Burt Bacharach is one of the most accomplished popular composers of the 20th Century. In the ’60s and ’70s, he was a dominant figure in pop music, racking up a remarkable 52 Top 40 hits. In terms of style, Bacharach’s songs differed from much of the music of the era. Bacharach compositions typically boasted memorable melodies, unconventional and shifting time signatures, and atypical chords. Combining elements of jazz, pop, Brazilian music and rock, Bacharach created a unique new sound that embodied the time. Hal David, Bacharach’s primary collaborator, supplied Bacharach’s music with lyrics worthy of the best Tin Pan Alley composers. David’s unsentimental, bittersweet lyrics were often in striking contrast to Bacharach’s soaring melodies. While in the late 1970s Bacharach’s name became synonymous with elevator music (due in great part to its sheer familiarity), a closer listening suggests that his meticulously crafted, technically sophisticated compositions are anything but easy listening.
Burt Freeman Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Mo., on May 12, 1928. The son of nationally syndicated columnist Bert Bacharach, Burt moved with his family in 1932 to Kew Gardens in Queens, New York. At his mother’s insistance, he studied cello, drums and then piano beginning at the age of 12. Burt hated taking piano lessons. His dream was to play professional football, but his size–or lack thereof–kept him out of that field.
As a teenager, Bacharach fell in love with jazz and sometimes used a fake ID to sneak into 52nd Street nightclubs to see bebop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Bebop’s unconventional harmonies and melodies became a major influence on the young composer.
When he was 15, Bacharach started a 10-piece band with high school classmates. With Burt on piano, the group gained exposure playing parties and dances. After graduating from Forest Hills High School, Bacharach enrolled in the music studies program at McGill University in Montreal. It was there that Burt says he wrote his first song, “The Night Plane to Heaven.”
Bacharach went on to study theory and composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York City; at the Berkshire Music Center; and at the New School for Social Research, where he studied under composers Bohuslav Martinu, Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud (whose influence on Bacharach’s style is apparent). He was also awarded a scholarship to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif.
From 1950-52 Bacharach served in the Army, playing piano at the officer’s club on Governor Island and in concerts at Fort Dix. His perfomances then consisted primarily of improvisations and pop medleys of the day, although he was billed as a concert pianist.
While serving as a dance-band arranger with the Army in Germany, Bacharach met vocalist Vic Damone. After their discharge, at the age of 24, Bacharach became Damone’s piano accompanist. He also worked nightclubs and restaurants and accompanied performers including the Ames Brothers, Imogene Coca, Polly Bergen, Joel Grey, Georgia Gibbs, Steve Lawrence and a young singer named Paula Stewart. Bacharach and Stewart were married in 1953 (they divorced in 1958).
In 1957, Bacharach collaborated for the first time with lyricist Hal David (b. May 25, 1921), whom he had met while both worked at the Famous Paramount Music Company in New York’s legendary Brill Building. The pair struck gold almost immediately with hits for Marty Robbins (“The Story of My Life,” which reached No. 15 in 1957) and Perry Como (“Magic Moments,” which reached No. 8 in 1958), but their greatest success together wouldn’t begin until a few years later. Also in 1958, Burt also scored a novelty hit with “(Theme From) The Blob,” which reached No. 33.
From 1958-61 Burt toured Europe and America as musical director for Marlene Dietrich. During this period, three Bacharach-composed songs became big hits: “Please Stay” by the Drifters, “Tower of Strength” by Gene McDaniel (with lyrics by Bob Hilliard) and “Baby It’s You” by the Shirelles (lyrics by Hal’s brother Mack David and Barney Williams). All three were recorded in 1961.
In 1962, Bacharach collaborated with lyricist Bob Hilliard on “Any Day Now,” which reached No. 23 for Chuck Jackson, but his greatest success was achieved in collaboration with Hal David, who co-wrote the No. 4 hit “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” inspired by the John Wayne/James Stewart movie, and the No. 2 hit “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” Both were recorded by Gene Pitney. Bacharach & David also scored a hit that year with Jerry Butler’s “Make It Easy On Yourself,” which reached No. 20.
