If the details of Burt Bacharach’s romantic escapades — and there were many, since as Sammy Cahn once said, Burt was the only songwriter who didn’t look like a dentist, and his charms were not lost on an array of women — don’t particularly interest you, you can flip through his new memoir, Anyone Who Had A Heartand get to the really important stuff: his agonizing and intense and perfectionist approach to writing songs, crafting arrangements and producing records. In those areas, he had few peers in the history of popular music, with a catalog so deep and distinguished (and lucrative) that it rattles the brain. When Bacharach and I were briefly in creative communication (I was the assigned U.S. A&R rep for his Columbia album At This Time, and assured him a Grammy win if he allowed the label to submit it as Best Pop Instrumental Album, so a good thing I was right), I wanted to ask him for a gift of a small piece of the publishing on any one of his lesser songs; I’d have taken a slice of “24 Hours From Tulsa,” or “In The Land of Make Believe.” I didn’t care: I could retire on any one of them. I mean, his movie songs alone make an epic list: “Alfie,” “The Look of Love,” “A House Is Not A Home,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” and then there are all the Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney and Jackie DeShannon and Chuck Jackson, Carpenters and Drifters songs, and the album with Elvis Costello. It’s crazy.
And he writes about almost all of his major songs in the book, in great detail, so it’s an essential read. It’s has everything that was missing from Carole King’s memoir: an examination of a body of work, a look into the studio, into the intricacies of how the collaboration with Hal David actually functioned from song to song, Bacharach’s manic attention to what other people might consider minutiae. He had to become a producer, because as a writer, he kept hearing things that were wrong: he was annoyed that Gene McDaniels’ “Tower of Strength” was cut at too fast a tempo, he complained about the mastering on Jerry Butler’s “Make It Easy On Yourself”, he thought Brook Benton was “a real pain in the ass” and couldn’t sing the right notes on “A House Is Not A Home”: he needed total control.
And even once he became a huge deal, he’d bristle when one of his songs was mishandled in the studio. He’s no fan of Sonny Bono’s production of Cher’s version of ‘Alfie,” and he points out that Love plays the wrong chords on their take on “My Little Red Book.” Anyone Who Had A Heart has tales of multiple takes, artists bravely attempting to navigate those whiplash changes and hat-size tempos. Singing a Bacharach melody is like trying to juggle and eat pizza at the same time, and even veteran Broadway singer Jerry Orbach struggled with the complexity of “Promises, Promises.” When a singer like Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield or Karen Carpenter (or more recently, Rumer) tackles Bacharach-David material, they create the illusion that these songs are so singable. Welcome to karaoke suicide mission.
There’s all that inside-baseball, but there are also some revelations and bits of gossip, like the time Sinatra hung up on Bacharach when he was a little slow in committing to a date to start a proposed Frank-Burt album, the financial fracas that broke up David and Bacharach during the catastrophic Lost Horizon project, Warwick’s irrational possessiveness (and her hesitance to turn over the “That’s What Friends Are For” proceeds to charity, because didn’t she just do the pro bono thing on “We Are The World”? How giving is she expected to be?), the disappointment when “Alfie” lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to “Born Free” (and we can see now how that turned out: one became a modern standard, the other forgotten schmaltz).
I sat in a coffee shop and gulped the book down, reading Herb Alpert’s recollection of “This Guy’s In Love With You,” Elvis Costello telling the story of “God Give Me Strength” and Painted From Memory, Paul Jones from Manfred Mann remembering at least nineteen takes of “My Little Red Book” (and how much trouble the rest of the band had with the chords): throughout the book, these participants pop up with anecdotes and angles of their own, fleshing out Bacharach’s narrative. The personal messiness in his marriage to Angie Dickinson isn’t, to me, as fascinating as the fact that she helped get him his first film-soundtrack gig for What’s New Pussycat?, and then walked him through how the whole movie scoring process worked.
Another thing I didn’t know: Bacharach and David cut “Walk On By” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart” with Dionne at the same session, and then “argued about which song to release first.” After “Anyone Who Had A Heart” hit, Florence Greenberg, who ran Scepter Records, still wasn’t sold on “Walk On By,” so she stuck it on the B-side of another single, “Any Old Time Of Day.” As Bacharach tells it, “Murray The K played both sides on his radio show in New York, and then asked his listeners to vote on which one they liked better.” On such events do the wheels of pop history turn.