Photo by Olaf Heine
Burt Bacharach: "I don’t want a song to go out of my hands until I’ve turned it upside down."
A consummate songwriter, Burt Bacharach penned his first hit in 1957 for Marty Robbins. He crashed the Top 40 sixty-five more times.
In what was scheduled to be a ten-minute chat, he opened up to the INDY
about a host of subjects: his perfectionism, his big break, what’s on his workout playlist and why, at age 86, he’s touring. Bacharach plays the Carolina Theatre in Durham Wednesday, March 4.
INDY: Before you got into the business, you made a serious study of music theory and composition. At that point, did you have an inkling where your career might take you?
Not a clue. Not even a wish list. I was coming from a foundation of hating playing piano, hating taking lessons, being pushed by my mother. It was mandatory. Come home from high school: "You gotta go to the piano before you go out and play with your friends. Half an hour. Give me half an hour."
You weren’t coming from a deep love of music at that point.
The only love I had was hearing some big bands. The crossover was from listening to Harry James Band or the Dorsey Band when I was a kid. I liked the way the drum set looked, mother-of-pearl and different colors in the drum kit. Then somebody opened up a window. It felt like, "What am I hearing?" Because the next step was the Count Basie band, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker. Great players. Great music. Music that I never knew existed. How fresh was that? That caught my ear, caught my heart, caught my attention.
You’re frequently compared to people like Gershwin and Berlin. Do you have a favorite standard?
I’m still trying to process being compared to Gershwin and Berlin.
Even at this point you’re still processing that?
Yeah, and I guess I always will. I mean, it’s lovely to hear you say something like that. It’s hard for me to accept that. Will I ever? Maybe, I don’t know. It’s great that you would say something like that, let's put it that way.
Do your melodies come to you in a basic form and then you work them through for the right feeling, time signature and so on, or do you they come to you complex already?
They come to me complex. Take “Anyone Who Had a Heart”
: I had that, and when I wrote it out, it was changing time signatures from bar to bar.
And, at the very end, the 7/8 bar, you know? Whoa. When I’m going in the studio, the song’s being written, but as the song’s being written, even if I’m not going in the studio with a song, I’m still hearing more—what would be going on, when the strings come in, what the drum patterns might be, what the bass line might be. They all go together. They all come out of the same bed.
When I think of your music, I hear trumpets.
Trumpets are blue horns. I use them because they’re very expressive to me, but they're not to be used any other way but economically.
You added mariachi horns and bossa nova and Latin beats to American popular music. When you started doing that, did it feel like breaking rules?
I didn’t know about rules. When I was writing songs, I thought it was going to be easy, and it wasn’t easy. I was working in the Brill Building, and I was trying to write pop songs. I may have written some good songs, and they got ruined by somebody else recording them. An A&R man or an arranger changed the chord or didn’t like that it was a three-bar phrase, and he did a four-bar phrase and completely ruined the song. But somehow, some part of me thought, "Hey, maybe they’re right. Maybe that’s why they have this major job at the record company." You make the song better, and I’ll give you Tony Bennett. Gimme a star. Gimme a name.
I look back on it, even though I’d had hits, they were different kinda hits. Like “Magic Moments” and “The Story of My Life,” they were the early hits, and I’m grateful to have even had them, to have finally had them. But to get to the next stage, it was getting a call from Calvin Carter, A&R man at Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, who says, “Jerry Butler wants to record this song of yours. We’ll come in to New York and I want you to write the arrangement, run the date, conduct the orchestra, set the tempo, get it the way you want. You play piano, conduct, everything." Somebody opened the door for me, see? Once I got the freedom, of being able to go there and express exactly what I heard—as close to it as you can, you’re never gonna get 100 percent—I keep going for it, to excess sometimes. If you’ve ever seen the YouTube video of me conducting “Alfie” with Cilla Black
, that’s called going over the top.
You do have a reputation for being a stickler.
Yeah, 'cause I kept looking for one more, to get it better. Getting everybody on the same wavelength, you want that singer to make a brilliant performance, and you don’t want anybody to peak too early. You don’t want the rhythm section to get bored. Sometimes the early takes are brilliant because they’re just feeling it out and they catch some kind of magic. So early on, I might have done too many takes because I kept going ‘"One more, we can make it better," even though I knew we had something in the bank already. But I’ve always been that way.
I don’t want a song to go out of my hands until I’ve turned it upside down. I’ll be winding up with something very close to what I had, and I’ll say it’s better than what I had. Then I’ll look at it again: Maybe it isn’t better that way, what I had was better. But that’s called being a very objective judge of your own material. And you’re doing it alone. Basically you’re in a room by yourself, unless you’re co-writing with somebody. I mean, I can do that with Elvis Costello because he’s such a good musician, such a brilliant lyricist.
You benefitted from a time when you could go in and work and rework a song to get it just right. Now you have to get in and get out.
You’re so right on that. And the other thing is, too, it was such a healthier time on radio. You could have a record played independently of what was going on nationally. Say, in Raleigh-Durham, a DJ was getting requests for that record, so the distributor would get more records in from the record company. There were independent stations. It wasn’t like ClearChannel controlling the playlist, a very small playlist. And you could break a record. Like, New Orleans would pick it up. It was a healthier time to build a record.
And to nurture artists.
Well, yeah. You take a record company now: They sign an artist. That first single from the first album maybe didn’t happen, and they look at the bottom line and cut the artist. A&M Records was always great. They kept artists. That model is totally gone now.
You had some very good timing, coming in pre-Beatles during the Brill Building era of songwriting teams.
Timing was great, and you know, if you pick out some songs, say “Alfie” or “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” if I wrote those songs now, I probably wouldn’t get ’em recorded.
During your big 1960s run, you were resolutely outside of rock 'n' roll.
'Cause I hated rock ’n’ roll. You play me a Bill Haley & the Comets record, I’m just, "Please, turn it off."
So you weren’t too impressed when the L.A. band Love covered “My Little Red Book” in 1966 in rough-and-ready garage style?
I was happy it became a hit. It was very different. I mean, they changed a lot of stuff on me. But I made the original record with Manfred Mann, with the right chords, though they were hard chords for a rock ’n’ roll band to learn. They had a problem with me, though, just because those chords were not in the rock ’n’ roll vocabulary.
Though you were miles apart stylistically, you and the Beatles both introduced interesting chords into pop music.
I come from a world of growing up with bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, very influenced by Brazilian music. I work out with a trainer three times a week, and that’s what I’ve got playing always.
You’ve been more of a behind-the-scenes presence than a performer: What do you like most about performing?
Maybe it’s because of the times. Maybe it’s things that have been said to me, maybe an encounter in an airport. Somebody’ll come up to me and say, like, eight years ago I was going through chemotherapy, and I kept playing this one album of yours. It helped me. You hear things like that, and then you move to a stage. It’s a way of meeting an audience of people, and you think there’s a distinct possibility to touch some people, make them feel good, make them feel emotional, make them feel something. That’s my wish and hope. That’s what I get from it. It’s been a very good experience. To be blunt, I never take anything for granted.