Bacharach worked extensively with the Drifters during this period, arranging horns and strings and writing (with Bob Hilliard) the group’s 1961 singles “Mexican Divorce” and “Please Stay.” It was at a Drifters session that Bacharach met Marie Dionne Warwick (born Dec. 12, 1940, in East Orange, N.J.), a member of backup vocal group the Gospelaires and niece of vocalist Cissy Houston. It soon becamse apparent that Warwick possess a remarkable ability to navigate even the most difficult of Bacharach’s melodies and tempos. She began cutting demo records for Bacharach & David, one of which was for “Make It Easy On Yourself.” Warwick mistakenly believed “Make It Easy On Yourself” would be her commercial debut, and when the songwriters revealed that the song had been given to Jerry Butler, she angrily shot back, “Don’t make me over, man!” (slang for don’t lie to me). Warwick’s angry response became the seed of her first Top 40 hit, 1962’s “Don’t Make Me Over,” which reached No. 21. Bacharach & David went on to write and produce 20 Top 40 hits for Warwick over the next 10 years, seven of which went Top Ten: “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (1963), “Walk On By” (1964), “Message to Michael” (1966), “I Say a Little Prayer” (1967), “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (1968), “This Girl’s in Love with You” (1969) and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1969).
Besides their work writing and producing albums for Warwick, the team of Bacharach & David was also responsible for hits with other performers, including Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now”), the Fifth Dimension (“One Less Bell to Answer”), Manfred Mann (“My Little Red Book”), Bobby Vinton (“Blue on Blue”), Herb Alpert (“This Guy’s in Love With You”), Tom Jones (“What’s New, Pussycat?” “Promise Her Anything”), Jack Jones (“Wives and Lovers”), Dusty Springfield (“The Look of Love”) and B.J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”). Other performers covered Bacharach composition to chart-topping effect, including the Walker Brothers (whose version of “Make It Easy on Yourself” hit No. 16 in 1965), the Carpenters (whose version of “[They Long to Be] Close to You” hit No. 1 in 1970), and Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 (whose version of “The Look of Love” hit No. 4 in 1968).
Through his wife, screen star Angie Dickinson (whom he married in 1966 and divorced in 1980), Bacharach moved into film scores. His credits include the tile song to Alfie, a hit for Cilla Black and Dionne Warwick, and film scores for What’s New, Pussycat?, (its title song was a Top 5 hit for Tom Jones in 1965), After The Fox, Casino Royale (which introduced “The Look of Love”) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which spawned the No. 1 hit “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and earned Bacharach a pair of Oscars (Best Score and Best Theme Song) as well as a Grammy for best score. A less-well-known theatrical project of Bacharach & David is the television musical On the Flip Side (1966), which starred Rick Nelson as a pop star whose luster had faded.
In 1968, producer David Marrick recruited Bacharach & David to work with playwright Neil Simon on a musical version of the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment. The result was the Broadway musical Promises, Promises, which ran for three years and 1,281 performances and won two Tonys and a Grammy for best cast recording.
In 1966, the songwriter became a recording artist in his own right. His album Hit Maker! Burt Bacharach Plays the Burt Bacharach Hits, which featured his own mostly instrumental re-recordings of some of his best-known songs, became a hit in the U.K. The album was reissued in America as Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits. Bacharach went on to release several more collections of his own recordings of his hits, including Reach Out (1967), Make It Easy On Yourself (1969), Burt Bacharach (1971), Living Together (1973), Futures (1977) and Woman (1979), an ambitious song cycle recorded live in the studio with the Houston Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1973, Bacharach & David collaborated on a high-profile musical version of the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Producer Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon was a resounding flop with both critics and the public. The soundtrack failed to generate a significant hit (although the 5th Dimension’s cover of “Living Together, Growing Together” reached No. 32) and Bacharach privately complained about the difficulty working with actors who were not trained singers. In the wake of Lost Horizon, Bacharach, David and Warwick went through a bitter professional divorce, with Warwick suing Bacharach and David, David suing Bacharach and Bacharach countersuing David.
In 1975, Bacharach & David wrote and produced Stephanie Mills’ album “For the First Time,” but the new partnership failed to match their previous success with Warwick.
In 1977, Bacharach released his sixth solo album, Futures, and in 1979 he released Woman, an ambitious song cycle recorded in a single four-hour session with the Houston Symphony.
