet somehow, they wander back again and it all sounds so damned perfect that you just end up going with it as if it were normal, commonplace, but it really isn’t.

Some of Burt’s songs sound so wrong you can’t believe they were written that way, but they are also just so right. For years, I was convinced that “What’s New, Pussycat” was two different songs. I knew both the bits, but I couldn’t fit them together in my head, there was nothing to join them up. Then I heard the whole record and wham! It all fits. But how the hell he imagined it, I will never know. There’s a word for it – an overused word, but an appropriate one here. Genius.

There was a big Burt revival in the nineties, and a well-deserved one, too. Boxed sets, cover versions, tribute albums. Even a new album with Elvis Costello, no less, subbing for Hal David and taking the vocal honours too. Yeah, I know, the later stuff – “That’s What Friends Are For”, “Arthur’s Theme”, “God Give Me Strength” – is pretty good but it lacks something that the classic Burt songs had. Maybe it showcases how much Hal brought to the table, or maybe there’s just so much creativity you can pack into one life, and Burt piled his into that golden 10-15 year period. After all, few of his contemporaries were still stunning us by then either, so why should he? and he was still better than most, anyway… But go back…. “I Say A little Prayer”. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (no, not Elton’s song, the other one). “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”. “What The World Needs Now (Is Love)”. “Alfie”. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. “Tower Of Strength”. “This Guy’s In Love With You”. “(They Long To Be) Close To You”. “Walk On By”. “Baby It’s You”. (Insert your own favourite here…). Nobody listens to this stuff and comes away unmoved. The tunes are clever, certainly, infectious, crafted around hooks that would snare even the smartest fish but there’s something else too, an emotional core that resonates long after the song is over. Something that makes you go back, time, after time, after time….

And today, suddenly, he is gone. Thoughts go out to his friends, to his family, to anyone whose life has been touched by his music. Tonight, I shall withdraw into the music and remember the man, the songwriter, the arranger, the producer, the legend whose name decorates dozens if not hundreds of records on my shelves. Tomorrow, I will go back to my life, as we all must do, but the world will be a poorer place. We shall not see his like again.

Burt Bacharach, 1928-2023. Rest in peace.

Listen to one of Bacharach and David’s greatest songs, What The World Needs Now performed by Jackie Deshanno, 1965




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Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book "French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé"

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