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 wisdom of pop songs – Songs about occupations

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Writing a song that’s more than just a close-up of a relationship can require a bit of scene-setting, and just occasionally we get to find out what somebody does for a living.

One of my favourites in this category is Glen Campbell’s 1968 song Wichita Lineman, in which the narrator tells us straight off:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload

It was written by Jimmy Webb, who was also the man behind By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Macarthur Park, which tells you he put more detail and imagination into his lyrics than most writers.

A lineman is someone who maintains and repairs overhead power lines or telephone lines, and in a rural area that must be lonely work, stuck up a pole in the back of beyond. This is a love song, or rather a song of love and loneliness – it’s certainly not happy, but he’s not complaining about his job, just his personal life.

By contrast, Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coal Mine, written by Allen Toussaint and originally a hit in 1966, is all about how he’s stuck in this dirty, dangerous job and is too tired to have fun.

One of Paul Simon’s most intriguing lyrics is from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is about a famous architect, or rather it uses his name. It’s written as to an old friend recently deceased and is daringly close to being a love song. One theory is that Art Garfunkel, who had studied architecture, challenged his master-songwriter partner to write about this man, whom Simon had never heard of. Whatever the truth may be, it’s a beautiful, haunting, wistful piece of music that transcends it subject matter.

Also from the Sixties, as are all the songs so far, is Tim Hardin’s If I Were  A Carpenter, which examines a relationship and speculates if it would have worked if things had been different. It must be uncomfortable listening for any gold-digging woman who has hooked up with a rich man purely for his money. With the roles reversed, he a humble craftsman and she a posh woman, would the attraction have been there?

If gambling can be said to be a career – and professionals do exist – it has certainly been dealt with in song. Most famously, there is Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Written by country tunesmith Don Schlitz in the mid 70s, it didn’t reach the global public until Rogers’ version in 1978. It’s about meeting a gambler on a train, and he can’t have been on a good streak because he has to bum a cigarette and a swig of whiskey before he imparts some wisdom about knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and so on, and then quietly dies.

Less successful but equally catchy was I’m a Gambler, by Lace, which got a lot of airplay in the UK in 1969 but didn’t make the charts. This was written by one of the unsung heroes of the golden era of British pop, Pete Dello, who among other things was the leader of Honeybus and wrote their smash I Can’t Let Maggie Go as well as Do I Still Figure In Your Life. I’m a Gambler was reissued four years later, under a new artist name, Red Herring, but still failed to set the world alight.

Incidentally, Madonna’s song of the same title is nothing like Dello’s little gem. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual gambling either; it’s just Her Royal Highness showing she can talk tough just like a man.

Doctors feature quite heavily as far as being mentioned in song titles is concerned, but closer inspection reveals precious little in the way of detail about surgery, stethoscopes and so on. The Beatles’ Doctor Robert, for instance, is about a drug dealer, while Jackson Browne’s Doctor My Eyes is an imaginary conversation with a medic about the patient’s love life.

The Beatles’ Paul McCartney picked an unlikely object of love and lust in Lovely Rita, where he sings the praises of a traffic warden, even if he does say that her uniform and the bag across her shoulder “made her look a little like a military man”.

Steely Dan’s Doctor Wu is just a playful piece of imagery associated with a… well, it’s very obscure and probably about nothing.

Waitresses get a fair bit of coverage, but again, without detail about the intricacies of carrying plates and clearing tables. Bruce Springsteen mentions one in Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park), but only as part a confession to his girlfriend, with the assertion that he’s not seeing this waitress anymore because she’s gone off him.

The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me bitches about how the singer rescued the girl from her menial life and now she’s dumped him.

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Well guess what, tough guy? You can’t help people and expect them to spend the rest of their life devoted to you because of it.

Being a pop star, of course, is itself a job, and unsurprisingly the world is full of songs about this, from The Byrds’s So You Wanna Be A Rock’n’Roll Star to Abba’s Thank You For The Music. Along the way there is Superstar, written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett and recorded by, among others, Rita Coolidge and The Carpenters, each time with the big-voiced girl mooning about the guitarist she wants but can’t have.

Barry Manilow’s monster hit I Write The Songs was actually penned by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. It was featured on an album by The Captain and Tennille and as a single by David Cassidy.

Teachers – now there’s a goldmine for us. A lot of the songs are a bit un-PC in this day and age, from Lulu’s To Sir With Love to The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me, but the student’s crush on the the man standing at the front is a recurring fact of life. Lulu’s question, “What can I give you in return?” is unmitigated, inflammatory flirting requiring a cold bath and a dose of bromide in the teacher’s tea.

So, plenty to choose from but nothing about dentists, chiropractors or roadsweepers. But hang on, gentlemen of the streets: there’s King of the Road, Roger Miller’s early 60s classic about being a poor drifter doing what he can to survive.

Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room

Nothing about estate agents, chefs or bloggers, but maybe there’s hope for all of us.