In 1979, Bacharach collaborated with Paul Anka for the soundtrack to the Italian film Together? The soundtrack garnered a minor hit for Burt with Jackie DeShannon’s “I Don’t Need You Anymore,” which reached No. 86 in 1980.
In 1981, Bacharach returned to the top of the charts with Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” from the film Arthur,
which Bacharach also scored. “Arthur’s Theme” earned Bacharach his third Oscar and also united him professionally with lyricist Carol Bayer Sager. The partnership would prove fruitful. Bacharach and Sager, who married in 1982 (Sager gave birth to their only child, Cristopher, in 1986), collaborated on hits for Sager (“Stronger Than Before,” 1981), Roberta Flack (“Making Love,” 1982), Dionne Warwick and Friends (“That’s What Friends Are For,” 1985), Patty Labelle and Michael McDonald (“On My Own,” 1986), and Dionne Warwick and Jeffrey Osborne (“Love Power,” 1987) among others. “Arthur’s Theme,” “That’s What Friends Are For” and “On My Own” each were No. 1 hits. Bacharach also scored a major hit around this time with a collaboration with Neil Diamond (“Heartlight” hit No. 5 in 1982), and British synth pop group Naked Eyes put an old Bacharach song back on the charts with their cover of “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me,” which reached No. 8 in 1983.
In 1982, Bacharach composed the music for Ron Howard’sNight Shift, which first introduced “That’s What Friends Are For” (performed on the soundtrack by Rod Stewart), and, in 1988, the music for the sequel to Arthur, Arthur 2: On the Rocks.
In 1985, Bacharach and Sager composed the title theme to the TV series Finder of Lost Loves, which was a minor hit for Dionne Warwick. Bacharach and Sager divorced in 1991.
Bacharach has been involved in thoroughbred racing as an owner and breeder for more than 30 years, and his horses have competed in some of the sport’s most prestigious events. Burt’s Heartlight No. One, a three-year old filly named for his hit collaboration with Neil Diamond, was a thoroughbred champion in 1983, and Soul of the Matter was a Breeder’s Cup starter in 1994 and 1995.
In 1993, Bacharach emerged from a relatively quiet period in his career with a number of new projects, most notably a reunion with Hal David and Dionne Warwick for the song “Sunny Weather Lover” from Warwick’s Friends Can Be Lovers album. He also wrote two songs for James Ingram’s Always You album: “This Is The Night” (Bacharach, Ingram, Bettis) and “Sing for the Children” (Bacharach, Ingram, Bettis). Both were produced by Thom Bell. That same year he wrote “Two Hearts” (White, Bacharach, Bailey) for Earth, Wind and Fire’s album Milennium. He also wrote “Don’t Say Goodbye Girl (Walden, Bacharach, Dakota) for Tevin Campbell’s album I’m Ready in 1993.
During this period, Bacharach also worked with lyricist B.A. Robertson, of Mike + the Mechanics, on a modern musical retelling of Snow White that apparently was shelved.
Bacharach underwent a remarkable resurgence in popularity in the 1990s, with alternative acts such as Pizzicato Five, Oasis, REM, Stereolab, Faith No More, Yo La Tengo, Ben Folds Five, the White Stripes and John Zorn each paying homage to Bacharach in interviews and through recordings.
While it had slowly been building for a few years, Burt’s “comeback” began in earnest in 1995 when he began a collabortion with Elvis Costello on a song for Allison Anders’ film “Grace of My Heart.” Working from different continents via telephone and fax machine, the pair wrote “God Give Me Strength,” a striking ballad that recalled Bacharach’s classic work with David and Warwick without resorting to nostalgia. The composition served notice that Bacharach’s talents had not diminished over time. The song was nominated for a Grammy and sparked a partnership between Costello and Bacharach that would result in 1998’s Painted From Memory, which comprised 11 new Bacharach-Costello songs in addition to “God Give Me Strength.” The duo embarked on a well-received mini-tour and in February 1999 won a Grammy in the Pop Collaboration with Vocals category for Painted From Memory’s “I Still Have That Other Girl.”
In January 1996, Burt was the subject of a BBC documentary, Burt Bacharach–This Is Now, which was later broadcast in America on “Great Performances.” For an appearance in London at the Royal Festival Hall in June 1996, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher joined Burt onstage to croon “This Guy’s In Love With You.” (A photograph of Bacharach appears on the cover of the band’s 1994 record Definitely Maybe). On Dec. 31, 1996, Burt and Dionne Warwick performed a special concert, “Live from the Rainbow Room,” which was broadcast on the American Move Classics cable television network.
