From the pop music world comes the news that Burt Bacharach has passed away at the age of 94. At a time when rock and roll was king, he went defiantly in the opposite direction, although maybe “defiantly” is the wrong word for a guy whose songs are so chill that they remind you of Californians listening to their 8-track players while sitting by their pools. The winner of six Grammys and three Oscars was always too soft for the hard-rock crowd as they became the establishment, but his songs were always exquisitely crafted (his teachers included Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, and Bohuslav Martinů), and they held more trouble beneath their surfaces than people gave him credit for. Let’s go through his oeuvre with this alternative playlist.
His first big hit as a songwriter was “Magic Moments,” a rather goofy song with a pretty refrain. Perry Como’s hit is too quirky for its own good, so here it is given a ’90s techno cover by Erasure.
“Walk on By” marked the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with Dionne Warwick. She did a live version of the song in Brooklyn that’s notably angrier than her studio version. Another musical act that picked up on the bitterness and resentment in the song was the British punk band The Stranglers. You hear all the time how Bacharach’s sense of structure means that his songs retain their shape no matter what form they take, and this is Exhibit A.
Warwick rejected “What the World Needs Now Is Love” as too preachy and then realized her mistake while watching Jackie DeShannon turn that song into a hit with a public divided by the Vietnam War. DeShannon’s version is more moving than Warwick’s because she’s not a natural belter and you can hear her straining against her vocal limitations. This cover was recorded for a Calvin Klein commercial by Aimee Mann, one of Bacharach’s spiritual heirs.
“One Less Bell to Answer” was one of Bacharach’s big hits for The 5th Dimension, but I find the arrangement on it fiddly compared with the one he did for this live performance by Sheryl Crow at a tribute concert. Here’s the song in all its stately glory.
Bacharach did make one foray into Broadway with Promises, Promises, but his songs didn’t fit the demands of the stage. Their intimacy always played better on film. Here’s the main hit from that show, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” sung in a revival by Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” is not one of Bacharach’s better songs — I mean, seriously, “so they sprinkled moondust in your hair”? — which is why Herb Alpert rejected it and then saw it become the Carpenters’ first big hit. This cover by the Cranberries is as good as any song at showcasing the Irish band’s softer side.
One of his Oscars was for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which he wrote for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Decades later, the song (by the late B.J. Thomas) would reappear in a more fitting context in Spider-Man 2. We shouldn’t be surprised that Bacharach had a following in France, and here’s a French-language cover by Sacha Distel.
The Bacharach-David partnership broke up over the financial flop of the 1973 musical film Lost Horizon and what Bacharach perceived as David’s lack of willingness to fight the studio on the use of their songs. That movie is heavily problematic on a racial front (even critics in 1973 noticed it), but James Shigeta’s lovely baritone voice found a good vehicle on “Living Together, Growing Together,” which was a simultaneous hit for the 5th Dimension.
His music underwent a revival in the late 1990s as a new generation of singers came to appreciate him. It started with Allison Anders’ 1996 drama Grace of My Heart, where she teamed older songwriters from the Brill Building era with younger ones, and Bacharach was matched with Elvis Costello. Their big anthem “God Give Me Strength” should have won the Oscar for Best Song that year, and wasn’t even nominated. The song is sung by the main character, whose singing is dubbed by Kristen Vigard, and I prefer her piano-and-voice version to Costello’s own.
I always found “The Look of Love” to be a hothouse flower of a torch song (originally written for the 1967 spoofy spy film Casino Royale), but Susanna Hoffs cooled it down for this cover for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a movie in which the title character hung out with Bacharach onscreen. Be grateful that I didn’t include Mike Myers’ cover of “What’s New, Pussycat?” in this list.
One of the highlights of 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding was when Julia Roberts’ gay friend (Rupert Everett), drafted into her plot to make her straight best friend jealous, pays her back by leading the cast in his version of “I Say a Little Prayer.” It’s Everett’s gleeful hogging of the spotlight and refusing to take his humiliation lying down that makes this performance.
His legacy has continued to roll on. Here’s DJ Khaled with Beyoncé and Jay-Z using Dionne Warwick’s “Walk the Way You Talk” as the basis of their “Shining.” Here’s to all the cool cats and swingers that Burt Bacharach continues to inspire as they wear their angst lightly on their sleeve.