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Remembering Burt Bacharach, master of the melodic hook

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Songs written by pop composer Burt Bacharach include "Walk On By," "Wishin' And Hopin'," "What The World Needs Now," "What's New, Pussycat?" and "Wives And Lovers." And that's just the ones beginning with the letter W. Our critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of Bacharach, who died February 8 at the age of 94.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF MY LIFE")

MARTY ROBBINS: (Singing) Someday I'm going to write the story of my life. I'll tell about the night we met and how my heart can't forget the way you smiled at me.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Marty Robbins, 1957, with Burt Bacharach's first hit, an early collaboration with his longtime lyricist, Hal David. Burt didn't write that arrangement, but a few of his early songs feature whistling. So I'll guess that idea was his. Recording supervisors didn't always honor his wishes. Bacharach learned early that in pop music, as in Hollywood, you become your own producer to protect your material.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T MAKE ME OVER")

DIONNE WARWICK: (Singing) Don't make me over now that I'd anything for you. Don't make me over now that you know how I adore you. Don't pick on the things I say...

WHITEHEAD: It all came together in the early 1960s when Bacharach and David teamed up with their best interpreter, a young background singer at first doing demos for them, Dionne Warwick. Together, they had a long string of hits. The trio's first success, "Anyone Who Had A Heart," changes key in the middle of a phrase and piles up the odd time signatures under a leaping melody. Yet it never sounds forced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYONE WHO HAD A HEART")

WARWICK: (Singing) Every time you go away, I always say, this time it's goodbye, dear. Loving you the way I do, I take you back. Without you I'd die, dear. Knowing I love you so, anyone who had a heart would take me in his arms and love me too. You couldn't really have a heart and hurt me like you hurt me and be so untrue. What am I to do?

WHITEHEAD: No 1960s pop composer wrote more sophisticated songs than Burt Bacharach. He was trained in modern music, but his distinguished teachers encouraged his gift for melody. He wrote no end of melodic hooks, those little earworms that sell a tune. On that chipper song about failure, "Do You Know The Way To San Jose," the hook is a Morse code bounce on that melody's lowest note.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE")

WARWICK: (Singing) Do you know the way to San Jose? I've been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way. Do you know the way to San Jose? I'm going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.

WHITEHEAD: Burt Bacharach said he didn't try to be commercial, but also said you can't isolate yourself and not listen to the radio. You got to hear what's happening. He deployed period flavors like electric organ, bossa nova rhythm, even sitar. He commandeered the very '60s sound of Herb Alpert's breathy trumpet and Tijuana brass. And Bacharach might meld brass with flute or voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

WARWICK: (Vocalizing, singing) I say a little prayer for you. I say a little prayer for you. Forever, forever...

WHITEHEAD: Many singers besides Dionne Warwick sang Bacharach. Aretha Franklin covered "I Say A Little Prayer." Tom Jones did "What's New, Pussycat?" The Shirelles, the Drifters, the Carpenters, The Stylistics - they all did his stuff, even Jerry Orbach in the Bacharach-David Broadway musical "Promises, Promises."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROMISES, PROMISES")

JERRY ORBACH: (Singing) Promises, promises. I'm all through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud.

WHITEHEAD: In the early 1970s, Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Dionne Warwick split up. Burt came back in the '80s with "That's What Friends Are For," which Warwick made a hit. From the '90s on, he was in full late career revival. He co-wrote an album, words and music, with Elvis Costello, where they effectively blend even as each stays true to himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SWEETEST PUNCH")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) You knocked me out. It was the sweetest punch. The bell goes - I can hear it ringing, but I didn't see it coming. We all say things we don't mean. You can't take it back.

WHITEHEAD: Fifty-some years ago, when folks compared Bacharach and David to great American tunesmiths like Rodgers and Hart, the praise seemed over the top. Decades along, we can now hear those boosters were correct. Dozens of Burt Bacharach's best songs endure for all the right reasons. They're inventive and challenging and linger in your ear. That is an elusive combination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALFIE")

WARWICK: (Singing) What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give, or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, Alfie, then I guess…

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the tens of thousands of mercenaries who fought on the Russian side in Ukraine, many of them from Russian prisons. Veteran journalist Shaun Walker has profiled Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose company recruited and trained the soldiers. He's closely allied with Vladimir Putin and has become a political player in Russia. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL, ELVIS COSTELLO AND BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL, ELVIS COSTELLO AND BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.