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An Interview with Robin Platts

Robin Platts is the author of Burt Bacharach & Hal David: What the World Needs Now. Despite the remarkable chart success of Bacharach & David, Robin's is the first book dedicated solely to their careers and work. In writing the book, Robin interviewed Burt and Hal as well as many the performers to make their songs famous, including Gene Pitney, B.J. Thomas and Dionne Warwick. Burt Bacharach & Hal David includes biographical information, an annotated list of every song the team wrote as well as a selected discography. Robin, who lives in Canada, is a longtime music journalist and the author of Genesis: Inside & Out. He answered the following questions via email.

When did you first become interested in the music of Burt Bacharach?
I was born in the mid-'60s so, growing up, I heard Bacharach/David songs
and loved them, but had no idea who wrote them - "Always Something There
To Remind Me" and "What's New Pussycat?" were favorites. But I didn't
get heavily into Burt and Hal until years later. I got a Burt
compilation, then a Dionne compilation and the whole thing just
snowballed. Next thing I knew, I was trading tapes with other Bacharach
buffs, tracking down lesser-known gems like "Send Me No Flowers" and
"Promise Her Anything." About eight years, I decided to compile a list
of every song Burt and Hal wrote together. That list, together with an
article I wrote for Discoveries magazine in 1997, became the foundation
of my book.

Who are some of your other favorite artists?
My musical tastes are all over the map - The Beach Boys, Madness, The
Beatles, Bill Evans, Zumpano, The Pernice Brothers, Prince, The La's,
Jimmy Webb, Tom Waits, Van Dyke Parks and Colin Blunstone are just a
few... I'm also fond of stuff by Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter.

Why did you write about the music of Bacharach and David rather a traditional biography?
The music is what's important. I'm sure both Burt and Hal would be great
subjects for biographies, but writing about their personal lives doesn't
really interest me - except where it relates specifically to their
music. Also, it was important to me that this was a book about Burt and
Hal, rather than just Burt. Hal's contribution has usually tend to get
overlooked, and I really wanted to emphasize that most of the well-known
"Burt Bacharach songs" were actually Bacharach and David songs.

Are you a musician yourself? Do you think musicians have a greater appreciation of Bacharach than casual listeners?
I am a musician. I sing, play guitar and write. Yes, I think being a
musician gives you a greater appreciation. Any time I summon up the
courage to try to play and sing a Bacharach/David song, I am swiftly
reminded of how challenging their songs are.

Describe the essence of a Bacharach-David song. Is there any thread that runs through most of their collaborations?
I think it's something to do with honesty, of connecting with the
listener on a real, emotional level. And they did it in such a universal
way that almost all there songs work as well today as they did when they
were written.

How many times did you speak with Burt for the book?
I spoke with Burt a couple of times. After that, I realized I had a few
more questions for him. I asked his assistant Sue Maine and she said he
was very busy but to send her the questions and she'd see what she could
do. A couple of weeks later a package arrived in the mail with an
unmarked cassette inside. Burt had sat down with a tape recorder and
answered my questions for me, which I thought was a very nice gesture.

Was it difficult to get Burt to reflect on the creative process or how certain songs came to be written?
I think most people who have been interviewed a lot gravitate towards
well-worn stories (Paul McCartney comes to mind), but I tried to ask
Burt about some less obvious things. There were some obscure things that
he just didn't remember, but I did a lot of archival research which
helped provide a different perspective. I think having the combination
of old and new quotes really helped fill out the picture. As far as
reflecting on the creative process, I think Hal is better able to
verbalize that than Burt because he's a word man. I think Burt is very
instinctive musically, but it's not always easy to put that into words.

What was at the heart of Burt and Hal's partnership? Was it simply that they worked well together or was there something about Hal's words and Burt's music together?
I suppose it's like asking why did Lennon and McCartney write
(generally) their best stuff with each other. I think both Burt and Hal
are in a league of their own. There are few writers that could match
either of them in their respective areas, so it's inevitable that most
of their best songs were the ones they wrote together. Also, they
obviously had a real chemistry as collaborators and, like other great
duos, I think each of them pushed the other on to greater heights. And
the fact that they had a singer (Dionne) who could seemingly navigate
any melody and lyric definitely freed them up to do pretty much anything.

What was it like to interview Hal?
Hal was great. I interviewed him several times at some length and found
him to be a very warm, sincere man - exactly what you'd expect from his
lyrics. His memory is great and he provided lots of background on how
certain lyrics came to be be written, etc. I always felt bad for Hal
that Burt tended to get more of the credit and the limelight than he
did. It must have bothered him to some extent, but he's not the kind of
guy who'd admit it.

There's a quote from Burt about re-teaming up with Hal for the Encores! version of Promises: "It's so different when it's not a marketplace kind of thing." Do you think Burt writes better when he's not trying to write a hit? Is he even capable of divorcing his muse from his commercial sense?
I think most Bacharach/David fans would probably love nothing more than
a new album of new Bacharach/David songs that recall their '60s work,
sung by Dionne Warwick. But the perception seems to be that those sounds
are out of vogue, so both Burt and Hal probably feel uneasy about trying
to compete in today's scene. Certainly, the new song they did for
Promises Promises ("You've Got It All Wrong") wasn't something you'd
likely hear on the charts today, but I think writing it for that
specific assignment freed them up to just try and write a good song. The
same probably goes for "On My Way," from the movie Isn't She Great.

Are you a Bacharach collector?
I don't have too much memorabilia, but I do collect the songs
themselves, so I've got piles of cassettes, CDs and CD-Rs of rarities. I
particularly like the 1973 Evening With Hal David performance I
mentioned in my book, especially since it includes an
otherwise-unrecorded number cut from Promises, Promises, "Wouldn't That
Be A Stroke Of Luck?" I also have a cassette of just the instrumental
score from Lost Horizon which is quite revealing - isolated from the
film, the score is more beautiful than you might expect.

Lastly, what are your Top 10 favorite Bacharach & David compositions?
That's a tough one. I'm going to lean towards some lesser known ones, not because I'm trying to be cool, but just because I tend to listen to those more than the hits these days.

Something Big
Hasbrook Heights
Who Gets The Guy
The Balance Of Nature
Where There's A Heartache
They Don't Give Medals To Yesterday's Heroes
The World Is A Circle
After The Fox
Long Ago Tomorrow
Everybody's Out Of Town

As far as their work with other writers, I especially love Burt's "God
Give Me Strength" and "Tower Of Strength," and Hal's "The Good Times Are
Comin" and "No Walls, No Ceiling, No Floors."