Thursday, 9 February 2023

Burt Bacharach R.I.P.

As anyone who knows me well is aware, I've been a huge fan of Burt Bacharach since my teens and so it's inevitable that the news of his death at the grand age of 94 has saddened me. But my over-riding emotion is one of gratitude for all the happiness that his music has given me for so long. I first came across him by accident one evening, watching a TV special called 'An Evening with Burt Bacharach' when I was fourteen. I was amazed to find that so many of the songs I loved had been written by the same man. And I also found his obsessive passion for his work - whether writing, playing the piano, or conducting - enthralling. Equally obsessive, I set about finding every song he'd written, every scrap of information I could find. 

If ever I was depressed or stressed through studying for exams, playing his music was astonishingly therapeutic - and I continue to find that it does me a power of good in any times of trouble. In those days, to be an unapologetic and evangelistic Bacharach obsessive exposed me to a degree of mockery from the fashionable kids who favoured prog rock bands. It was water off a duck's back - I couldn't care less about fashion or being trendy. I'd already learned that you have to be true to what you care about, whatever other people think or say. 

When I sat my Oxford University entrance exam and was confronted by a question asking me simply to write about the twentieth century's greatest composer, I knew exactly what to write. When I was interviewed for a place at Balliol, to study law, things didn't go well at first. I felt completely overawed. Then one of the three tutors said in a rather baffled tone: 'You're the chap who wrote the essay about Burt Bacharach, aren't you?' 'That's me.' 'I thought you padded the essay with rather a lot of song titles,' he said. 'He's written a lot of very good songs', I retorted. 'I was making a case. Like an advocate does.' From that moment on, we got on extremely well and I duly became a Balliol man. Not entirely thanks to Burt, but he made a contribution!   

When I started to write novels, I decided to feature a Bacharach reference in each one. Sometimes there were several. 'The Look of Love' is one of those in the first book, All the Lonely People, and after I took my agent Mandy to watch his musical Promises, Promises, I featured a fictitious performance in The Devil in Disguise. There are even Bacharach references smuggled into The Golden Age of Murder and The Life of Crime. This was my way of acknowledging all the pleasure his work has brought me. The forthcoming Rachel Savernake book, Sepulchre Street, may be set in 1931 but it still has plenty of Bacharach stuff in it, albeit in disguise.

At one point, I thought about writing a book about him.I talked to an editor about the idea and as a first step I interviewed Johnny Hamp, the TV producer who gave Burt his first major TV break with The Bacharach Sound and whose reminscences were fascinating. But I realised I couldn't do the job as well as it needed to be done, so I gave up. I rather wish the ghost writer of Burt's autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart had realised the same thing. The 1996 TV documentary  was far better.

On one occasion, my firm sponsored a classical concert at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and at dinner afterwards I had the pleasure of sitting next to the great conductor Vasily Petrenko. One of my partners cheekily (if unwisely) bet me that I couldn't work Burt Bacharach into the conversation. So I asked Vasily if he ever conducted while playing the piano. 'Too difficult,' he said. When I said Burt does it, Vasily grinned and said, 'He is a real maestro!'

The first LP I ever bought was Burt's Portrait in Music - decades later it was featured on the cover of the first Oasis album, Definitely Maybe. When the great man enjoyed a long overdue revival of popularity in 1996, I was present at that memorable night at the Royal Festival Hall when he played with Noel Gallagher. Each time he returned to Britain, I was there in the audience, watching him perform alongside and having his songs sung by the likes of Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Justin Hayward, Alfie Boe, Melody Federer, Yazz, Will Young, and many more - including, of course, his greatest interpreter, Dionne Warwick. Standing ovations time and again. 

Burt Bacharach's name is rightly associated most closely with that great lyricist Hal David, but his collaborators include Bob Hilliard, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Neil Simon, Daniel Tashian, John Bettis, Tim Rice, Carole Bayer Sager, Paul Anka, Bernie Taupin, B.A. Robertson, David Foster, Sally Stevens, James Kavanaugh, Neil Diamond, Anthony Newley, Richard Marx, Gerry Goffin, Norman Gimbel, Diane Warren, Cathy Dennis, Dr Dre, and many more. I had the pleasure of meeting his lyricist Steven Sater when I saw their new musical Some Lovers  a few years agoDiane Warren has just described Burt Bacharach as the Beethoven of the songwriting world, and it was Burt's performances of Beethoven and Rhapsody in Blue in a couple of those early TV specials that helped me to discover the joys of classical music. 

I'm so glad I saw Burt on his last tour, back in 2019, when he performed with Joss Stone. That evening I met up again with some of the friends I've made who are fellow Bacharach enthusiasts, notably Davide Bonori (who some years ago got Burt to let me have his autograph) and Roberto Pinardi, who has compiled a fantastic 4 CD set of the instrumentals. Here we are, outside the Hammersmith Apollo on a wonderful sunny evening - one of the many magic moments I associate with the man who actually wrote Magic Moments. That night, Burt was on stage non-stop for just over two hours, playing piano, conducting, even singing (not his forte, but in his younger days the 'rumpled baritone' had an indefinable appeal). His stamina was extraordinary. And he was 91 years old...

One of the things I find inspiring about Burt Bacharach is that he kept his creative fire burning to the end of his life. He was nominated for two Grammys after passing the age of 90 - absolutely incredible. His last music video, released less than a year ago is charming. Maybe it was his last public performance; if so, a suitably poignant note to end on.

Since my books often feature death, naturally I think about it from time to time. I long ago came to the conclusion that since everyone dies, what really matters is what one achieves in life, not how that life ends. I've spent more than fifty years looking forward to the next new Burt Bacharach song. Now there will be no more - although happily, some of his previously unreleased work with Elvis Costello is due to come out next month - but I'm hugely thankful for the endless pleasure he's given me. Without his music my life would have been significantly less joyful. And his catalogue is so extraordinary, extensive, and eclectic that there''ll always be something there to remind me. 


Mark said...

Genius is a term bandied around too often but in Burt's case it is apt.

Martin Edwards said...

You are absolutely right, Mark

Liz Gilbey said...

This is a moving and immaculate tribute to a musical great. Like you, he has been a touchstone and an inspiration for most of my life. The quality of his music is demonstrated by the quality and astonishing variety of the interpretations, and the fact his songs never go out of favour, they just find new generations of appreciation. One of the great qualities of his work and how he did it is illustrated by the interpretation of 'Alfie' he bullied and coaxed out of Cilla Black. Nothing else she ever sang hit that degree of performance. It always seems to me to underrate his music by calling it 'easy listening.'The better description is heartening and always inspiring.

Martin Edwards said...

Liz, thank you, I couldn't agree more. It's noteworthy that although he was tough on his singers, including Cilla, they loved working with him. The same is true of members of his touring band, some of whom have worked with him for more than 20 years. A demanding perfectionist, yes, but that is part of his genius

Davide Bonori said...

Thank you Martin for your beautiful words. Really sad about Burt. He leaves us a lot of incredible good sons, but there will be no new ones.