In 1997, Bacharach made a memorable cameo appearance in Mike Myers’ film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, further cementing his reputation among a new generation of fans.
In November 1997, Burt hosted a tribute concert at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. The concert, taped by TNT and recorded for the CD and video Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night, featured Bacharach songs sung by stars including Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, Mike Myers, Barenaked Ladies, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn and George Duke, All Saints, Wynonna, Elvis Costello, Ben Folds Five, Dionne Warwick and Bacharach himself. “Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night” aired on TNT in April 1998.
In November 1998, Rhino Records issued The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc anthology of Bacharach’s work spanning his entire career, from “The Story of My Life” (Bacharach’s first Top 40 hit) to 1998’s “God Give Me Strength.”
In 1998, he and Elvis Costello collaborated on a rendition of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” for the soundtrack to the Austin Powers sequel “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and the duo makes a cameo appearance in the film as well.
In 2000, Burt composed the score and reunited with Hal David and Dionne Warwick on two songs for Isn’t She Great, a film based on the life of novelist Jacqueline Susann.
A Tribute to Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a July 2000 concert at Royal Albert Hall featuring Bacharach along with Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello, Petula Clark and others was released on CD and DVD in 2001. Jazz vocalist Diana Krall recorded “The Look of Love” as the title track to her 2001 CD.
A musical based on Bacharach and David’s music, What the World Needs Now, opened in Sydney, Australia, in August 2002.
In 2002, Bacharach appeared for the third time in an Austin Powers movie, turning up as the credits rolled on “Austin Powers in Goldmember” (which also included a rendition of “Alfie”–recast as “Austin”–sung by Susanna Hoffs). Burt also reportedly began a collaboration with rapper Dr. Dre, composing melodies over drum loops supplied to him by Dre.
In May 2003, The Look of Love, a musical built around the songs of Bacharach & David, opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, bringing the music of Bacharach back to Broadway for the first time in 35 years. The show, which Burt had no personal involvement with, got mostly poor reviews and closed on June 29.
In July 2003, Bacharach went into Capitol’s legendary Studio A and B, the site of classic sessions by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, to record a CD with vocalist Ron Isley. The result is the DreamWorks Records release Here I Am, which features Isley’s soulful vocals on 11 classic Bacharach compositions along with two new songs. Produced by Bacharach and featuring new arrangments, Here I Am proves that, after 50 years in the business, Bacharach’s talents as a composer, producer, conductor and arranger are undiminished.
In December 2003, a television special, McCormick Present Burt Bacharach: Tribute On Ice, aired on NBC. The special featured world-class skaters including Brian Boitano, Ilia Kulik and Nicole Bobek performing live accompanied by Bacharach and vocalists James Ingram and Michael McDonald.
In November 2005, Bacharach released At This Time, the first solo album to be released under Bacharach’s name in 26 years. The record included musical contributions from Dr. Dre, Chris Botti, Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright, but it gained even greater notoriety for its lyrics: It was the first record to feature lyrics written by Bacharach. Those lyrics — mostly written in collaboration with Tonio K. — explored political and social themes not typically associated with Bacharach’s music and led some to call it his most political record. The controversy didn’t affect members of the Recording Academy, which in February 2006 awarded At This Time the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Bacharach was also nominated in the Best Pop Instrumental Performance category for the track “In Our Time,” a collaboration with Chris Botti.
In April 2007, Bacharach contributed several songs to New Music From An Old Friend, a CD on 180 Music that features new compositions and collaborations between legendary songwriters including Brian Wilson, Kris Kristofferson, Carole King, Paul Williams and Willie Nelson.
In 2012, Bacharach and Hal David received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize in honor of their lifetime achievements in popular music.
For more information on Burt’s recordings, see either the abridged hit list or the chronological discography, which compiles Burt’s recordings, original versions and covers. To search for Bacharach recordings by artist, visit Stefan Wesley’s Hitmaker Archive.
Burt’s official press kit bio is available here.
Special thanks to Ken Miller, Jeff Gower, Brennan Young and Paul in Milan for help in putting together this bio.