Monday, July 15, 2024

Opinion | Burt Bacharach’s songwriting brilliance could stop you in your tracks

Opinion | Burt Bacharach’s songwriting brilliance could stop you in your tracks


Carole King is a singer, songwriter, author and environmental advocate.

In 1962, the lyricist (and my then-husband) Gerry Goffin and I were driving up the Garden State Parkway when we heard Dionne Warwick’s recording of “Don’t Make Me Over” for the first time. We were stunned into silence. If we hadn’t been in the left lane between exits, it would have been a pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moment.

When the song was over, I exclaimed: “What was that?”

By “that” I meant the time signature changes, the instrumentation, and the unpredictable chords that allowed the melody to flow over them and carry the power of Warwick’s performance downstream.

Gerry turned off the radio. I knew that he was already thinking about lyrics for a song in which we would aspire to rise to the standard of what we later learned was the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

That was my introduction to Burt, the brilliant pop composer and arranger who died Wednesday at 94. Over the years I’d sometimes see Burt at an event or party, but our paths didn’t cross long enough for me to really get to know him. And though in 1999 I wrote a song with Hal, his most frequent collaborator, I never got the chance to write with Burt.

I also wrote an album with Carole Bayer Sager, whose musical legacy as a co-writer with Burt includes “That’s What Friends Are For.” In 1985, that song would become a hit for the all-star ensemble of Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder.

During one of our writing sessions, Carole shared an anecdote that illustrates just how clear Burt was about his creative vision. The first time he played the “Friends” melody for her, he sang it with an eighth-note pickup before the first note of the first measure, like this: “la-LA.”

Carole said, “Do we need the pickup note?

Burt simply responded: “Yes.”

And that’s why the first two words of that song are “And I.”

You can hear the strength and clarity of Burt’s musical ideas and arrangements throughout his career. When he began performing his own songs in concert, his was the authentic voice of a songwriter conveying what he heard in his head directly from the muse. And his collaboration in songwriting and in concert with Elvis Costello was brilliant.

Burt and Hal received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2012. Their songs together and with other co-writers were recorded across genres and generations by artists such as Warwick, Marty Robbins, Jackie DeShannon, Dusty Springfield, the Carpenters, B.J. Thomas, Christopher Cross, Jerry Butler and Perry Como — with apologies to those I’ve left out. It appears that great songwriters attract great performers, and vice versa.

My daughter reminded me: “What about Burt’s horn lines? They’re as memorable as the hooks.”

Close your eyes and think of them. “Walk on By.” “The Look of Love.” “Close to You.” Recall that lone euphonium and piano at the beginning and end of Jackie DeShannon’s recording of “What the World Needs Now.” And the flugelhorn in “I Say a Little Prayer.”

The inspiring, soul-stirring legacy of Burt Bacharach. We are all so much richer for it.

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