Jam session photo with Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach: The Legendary Composer Who Defied Convention

Too often, it’s only when a legend has passed away that one takes stock of their vast contribution in their field. We may not know much trivia about American composer, songwriter, record producer, and pianist Burt Bacharach, but all of us will know and love at least one of his compositions, even without necessarily knowing they were his.

Just a partial list of Bacharach’s chart hits and other notable songs go way over a hundred, and span from the early 1950s to the last decade or so. He wrote seventy-three U.S. and fifty-two UK Top 40 hits.

Since his death in March 2023, I’ve been reading up and watching interviews with him and documentaries about his life, especially about his composing style and process.

His mother was an amateur painter and songwriter and encouraged Bacharach to practice piano, drums and cello during his childhood in New York.

In a BBC Four documentary he reminisced “I just hated taking piano lessons. I did it because my mother wanted me to.”

In a 60 Minutes interview, Bacharach revealed that initially he had no love for music. “I hated coming home from high school and having to practice.” But playing piano seemed a way to get noticed by girls in school. He had a complex about his short stature. “I was the shortest kid among 3000 at Forest Hills high school.”

But then he heard jazz and bebop, the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Charlie Parker. “It was like someone had opened a window”, he later said. Although underage, he used fake IDs to get into 52nd street nightclubs. Those jazz harmonies and style influenced his songwriting.

“At the same time I started listening to Suite number 2 from ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ by [Maurice] Ravel and thought it was marvelous; also Debussy, the French Impressionists. So was being drawn towards music from two sources.”

Bacharach studied music (Associate of Music, 1948) at McGill University in Montreal, under Helmut Blume, at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, and at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California. His composition teachers in California included Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, and Bohuslav Martinů, big names in the world of classical music then.

Bacharach was most influenced by Milhaud. He recalled a piece of advice that stayed with him: “I’d written this one sonatina that summer for violin, oboe and piano. I was very nervous and ashamed of the second movement because it was very melodic. And we were writing very dissonant music in class; that was the vogue at the time, influenced by Henry Cowell, [an extremely controversial performer and eccentric composer and a leading figure of American avant-garde music] ‘fist to the piano’, prepared pianos, things like that. So I had a lot of reservations [about this movement]. Maybe Milhaud sensed this. He said “Burt, never ever feel embarrassed or discomfited about a melody people can remember and whistle.” That made a big impact on me.”

In a Library of Congress interview, Bacharach was asked how he composed. He used his 1960s hit ‘Walk on By’ (words by his long time lyricist partner Hal Davis, and sung by Dionne Warwick) as an illustrative example: “It came formed; it’s almost like the orchestration came with it: where the flugelhorns [incidentally a much used instrument in Bacharach orchestration] would come in, or the strings, what the drum pattern might be, that keyboard figure in ‘Walk on By’, etc.” He used 2 grand pianos playing an identical part “for the thickness of the texture, because it won’t be an exact overdub.”

When starting in the business, Bacharach was advised by seniors to conform to standard four-bar phrases, but he reckons that quite a few of his early attempts were “ruined” by that. It is why he began to record and produce his own work.

Bacharach’s songwriting is distinctive for its lush orchestration, rich jazz-inspired, harmonies, subtle key changes and frequent meter changes.

“I just wouldn’t be able to write a song in three chords, simple vanilla G majors and stuff. What, no suspension on the fifth, no seventh? I couldn’t do it, he once said.  His songs are so refreshing because they defy convention. If he wanted a song to meander between key centres, he’d let it happen.

“It was almost like I was taking an exam, every time I sang one of Bacharach’s melodies; basically because of the intervals, also time signatures. He had no regard whatsoever for time signature. If that’s the way he felt, that’s what he wrote,” said Warwick.

“It’s important for me to get away from the keyboard, both in orchestrating and composing, because I have to try to hear the whole thing as an entity, rather than be enchanted by a bar that sounds really good. But where is it in the overall song, where does it lead to? Where’s the relief, where you can stand back? So a normal process for me would be get away from the keyboard, and then come back and check it out.”

He made a candid confession too: “Sometimes on recording dates, with musicians sitting in the studio, if I was stuck, if something wasn’t working , I’d give a ten-minute break to the orchestra. And I’d go into the men’s room, go into one of the stalls, close the door and just sit so nobody could disturb me, and try to run through and isolate what was wrong. Nine out of ten times I’d have the answer.”

Bacharach could be his own worst critic. When listening to one of his own soundtracks, he’d “often also see the pimples on it. I used to produce these records; then at 4.30 in the morning I’d wake up and think “Why did I put the strings in here, why didn’t I save them [for later]? Oh, it was torture.”

Bacharach’s third wife Carole Bayer Sager, and co-writer of some of his songs related how frustrating it could be to deal with his perfectionism. She began the song ‘That’s what Friends are for’ with “I never thought I’d feel this way.” But Bacharach insisted that there ought to be a short note leading into it on an upbeat. “I was so pissed off. It’s just a little eighth-note, a sixteenth-note. What does it matter? But that’s part of his brilliance. Most others I’ve written for would just say “Fine”. But it was so important to him. He could sit in the music room and spend an hour on whether he did or didn’t like that sixteenth-note; which I might add, if you were the lyricist, could be rather maddening. But he was right.” So the song begins with “And I, never thought I’d feel this way…”

Bacharach once commented on the irony of his music being classed as “easy listening.”

“It’s hard writing music,” he said. “It always was, is now and always will be; hard for me.”

This article first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa, India.