The Songwriters – Burt Bacharach and Hal David

Burt Bacharach (left) and Hal David

We’ve looked at such behemoths of songwriting as Lennon/McCartney, Leiber and Stoller and Holland/Dozier/Holand, but there is another partnership that served up an incredible menu of pop songs during that golden era that was the 1960s: Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

While to the world at large it is Bacharach’s name that is most important, where would his fabulous tunes be without the emotional, evocative and superbly crafted lyrics of David? Even the titles do part of the job sometimes: You’ll Never Get To Heaven (if you break my heart), for instance. Anyone who thinks that heralds a soppy song can leave right now. Haven’t you ever been in love?

Bacharach and David’s songs are perhaps old-fashioned in a way, reliant on orchestration and sweetness from an earlier era, but they filled my youth with beauty and love just as much as The Beach Boys and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

At first glance the B&D canon seems to start with Dionne Warwick, but there was life before that, so let’s look at that period first. The Story Of My Life was a hit for country legend Don Williams before being covered by the rest of the world. In the UK it was Michael Holliday, a smoothly-dressed crooner perching on a stool, and who was displaced at the top of the charts by the man he was influenced by, Perry Como, with another Bacharach and David song, Magic Moments.

For someone like me, a child of the 50s who only really started to pay attention with the advent of The Beatles, these songs are of my parents’ generation, but even so, you can’t help but notice how good they were: catchy as hell even if you would prefer to be untouched by them.

Then, unbeknown to us in the UK, an American singer, Jerry Butler, heard Make It Easy On Yourself and asked Bacharach to  help him record it. The Walker Brothers took it up the British charts in their wall-of-sound style.

Bacharach in turn discovered the aspiring star Dionne Warwick singing whatever anyone would let her – backup, demos etc. – and recognized her as a vehicle for his music. It was a marriage made in heaven, probably unique in the whole world of singer-composer relationships, and the hits flowed like honey from the comb. Don’t Make Me Over registered with the public but it was Walk On By, with that desolate David lyric brought to heartbreaking life by Warwick, that planted the towering tree in popular music.

Warwick got first crack at the material but others tiptoed around the dinner table looking for scraps, and grabbed them eagerly, often taking the arrangements lock, stock and barrel. Thus Cilla Black was launched on the tidal wave of Anyone Who Had A Heart and Sandie Shaw suggested a more substantial vocal talent than perhaps was really there through (There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me.

Then there was Alfie, written as the theme of the film starring Michael Caine, and existing in versions by both Warwick and Black, but appearing on the UK release of the film by Cher. The Cilla Black recording session at Abbey Road studios with George Martin producing has attained legendary status, and the question is: why wasn’t her version used, when Bacharach had flown to London to supervise the session?

Reading between the lines, I can’t help thinking he wasn’t entirely convinced. Cilla had two voices: the breathy, vulnerable one that starts the song and the strident, nasal one she drifted into when she got worked up. Maybe Bacharach didn’t like that one but didn’t know how to tell her. Whatever the reason, there was always another girl waiting to record Bacharach and David songs, and Cher was hot property at the time.

The list of hits grew as if by magic, effortlessly, with Trains And Boats And Planes, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again and the aforementioned You’ll Never Get To Heaven, plus the latin-flavoured Do You Know The Way To San Jose, and that’s just the singles. Dionne Warwick albums were like fruit stalls laden with superb produce: Are You There With Another Girl and Window Wishing would have been the pinnacle of most writers’ careers.

Meanwhile, there was Tom Jones with What’s New Pussycat and Manfred Mann with My Little Red Book, which was also recorded by superhip L.A cats, Love.

British soul/pop icon Dusty Springfield got to sing The Look of Love and a 1968 musical yielded the title song Promises Promises.

Incidentally, most Warwick compilations will include Valley Of The Dolls, from the film of Jacqueline Susann’s novel of that name, and I only discovered the fact while researching this post, but that was written by Andre and Dory Previn. Worthy of Bacharach and David, perhaps, but  someone else’s work, and released as the B side of I Say A Little Prayer.

As the 60s drew to a close the Bacharach and David catalogue registered another gem: Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, recorded by B. J. Thomas for the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, for which Bacharach wrote the soundtrack.

Then The Carpenters, slipping slickly onto the scene as the 70s began, found the ideal introducer in Close To You.

Like many of the great partnerships, Bacharach and David’s was not without its tensions, and the golden age came to an end, with Bacharach collaborating with other lyricists including Carole Bayer Sager (they were married for several years) and Christopher Cross.

Hal David became involved in the administration side of songwriting, but his name will always be inextricably linked with that of Burt Bacharach, peerless tunesmith to his sublimely-skilled lyricist.

 

 

Advertisements

The Songwriters – The Bee Gees

The hat, Maurice, the hat! I know you’re going bald, but even so…

This is another of those catalogues of covers that is so long it could turn into a 600-word list, so what follows is a very selective look at what’s around.

As for who wrote what, the Bee Gees’ songs were often credited to all three brothers, and although we know it was mainly Barry and Robin, actually picking one apart from the other is almost impossible at times. In general it is probably safe to say no more than that if the vocal sounds  slightly reedy and Robiny, he probably came up with the germ of the idea, and if it’s smoother and Barryish, then it was his.

