Burt Bacharach: They all longed to be close to him
Burt Bacharach was a musical maestro whom women found irresistible, writes Shay Healy
Having written the songs for a movie called Lost Horizon with his lyricist partner Hal David, composer Burt Bacharach got snarled up for two years as music supervisor on the movie, while David was off in Mexico, playing tennis and chilling out.
So Bacharach called him up in Mexico and said: "Hal I know we're getting five points, but we're never going to see anything from this picture. From what I hear it may even bankrupt Columbia. Still, it would really make me feel better if instead of splitting the five points, I had three and you had two. Hal said: 'I can't do that.' And I said, 'F**k you and f**k the picture'."
According to Burt Bacharach, thus ended Bacharach/David, one of the great songwriting partnerships in the music history of the latter half of the 20th Century.
In this extraordinary biography by Bacharach, there is no prose to admire or critique. The book is a series of excerpts from a major interview Bacharach did with a man called Eric Lax. With the help of his co-author on this book, Robert Greenfield, Bacharach filleted Dax's interview and with each excerpt they extracted, they also dug up relevant interviews with ex-wives, contemporaries and friends of Bacharach to expand on a topic, an anecdote or an incident.
I started reading with trepidation. There were no descriptive passages or attempts to establish a context for Bacharach. In the beginning, I thought his speech was pretty colourless and often unconsciously crude.
For instance, his reason he gave for working as accompanist to his putative first wife, Paula Stewart, was because "the attraction between us was physical. She was really good lookin and had great tits, which back then could not be prefabricated".
Quite. At this point I felt tempted to quit, but am I glad I persevered.
In his own glib way, Bacharach is a good storyteller and because syntax is unnecessary, Bacharach's free-wheeling use of the music/showbiz vernacular ultimately gives terrific momentum to the story and makes it a compulsive page-turner for anyone interested in songwriting and popular music.
Musicians will love this book. The range of musicians and singers mentioned along the way stretches from Perry Como to Luther Vandross, but it is the manner in which he takes us behind the scenes that is so beguiling. He spares no one, including himself, nor does he flay anyone alive.
His honesty is very American, abrasive and mouthy. Unexpectedly, he is also surprisingly candid about all the flops he endured and he doesn't hesitate to pay obeisance to the maxim 'you're only as good as your last hit'.
Bacharach started out in the famous nursery of songwriters, The Brill Building on Broadway. This is where notable writers, such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Lieber and Stoller, all began their songwriting careers, housed in tiny rooms, where they churned out songs for a weekly wage.
Hal David was just another songwriter in the building when Bacharach first met him. They fed off each other. Both of them were punctilious and perfectionists, when it came to work.
But when it came to play time, they were polar opposites. Hal wore a suit, was in at 10am and left at 5pm. He eschewed the red-carpet lifestyle. Bacharach enjoyed the life of a composer and he relished the success and fame that he and David enjoyed over a 17-year partnership.
The list of great songs they wrote is formidable: 'Walk On By', 'Alfie', 'What the World Needs Now', 'Anyone Who had a Heart', 'That's What Friends are For'.
Bacharach was very attractive to women. For several of his early years, he went on tour with Marlene Dietrich, as pianist and conductor. When she tried to kiss him one night, he rebuffed her.
She got past the rejection and they remained close friends, but when Burt married Angie Dickinson, the sexiest and hottest American film star of the day, Marlene showed her jealousy when she excoriated Dickinson.
Bacharach's marriage to Dickinson was flawed from the start. The bubble of alcohol that had carried them to a chapel over a grocery store in Las Vegas at 3.45am had burst even before the ceremony took place. She realised that she had been gulled by his charm into marrying Bacharach. They had a daughter Nikki, who was born prematurely and grew up with undiagnosed Asberger's Syndrome.
Bacharach found caring for her very difficult and in trying to explain himself, his showbiz patois makes him sound crass: "If a child was born as prematurely as she was back then, there was no way she was going to come out with a full deck."
It wasn't his only Las Vegas wedding. His marriage to Dickinson was effectively over when he took up with Carole Bayer Sager, a fellow songwriter who was 20 years his junior. Impulsively they headed for Las Vegas and got married, with Neil Diamond and his wife as the witnesses. The judge said: "Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?" Bacharach said: "I'll try." And Neil Diamond said: "Holy shit."
The novel technique of piecing together quotes, anecdotes and clippings around Bacharach's master interview, is slick and seamless. It reads like the transcript of a film documentary and if anything it enhances this portrait of a musical maestro, who has left an indelible mark on popular music.
BURT’S TOP 10
1. ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin' On
2. ‘I Say a Little Prayer’
3. ‘This Guy's In Love With
4. ‘Walk On By’
5. ‘(They Long To Be) Close To
6. ‘What the World Needs
Now Is Love’
8. ‘Do Yo u Know the Way To
9. ‘A nyone Who Had Heart’
10. ‘Always Something There
to Remind Me’
Shay Healy wrote What's Another Year, Ireland's winning entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest.