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Rock Icon: Burt Bacharach (?)

His work has been recorded by artists all over the musical map – from Perry Como to the Beatles, from roots rocker Gene Vincent to Neil Diamond, from Nat King Cole to Elvis Costello. Next to Lennon & McCartney, he may be the most successful composer of the latter half of the 20th century. Along the way he penned 73 songs that hit the Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned 6 Grammys, 3 Oscars and 1 Emmy.

He is, of course, Burt Bacharach. Over 1,000 different artists have recorded his compositions. His collaboration with lyricist Hal David, produced a string of hits for 60s pop icons like Dionne Warwick, Gene Pitney and Dusty Springfield. Along the way he also composed the title tune for the schlock teenage sci-fi film that became a cult classic, The Blob, while also building a surprisingly successful career as a live performer, playing his hit compositions on piano while backed by a full orchestra.

While primarily seen as a “pop” composer, Bacharach’s ability to work with rock acts like Vincent, the Drifters, Elvis Costello and others make him an undeniable part of rock history.

Born in Kansas City, but raised in New York City, Bacharach used a fake ID, not to drink, but to sneak into New York’s jazz nightclubs where he soaked up the music Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Trained by his mother to be a classical pianist, Bacharach much preferred the jazz and pop he heard on his nightly sojourns.

Following a stint in the army, Bacharach started the 1950s as arranger and pianist for singer Vic Damone. From there, he served in similar capacity for a variety of other singers until he finally wound up leading the back-up band for Marlene Dietrich in 1956. While touring the world with Dietrich, he also began working as a songwriter, teaming with Hal David in 1957. They sold their first song, “I Cry More,” to the motion picture, Don’t Knock the Rock. The song went nowhere. They finally broke through with a song they wrote for Marty Robbins, “The Story of My Life,” which hit #1 on the Billboard country chart. They next scored a top 10 hit with Perry Como and “Magic Moments” (in the days before rock came to dominate the charts).

As the 60s began, Bacharach’s success as a songwriter led to him taking a more active role in the studio. He was first listed as arranger & conductor on Jerry Butler’s 1962 recording of the Bacharach-David tune “Make It Easy on Yourself.” That same year, Bacharach thought one of the backup singers doing session work showed some potential. Her name was Dionne Warwick. He and David wrote a tune specifically crafted for her, “Don’t Make Me Over.” That recording launched a long and successful collaboration that lasted into the 1980s.

Among the many artists who have found success with Bacharach tunes are the Drifters, the Beatles (a cover of the Shirelles’ “Baby, It’s You”), Tom Jones, Frankie Avalon, Manfred Mann, B.J. Thomas, Bobby Vinton and dozens more.

Elvis Costello had a father who was a cabaret singer in the UK, so Elvis had developed a fondness for Bacharach-David compositions from childhood. He used to sneak one or two into his early sets (particularly “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”). Ultimately, he became one of Bachrach’s later collaborations, co-writing the album Painted from Memory.

In addition to writing specifically for the movies (two of his most acclaimed movie tunes being “The Look of Love” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), his work has also been found lightening up such later films as Austin Powers and My Best Friend’s Wedding.

A composer whose versatility is unmatched, Bacharach passed away in February of 2023 at the age of 94. His music lives on.

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