Starting a little ahead of the beginning  we have Al Green’s version of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. It was slow the way the Bee Gees recorded it in 1970/71, but Green and his producer  Willie Mitchell slowed it down even further and relied on their masterly arrangement and sparse but settled instrumentation, on top of that unsurpassable voice, to create something too slow to dance to, too slow to make love to, but something to savour, like Kahlua drizzled over chocolate ice cream and served without a spoon.

That early Bee Gees stunner, New York Mining Disaster 1941, has been attempted by a few people, with a notable effort by folk legend Martin Carthy that should suit it but, to me, doesn’t. It has some of the hallmarks of a folk song, after all, but folk is all about stripping away pretence, and maybe there’s a touch of bitter-sweet artifice in the original’s harmonies that needs to be there for it to work.

Words is a more forgiving candidate, and the versions have flowed freely down the years, from Rita Coolidge to Boyzone.

First of May has been tackled by, among many, Sarah Brightman (whose most memorable contribution  was to pronounce the t in Christmas), as well as Matt Monro , Cilla Black, Lulu and Jose Feliciano.

Similarly, To Love Somebody is a nice tune with very singable lyrics, and has received treatments from Leonard Cohen (oddly cheerful), Michael Bolton (typically hysterical), Janis Joplin (what can I say, I don’t get her and never did). Michael Buble (what hasn’t he done a cover of?) and the live duo of Ray Lamontagne and Damien Rice (intense as you would expect).

Much later, after the first phase and then the disco chapter, the Bee Gees and in particular Barry Gibb began offering material to legends of the music business ,presumably because the brothers had had enough  of performing  and were prepared to let others do the hard work.

Thus came Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, whose well was rather dry by that time (1982).

Country colossi  Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were presented with a diamond-crusted, inscribed platinum song called Islands in the Stream, and Barbra Streisand got a whole album’s worth, of which Guilty and Promises are prominent.

But to finish this section I would like to go back to I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You. You might think there wouldn’t be too many takers for a song about a man on death row who has only one hour left to live, and in truth most people left it alone. But of the few that had a crack, a special commendation must go to veteran bluegrass merchant Bobby Osborne, who, with his crack team of instrumentalists (banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle), turn it into a thoroughly jolly occasion.

I urge you to have a listen to this, and if you think it’s just grossly inappropriate, I wouldn’t argue with you. On the other hand, there is something so infectiously good-time about this sort of thing – and you can’t not be impressed by the musicianship – that I find it impossible not to like it. They could make you feel good about your own execution.

As an interpretation of a song it’s as weird as they come, but as long as the Bee Gees didn’t take themselves too seriously I think they would have enjoyed this.

The Songwriters – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

 

The way this series is eating up the hits it almost seems like there’ll be none left soon, and here we go again with a sizeable chunk of the 60s treasure trove in one fell swoop.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were another of those early 60s partnerships that spawned great songs seemingly at the drop of a hat. Both New Yorkers, they formed a writing partnership, fell in love and got married.

They started at the tail end of the 50s, when rock’n’roll had lost its way and the square world thought it had ridden out the storm. It would take The Beatles to drive the stake right through the heart of sensible-sweatered adulthood, but American pop writers were doing their bit to decorate the present and point to the future.

One of the “squares”, if you like, was Eydie Gorme, a croony sort of conventional type your mother would have liked as much as you did and who worked with her husband, Steve Lawrence.

With Brazilian music jamming its foot in the post-Elvis door, Eydie had a solo hit with Mann and Weil’s Blame it on the Bossa Nova, issued around the same time as the team’s Don’t Be Afraid Little Darlin’ with Lawrence.

This was Drifters time, too, and they loved a nice Mann/Weil song, with a list including On Broadway (with help from  fellow songwriting legends Leiber & Stoller) and Saturday Night At The Movies.

The Ronettes were the lucky recipients of Walking In The Rain, and then M&W came up with one of the real titans of the era, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, with the Righteous Brothers giving it some serious lung and Phil Spector pumping it full of steroids.

Cilla Black and Dionne Warwicke covered it in the same era, and it’s one of those songs that people keep fancying as the years go by, with notable versions by Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway and Hall & Oates. Elvis had a go in 1970 during a period when he was hard-up for good material, and as recently as 2003 it was tackled by British synth-pop duo Erasure.

And of course it’s a karaoke favourite for any guy who thinks he’s got a Bill Medley-style boom in his chest and can find a higher-singing sidekick.

Back on planet Earth in 1964, Mann and Weil provided Looking Through the Eyes Of Love for Gene Pitney and, in a slightly odd collaboration, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place for the Animals. It is easy to think of Eric Burdon and co. singing about wanting to leave the grim (at the time) industrial north-east of England, but the song was about Mann and Weil’s neck of the woods. It was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, before Mann began his own singing career and his record company wanted it for him. In the meantime, Animals producer Mickie Most was on the case, somehow snapped it up and released it before he could be gazumped.

Monkees fans will be grateful to Mann and Weil for Shades of Grey, and Cass Elliott brought her own touch of class to Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1968.

Mann and Weil have never stopped writing and although their time in the spotlight ended with the passing of the writer-hungry 60s, they did resurface in 1977 with Here You Come Again, a hit for both B. J. Thomas and  Dolly Parton.

Mann and Weil, ladies and gentlemen: man and wife. And not only are they still working – by gum, they’re still married.