The American songwriter and composer Burt Bacharach has died
The legendary songwriter was 94
Burt Bacharach, one of the world’s most legendary songwriters, has died at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. In a career spanning seven decades, he scored more than 50 chart hits in the US and the UK, recorded by artists including Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Cilla Black, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield.
Working mostly in collaboration with the lyricist Hal David, Bacharach composed music that - as his late daughter Nikki once put it - was ‘like going to heaven on a velvet slide’: smooth, whistleable melodies couched in lush orchestrations, in the tradition of the Great American Songbook. Among his most popular songs were 'Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head', ‘The Look of Love’, ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ and ‘What’s New Pussycat?’
‘I have no rules apart from one,’ Bacharach once said. ‘Don’t make it difficult for the listener. Just the singer.’
It was a rule that he followed to the letter, combining surface simplicity with compositional sleights of hand that seemed designed to test the performer. His music is filled with asymmetrical bars, unexpected rhythms, shifting time-signatures and complex, highly distinctive harmonies. That’s because Bacharach, who embraced all sorts of genres, from jazz and rhythm to blues and traditional pop, knew his craft through and through, having devoted himself to it from his infancy.
Growing up in a non-practising Jewish family in Missouri, he was encouraged to take up the piano by his mother - an amateur painter and songwriter - and by the age of eight, he was already a skilled pianist. He discovered his love of jazz in his teens, using a fake ID to see sets by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, then studied music at McGill University in Montreal where his teachers included the composers Darius Milhaud. Even when he was called up to the US army in 1950, he toured army bases as a uniformed concert pianist.
On returning home he toured with Marlene Dietrich, and became her personal conductor. Later he was hired to work in New York’s Brill Building - the centre of the music industry - where he met Hal David, and soon afterwards wrote his first UK number one hit with him: ‘The Story of My Life’. He would go on to write several more hits with David, which were then often performed by the American singer Dionne Warwick. But the relationship eventually soured to the point where Bacharach and David ended up suing each other: ‘For ten years we just saw each other in law offices,’ Bacharach later recalled.
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A long fallow period was broken in the 1980s, when Bacharach met and married the singer-songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, with whom he wrote another string of hits, among them ‘Making Love’ for Roberta Flack and ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, recorded by Rod Stewart. Later successes included an appearance in the second Austin Powers film, performing ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,’ as well as the score for John Asher’s indie drama ‘Po’, which explores the impact of autism on children.
His personal life, however was somewhat more rocky. Famous for his boyish charm, good looks, suave dress sense and womanising tendencies, he had four wives and several affairs. Contributing to his 2012 autobiography, his second wife, the actress Angie Dickinson called him a ‘sonofabitch’ who could ‘charm everybody’, while Bayer Sager, his third, wrote: ‘Nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives; his routine remains the same. The only thing which changes is the wife. ’ Bacharach also suffered from tragedy in 2007 when his daughter Nikki, who had been born prematurely and suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, committed suicide at the age of 40. In his autobiography, Bacharach’s frustration at how he handled her illness jumps off the page: ‘No matter how much I had tried to give Nikki,’ he says, ‘I still wound up hitting the wall.’
A self-confessed perfectionist, Bacharach was an insomniac, kept awake by the music in his head, who was known to make some singers, including Warwick and Cilla Black, do 30 takes of the same song. That perfectionism won him three Oscars, two Golden Globes, and six competitive Grammy Awards. It also won him hordes of devoted fans, among them Cherie Blair and Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, who once admitted to lifting the chords for ‘Half the World Away’ from Bacharach’s ‘This Guy’s In Love With You.’
Paying tribute to Bacharach on Twitter, Gallagher posted: ‘RIP Maestro. It was a pleasure to have known you.’
Bacharach is survived by his fourth wife Jane Hansen, their children Oliver and Raleigh, as well as his adopted son Cristopher from his marriage to Bayer Sager.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.