Burt Bacharach died Wednesday at the age of 94, and while the deaths of popular artists usually occasion some accounting of their contributions, his contribution to popular music was incalculable. But by the numbers, he worked with well over a thousand artists ranging from Dionne Warwick to Elvis Costello, had 73 top 40 hits, and received three Academy Awards for his movie themes, which included “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “Arthur’s Theme.” He won six Grammys, which like every preceding metric, seems like an insufficient number given his overwhelming talent and how much of a fixture he was in popular music for so long.
Born in 1928, he was raised in New York, where his father was a former pro football player turned syndicated columnist and his mother was an amateur musician and painter. As a teenager, Bacharach was known for sneaking into New York’s jazz clubs in the 1940s where he saw many now-legendary but then up-and-coming jazz greats. It would probably be impossible to overstate this as a formative experience, as his career was defined by his ability to bring jazz harmony into the otherwise limiting confines of the three-minute pop song.
After high school, Bacharach served in the Army where he began performing and arranging for dance bands. It was also in the Army where he first met and worked with Vic Damone, the crooner frequently compared to Frank Sinatra who would go on to have a modestly successful career. In 1956, Bacharach got a job producing and arranging Marlene Dietrich’s nightclub act which he did off and on for the next several years. In 1958, Bacharach did his first of many film soundtracks to come for “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen in his first leading role. It is quite possibly the most incongruous score for a horror film ever written, but it is a lot of fun.
However, his real breakthrough came in 1957 when he met another legendary songwriter, Hal David. The pair worked together in the famous Brill Building, which housed dozens of professional songwriters and turned out hundreds of hits throughout the late 50s and 60s. That much-celebrated collaboration between Bacharach and David was very fruitful – the pair cranked out notable songs including everything from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (which curiously was not used in the film) to early hits for Dionne Warwick, who would go on to record some of Bacharach’s biggest songs. (You can read a lovely and thorough feature on Bacharach and David’s partnership online here.)
From this point onward, Bacharach’s songwriting credits read like a phonebook where everyone listed is famous. It would be almost herculean to even try and recount his body of work over the course of the last 60 years outside of a full-blown biography. Suffice it to say, Bacharach’s songwriting success is well known.
Major songs he wrote or co-wrote include “The Look of Love” by Dusty Springfield; “That’s What Friends Are For,” which was first recorded by Rod Stewart but became a major hit in 1985 when a version of it featuring Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder was recorded to raise money for AIDS research; Naked Eyes’ fondly remembered 1983 synth pop hit “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” was actually a cover of one of Bacharach and David’s minor hits from the 60s (oddly enough, Naked Eyes’ other big hit “Promises, Promises” has nothing to do with the Bacharach musical of the same name); “On My Own” with Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald; and on and on and on.
What’s remarkable about Bacharach was that he was not particularly known as a performer, yet he achieved a level of celebrity on par with the pop stars who recorded his songs. This was a tribute to his unicorn-like ability to write songs that from a music theory perspective were far more sophisticated than the typical pop song, yet somehow were easily identified as something that could have only been written by Bacharach.
In 1971, his fame was such that he had his own network television special, which featured Barbara Streisand, Rudolph Nureyev, and Tom Jones. And for a man whose fame lasted six decades, he transitioned seamlessly from famous songwriter to music icon without his fame ever really diminishing — he was a part of popular culture in ways that transcended music.
It helped that his second of four marriages was to famous actress Angie Dickinson for 15 years. His third marriage, to lyricist and collaborator Carole Bayer Sager, was rather improbably the subject of an elaborate joke in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” and Bacharach would later do cameos in all three Austin Powers movies.
There’s no doubt Bacharach lived a full life, and it wasn’t without tragedy — he had a daughter who struggled with autism and Asperger’s syndrome and took her own life in 2007. However, despite any personal setbacks, Bacharach remained productive as a songwriter so far into old age it’s almost incomprehensible. As late as 2020, Bacharach released an EP with the very talented but relatively obscure songwriter and performer Daniel Tashian. Though the songs on that EP never rocketed up the charts, it was nonetheless astonishingly good.
In particular, this record came to mind because there’s some comfort to be found in the fact that the Jewish kid from Kew Gardens never shied away from religious imagery in his songs. So say a little prayer, and listen to the “Bells of St. Augustine,” a song that is at once gorgeous and unmistakably Bacharach. Even at 91 years of age, Burt Bacharach was still turning out songs that, well, if they don’t tug on your heartstrings, you don’t have any.
Rest in peace, Burt.