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.

 

 

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The Songwriters – Gerry Goffin and Carole King

When Carole King emerged as a solo star in 1971 and the album Tapestry made itself such a fixture in a generation’s record collections, many people didn’t make the connection between the curly-haired queen of hippie-lite and a run of hits 10 years earlier in which she had starred as both writer and performer.

Even the presence on Tapestry of the Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow  failed to convince us that this woman had a past in the very different world of top twentyism.

Despite the hit singles such as It’s Too Late, Carole King was a serious  artist and we were too cool and albumy to acknowledge that she was an oak tree that had grown from a pretty substantial acorn. Or too ignorant, in my case.

But back in the days just before the Beatles, Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin had written not just that Shirelles number one but a cluster of other indelible songs including Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee) and Halfway to Paradise, a hit in the UK for Billy Fury and in the USA for Tony Orlando, who wasn’t to become a household name across the water until the mid Sixties.

Then there was Chains, a US hit for The Cookies but better known on Planet Brit as a Beatles album track.

The following year brought The Loco-motion, sung by Little Eva, who may or may not have been Goffin and King’s babysitter, and revived many years later by Kylie Minogue. Kylie wasn’t much respected at that stage, but I remember thinking she sang the song better than the original, so she couldn’t be that bad.

There was also, from the Goffin and King factory, Go Away Little Girl, and as was common at the time there were two versions vying for our  5/4d (five shillings and fourpence, youngsters – about 26p), one by the American Steve Lawrence and a UK version by Mark Wynter.

The Drifters did the honours on Up On The Roof, an undulating melody overlaid with Goffin’s image of city dwellers escaping the noise of reality by fleeing to the top of the building to enjoy some fresh air and look at the stars.

The production line also found room for King to have a hit of her own in 1962 with It Might As Well Rain Until September. I can still hear it coming out of the Sunday teatime family radio on Pick of the Pops as we made our way through the ham salad and on to the pineapple chunks and custard.

Carole King was not destined to be an early 60s pop star. Her real celebrity lay further down the road in a cooler time, but her loss was other artists’ gain, as is the case with The Chiffons and One Fine Day, an oddly uplifting tale of rejection and optimism.

British minor stars The Rockin’ Berries wrapped their high-pitched tonsils around the rather disturbing He’s In Town before the Beat Boom bands got their teeth into the G&K catalogue. Manfred Mann’s Oh No Not My Baby demonstrated that you could have a hit without a Lennon/McCartney composition, while The Animals gave Don’t Bring Me Down a rough edge that the composers perhaps didn’t envisage.

That’s exactly what this series on songwriters is all about: the musicians, singers and producers do the wiring, plumbing and decorating, but it’s mainly down to the house the writers built.

Dusty Springfield, searching in vain for a cache of material that would propel her out of mere stardom and into the stratosphere, had a hit with Goin’ Back, which has been covered countless times, including, improbably, by The Byrds, who were more often to be found in possession of Bob Dylan songs.

And here’s an unusually jazzy take on it by Nils Lofgren.

Talking of covers, Will You Love Me Tomorrow has also been tackled by Helen Shapiro, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Melanie, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Bryan Ferry and Amy Winehouse – among many others including versions in Cantonese and Mandarin. Now that’s a song that fits the Ian Dury definition of great as being doable by other people.

The importance of Gerry Goffin in the partnership is demonstrated by his successes without King, from The Hollies’ Yes I Will (with Russ Titelman) to  a stream of hits much later with music by Michael Masser, such as Miss You Like Crazy (Natalie Cole), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You (Glenn Medeiros)and Saving All My Love For You (Whitney Houston).

King on her own didn’t exactly supply songs for others. Her songs just attracted people’s attention, to the extent that James Taylor had greater success than she did with You’ve Got A Friend, and the supreme talent that is Aretha Franklin ensured that in some quarters Natural Woman is regarded as one of hers.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – The greatest pop song ever

dusty 1

You know that old thing where someone asks you what your five favourite songs are? It’s very difficult to answer, and even more difficult when you refine the rules. Does that mean five songs or five versions? Could you therefore nominate Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Spirit, Patti Smith and The Rolling Stones?

What the question really means is which five songs would you take to a desert island if five was all you could have. Even then, it’s pretty hard to decide. For me the list would change every day.

But as a song lover, a student of – and dabbler in – the craft of songwriting, I recently came to this conclusion: the best pop song ever written is I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, as recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1968.

And why do I state this so clearly? Because it’s a masterpiece of construction, instrumentation and production – with the obvious added bonus of being sung by one of the great pop voices.

The song was written by Clive Westlake, not a well-known name, but The Hollies had a hit with his Here I Go Again and his lesser-known material was recorded by, among others, Elvis Presley, Petula Clark and Tom Jones.

Westlake was a classically trained musician (Royal Academy of Music), which accounts for the majestic intro on grand piano. But it is piano played with verve, with joy, with key-shattering gusto. This owes a lot to the producer and pianist, who I’m assuming was John Franz, Dusty’s usual producer and a renowned pianist (although my internet search failed to come up with anything concrete). If you listen to live versions, the pianist is playing the same notes but it just doesn’t have the oomph, the magic.

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This wasn’t my idea. Bloody photographers.

Then we come to the construction, to describe which I have to get slightly technical on yo ass. Pop songs tend to go verse verse chorus verse chorus, possibly with a different bit in the middle which is often eight bars long and therefore known as a middle eight.

But look at this.

