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Hal David: the man behind the music that defined a generation

Hal David, who has died aged 91, was one of the great lyricists of the 20th Century. His partnership with Burt Bacharach in the 1960s -- which produced such hits as 'I Say A Little Prayer', 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?' and 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head' -- added more standards to the modern canon of popular song than any writing team bar Lennon and McCartney.

David had established himself as a successful writer for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan when he was introduced to Bacharach (at 29, seven years his junior) in 1957. Though David had briefly enjoyed fruitful relationships with Henry Mancini and Arthur Altman, he had yet to find his ideal foil.

The partnership between Bacharach and David soon revealed itself to be as natural as that between hand and glove. Almost immediately, they scored a big hit with 'Magic Moments', which Perry Como took to No 1 in Britain in 1958. But it was not until 1962 that they began to work together continually.

The catalyst for this was Bacharach's discovery of the perfect vehicle for his music, the 21-year-old Dionne Warwick, whom he had noticed recording backing vocals for The Drifters.

Her voice -- as light, flexible and strong as tempered steel -- had the range to cope with the Latin rhythms and changes of time signature Bacharach favoured, while also being suited to the tales of heartbreak that were David's lyrical specialism.

With Warwick, the pair enjoyed a stream of almost 20 hits that have since become imperishable classics -- among them 'Walk On By' (1964), 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' (1964), 'Reach Out for Me' (1964) and 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?' (1968).

Bacharach and David were also much in demand to write themes to films, and were thrice nominated for the Oscar for Best Song -- for 'What's New, Pussycat?' (1965), 'Alfie' (1967) and 'The Look of Love' (from the Bond spoof Casino Royale, also 1967) -- before finally capturing the prize in 1970 with 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head', written for the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The last of these was a fine example of their art -- an eminently hummable (and unusually plain) melody by Bacharach to which David had added deceptively simple words.

For, as with many of their songs, the content of his lyrics actually formed a downbeat counterpoint to the jauntiness of the tune; the song is in fact about someone suffering constant disappointments.

David's gift was for writing words that gave voice to the interior sadness of daily life, the melodramas of devotion, rejection, jealousy and vulnerability. Thus 'San Jose', which at first hearing seems to bounce along merrily enough, is actually a record about a person abandoning her dreams of fame: "And all the stars that never were/are parking cars and pumping gas."

His critics had it that David's lyrics were banal (although no more banal, surely, than "All you need is love"). Certainly his songs lacked the verbal pyrotechnics of Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, but such dexterity with rhyme did not suit his purpose, which was to tell everyday stories in the most natural way.

At the end of the decade, David and Bacharach turned their attention from film to Broadway. Initially they had great success, in 1967, with Promises, Promises (a musical version of the Jack Lemmon film The Apartment), for which they wrote 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again'.

But when, in 1973, they tried to combine two fields in which they had previously had nothing but triumphs, for a musical film of the book Lost Horizon, the result was universally panned.

Unused to such criticism, their partnership broke under the shock and they fell out acrimoniously. For almost 20 years they barely spoke to one another -- and as individuals had hardly a single hit song.

Hal David was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 25, 1921, the son of Austrian Jews who ran a kosher delicatessen.

Hal was not obviously musical as a child, and soon gave up trying to learn the violin. He always enjoyed writing, however, and on leaving school went to New York University to study journalism.

Following the outbreak of war, he was drafted into the Armed Forces and found himself attached to an entertainment unit in Hawaii, where he began to write lyrics for musical productions for the troops.

When the war ended, David became resident lyricist to the bandleader Sammy Kaye.

Following the end of his partnership with Bacharach, David continued to write songs, although like Bacharach he enjoyed virtually no success on his own, perhaps his biggest hit coming in 1984 when Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson recorded 'To All the Girls I've Loved Before'.

In the 1990s, there was a strong revival of interest in his work with Bacharach, prompted by the general vogue for "easy listening" music. This renewed attention helped to reconcile the former partners.

The mild, bespectacled David tended to receive markedly less attention from the press than Bacharach, but this never bothered him. "The important thing is what one does," he reflected, "not one's name. The songs live, the writer doesn't. You just hope your songs outlast you."

Hal David married, first, in 1947, Anne Rauchman. He married, secondly, in 1988, Eunice Forester, who survives him with the two sons of his first marriage.

Hal David, born May 25, 1921, died September 1, 2012

Indo Review