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Interview: Burt Bacharach (Part 3)

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Burt Bacharach As long-time readers of this blog know, one of my favorite songs is Alfie. I love the rising and falling melody, the challenging lyrics and the song's big build. I've posted on the song in the past here and here. I'm sort of torn between Cilla Black's version and the one Dionne Warwick recorded. Black's has that nervous breakdown thing going, that edge, while Dionne's is as smooth as suede. So at Burt's home, when I mentioned how much I loved the song, he got up from the sofa at one point and went over to the piano to play and sing if for me.

Imagine my shock. Burt said he was going to have to play it that night at a tribute to Hal David and needed to warm up anyway. Burt'svoice is rarely in tune, which is part of its brave charm. But what Burt lacks in perfect pitch he more than makes up for in passion and heart. When Burt played and sang Alfie for me, he was immediately all the way inside that song, feeling every note and word. Which is what's interesting about Burt: He unashamedly loves the sound of his own songs, as if someone else had written them and he's a fan.

In Part 3 of my five part conversation with Burt, captured for my Wall Street Journal profile a week ago, the composer, arranger, conductor and producer talks about his new musical, Barbra Streisand, David Merrick and why he never thought he'd be writing for the stage again:

Marc Myers: Some Lovers will open soon [now in previews],but the last time you wrote the music for a musical was Promises, Promises in 1968. That's a long time.

Burt Bacharach: Yes, it is. Promises was a hit, but I kind of got turned off by shows. [Pictured: Burt Bacharach rehearses cast of Promises, Promises in 1968]

MM: Why?

BB: A week and a half after the show opened, I got a phone call from the producer, David Merrick [pictured]. I was out in Palm Springs at the time. I was exhausted from the whole experience. The show was doing well. David said, “I want you to know, Burt, that we did a Saturday matinee and [composer] Richard Rodgers was there. And you had a substitute drummer, a substitute trumpet player..." There were like five subs in the band.

MM: What did you think?

BB: I said to myself, “I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to do another show." I like it better when I got it and it's there, just the way you wanted it, on tape, in a recording studio.

MM: Speaking of perfection and control, you've been quoted as saying that you like working with artists who torture themselves. What did you mean by that?

BB: I don't think I said that. If I did, I didn't mean it that way.

MM: Do you have that same feeling about perfection and control today that you did in 1968?

BB: I kind of learned more recently that if there's a pimple or two in a take, it's OK. If the guitarist is off, you can fix it with Pro Tools. But before, you couldn't. But if the feel is there and it's all there, there is something magical about the immediacy of having it all captured perfectly...

MM: Is there a perfect album of Burt Bacharach songs?

BB: I did an album with Ronnie Isley, which is an album I'm quite proud of [Here I Am, 2003]. To do what we did with two studios at Capitol, with the string section in Studio A and the other members of the orchestra in Studio B. And to be able to have a singer who's going to give me something, and a male voice no less. It's a killer. And in some cases there were two only takes. We got Alfie on the first take.

MM: In the 60s and 70s, your songs seemed crafted to ensure that singers and musicians would be out on a ledge.

BB: Good point. What I'm trying to do, really, is make a miniature movie when I write songs. That's why there are peaks and valleys, high points and suspense. I've never been much for one-level records.

MM: Even the best singers were challenged by your music.

BB: Challenged is another good word. I wonder if I could do now what I did with Barbra Streisand on Close to You. To have the audacity and balls to sing with her—and sing harmony with her, and have that kind of beauty with the string quartet playing live and the way Dwight [Hemion] directed it and shot it. It looks like I'm falling madly in love with her.

MM: And her, you.

BB: Could I do that again? I don't' think so. It's a time in your life when you can do something like that.

MM: So that call from David Merrick was distressing?

BB: Look, when I walked away from Promises and heard David tell me in so many words, “You don't have the musicians you wanted—you've got five subs," it was disheartening, and I no longer had an interest in theater. But now is different.

MM: Do you feel strongly about the music for Some Lovers?

BB: You bet. Do I feel that there's anything I've written that could be... Oh Jesus, never mind, that could be bad[laughs]. I like it all. Steven [Sater] is a very good person to write with because he gives me the lyrics first on everything. Because he is so musical in his wordage, the way he ... his lyrics don't dictate the melody but dictate where I can go with it.

[Burt gets up from the sofa and sits down at his walnut baby grand piano to play one of the songs from Some Lovers: Ready to Be Done With You.]

MM: Wow, that's beautiful.

BB: You see, the singer's pain has to bleed through.There's a lot of pain... Maybe I'm feeling my pain for them. The hurt. The hurt that I've given other people over the years. There's a lot of heartbreak in this musical. There are some really good moments in the show.

MM: Are you expecting big things for the musical?

BB: Naturally you hope it gets off the ground and has the legs to get to Broadway. It's a small show. But this is what I should be doing now, not go into the studio with a new artist. Soon after Promises, Promises I vowed never to do another show because I each night's results were different. But this [Some Lovers] is really what I should be doing now. The record business is gone, but I still have songs to write.

MM: Going back to how you led recording sessions in the '60s, didn't you risk crushing or shredding singers in your search for something magical?

BB: I always got the most I could from them. You push gently and work with them and give them love. You smile and say softly, “Give me one more." You never get magic by beating up singers or attacking them.

MM: But after a while, isn't there a risk of diminishing returns?

BB: You know, I just don't give a shit. I'm just going for it, man. You know? You smile and say, “Give me one more."Everything was live then in the studio, which I loved. There were so many elements to worry about. I had to wonder and worry, “Did we take the tempo too fast when the singer came in?" And lots of other things. I really wanted to get as close to perfection in a take as possible. In that era, splicing tape took forever.

MM: But weren't you hearing things that elude most people?

BB: Not really. The average listener hears more than you think. I don't really want to be in a recording situation with someone who can't sing. For example, we got the maximum out of Ronan Keating earlier this year [When Ronan Met Burt]. There are some really good tracks in there. He's such a pro. We had an hour and a half for each track, and he pulled it off. I met him for the first time on a Monday morning, and he was gone that Saturday. And that made you work in a different way [snaps]. My favorite track on that album is This House Is Empty Now.

MM: Your album with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory, remains a brilliant work.

BB: Yes, it really is something, isn't it? [pause] I love what we did.

JazzWax tracks: If there's one Burt Bacharach box set that I love more than any other it's Burt Bacaharch, Something Big: The Complete A&M Years...and More! (Hip-O Select). It's a five-CD set housed in a hardback, snapshot photo-album format (7.5 x 6 inches).

Be aware, these are all Burt's own recordings—either singing or arranging, producing and conducting. Many are instrumentals. The remastered albums in the set include Hit Maker (1963), Reach Out (1967), Make It Easy on Yourself (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1971), Living Together (1973), In Concert (1974), Futures (1977), Woman (1979) and quite a few singles and unreleased tracks.

JazzWax clips: For my money, there is no Burt Bacharach clip that matches the one you're about to see. Taped in 1971 during a live TV special, Burt and Barbra Streisand talk and then sing (They Long to Be) Close to You, which Burt and Hal David co-wrote and the Carpenters recorded. Every frame of this clip speaks volumes on so many levels. Dig the egos and how Streisand tries to manage and then seduce Burt. Fascinating stuff...



Burt and Elvis Costello's 1998 album Painted From Memory is one of the finest albums of the '90s. Burt wrote the music and Costello the lyrics. It's a perfect album in so many ways. Here's My Thief, one of the songs they recorded for Sessions at West 54th, a live, by-invitation-only performance that was taped and released only on VHS tape. I hear there may be a remastering of the CD as well as a DVD release sometime next year. Fingers crossed...



One of the finest Christmas songs ever written was composed by Burt Bacharach. It's The Bell That Couldn't Jingle. I warn you, though, it's darn addictive. Listen to how sophisticated the melody is, yet it's immensely singable...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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