It isn’t the way that you look
And it isn’t the way that you talk
It isn’t the things that you say or do
Make me want you so

It has nothing to do with the wine
Or the music that’s flooding my mind
But never before have I been so sure
You’re the someone I dreamed I would find

It’s the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
It’s a feeling so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
The pounding I feel in my heart
The hoping that we’ll never part
I can’t believe this is really happening to me

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here

We were strangers a moment ago
With a few dreams but nothing to show
The world was a place with a frown on its face
And tomorrow was just, I don’t know

But the way you make me feel
The moment I am close to you
Makes today seem so unreal
Somehow I can’t believe it’s true
Tomorrow, will you still be here?
Tomorrow will come but I fear
That what is happening to me is only a dream

I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them you’re still here
I close my eyes and count again
I can’t believe it but you’re still here
I close my eyes and count to ten
And when I open them, you’re still here

Two verses  (It isn’t the way… etc.) and what comes after them is the chorus: “It’s the way you make me feel…”

But then what happens? We get the “I close my eyes…” section, which is a kind of second chorus. The first would have been enough to make it a hit, but here you’ve got your ice cream with chocolate sauce and then some raspberry stuff on top. You’ve got your McDonalds fries with ketchup and mayonnaise. But this is the best one: you’ve got  your tequila with orange juice, which is nice, but then grenadine as well, making it a tequila sunrise and extra special.

So that’s the technical aspect. But that counts for very little unless the song just sounds and feels great. And it does.

It makes me glad to be alive.

Specifically it makes me glad to be alive in the pop era. William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and even Marilyn Monroe might have had eventful lives and enjoyed many things, but they were gone by the time Clive Westlake and Dusty Springfield brought us their masterpiece.

Sir Winston Churchill missed it by a couple of years.

Billy Wells, the gong striker for Rank films, checked out with just months to go.

And Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at around the time the record was released in the UK.

And here it is. Pity about the dress, eh, ladies?

The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part II

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
duet 5
Freddie meets his match: big girl, big voice, big subject (the Olympics). Barcelona!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The vast majority of duets are man-woman, but Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson showed that a single-sex pairing could work too with 1982’s Ebony and Ivory, the latter also taking the duet into new territory as regards subject matter. A plea for racial harmony sung by one white megastar and one black legend, and a solid gold McCartney tune into the bargain.

McCartney repeated the trick a year or so later with Michael Jackson and Say Say Say, but without the racial message, and it worked a treat once again.

There followed another golden age of the duet with the  film-related likes of Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes) and  Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s Separate Lives. And there was Olivia Newton John and John Travolta with You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights.

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“Up” being at the top of the charts

The astonishing vein of form hit by the Bee Gees in the 1970s meant they had hit songs to spare, and Barry Gibb put some to good use with Barbra Streisand, notably Guilty. Streisand apparently liked the duo format so much that she teamed up with several more people, including Neil Diamond on You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, and Donna Summer for Enough is Enough.

Meanwhile, away from the pop charts, The Band’s farewell performance had been made into a film, The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, and tacked onto the end  is a song seemingly recorded at the same venue in private a day or two later. By definition a duet involves two singers, but The Band had three lead vocalists who took turns, and in this case Rick Danko and Levon Helm did a verse each, with Emmylou Harris joining in. If being well rehearsed is key to a good performance, this is a minor miracle, because guitarist Robbie Robertson had only written the song the night before.  To further confuse matters, it sounds like a Cajun folk song.

Back in the top 40, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross hit big with Endless Love, which also sold by the bucketload a few years later in the hands of Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey.

duet 4
Yes, you get to sing a duet with me. Oh, you want your name on it?

Stevie Nicks enjoyed the genre, it seems, doing Leather and Lace with Don Henley and Stop Dragging My Heart Around with Tom Petty.

George Michael, too, took advantage of his fame to partner with Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting and Mary J Blige on Stevie Wonder’s  sublime Always. Both brave moves: it was like a decent amateur boxer getting into the ring with Mike Tyson, but perhaps Michael had more confidence in himself than some us had in him.

From around  that point the duet goes into decline. In the past 20 years or so there have been plenty of songs featuring a guest singer, but often this takes the form of an already-recorded performance being dropped into a new one, sometimes even with no pretence at the two vocalists having been in the same studio at the same time. Rap songs can often benefit from a drop of melody, as Eminem’s adaptation of Dido’s Thank You for his own Stan amply demonstrates. And it resulted in exposure for both of them to the other’s audience, which means more sales and more profit. But it’s not a duet.

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Senza una donna. The only trouble with this was that the key was too high for Zucchero. Or maybe he wasn’t well. It’s clearly a struggle, anyway

Jay Z and Alicia Keys may have issued a joint version of Empire State of Mind, but the piano diva’s solo version sounds like the real deal, while Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s Promiscuous also doesn’t feel like a true partnership.

The same could be said, admittedly, for Natalie Cole’s reworking of her long-dead father Nat’s old hit Unforgettable. But it works, and although some uncharitable souls have seen it as disrespectful and perhaps commercially-motivated, to these ears it’s just beautiful and if she felt she had to make that connection with her Dad through what technology had made possible, then good for her.

Finally, if I may be permitted a personal favourite that is a bit of a rarity, I was  browsing through YouTube one day when I came across Burt Bacharach doing a live version of A House is not a Home. Alone at the piano, he laboured through a minute or so until I wished Dionne Warwick was there, when suddenly the audience buzzed as Dusty Springfield appeared and took over. Shivers down the spine. Burt croaked some harmonies, but only showed why he is principally a composer rather than a singer – and as much as I love Dionne Warwick, in the right mood Dusty could make her sound like Miss Piggy.

Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmS473ToPW8