Burt Bacharach showed a knack for music at an early age and earned an education to match, studying composition and performance at schools in New York, Montreal, and California, and learning after hours by watching the jazz greats of the '40s and '50s. He found his true calling in the '50s as a composer-for-hire, scoring minor hits (including the theme to The Blob) and working as a musical director for Marlene Dietrich. In the following decade, he and occasional collaborator Hal David became one of the most successful songwriting teams of all time. Bacharach provided the cool, sophisticated melodies, while David's lyrics summoned up an adult world of possibility and heartache. And they found a peerless interpreter in Dionne Warwick: The trio's greatest hits of the period include "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Trains And Boats And Planes," "Walk On By," "Message To Michael," "Promises, Promises," and many more. In spite of his professed obsession with work, Bacharach lived a public private life, romancing and marrying Angie Dickinson while mounting a successful musical (Promises, Promises) with David, working on film soundtracks, and producing hits. The Bacharach-David-Warwick era came to a bitter close in the early '70s, however, after the songwriters' movie musical of Lost Horizon flopped, they split acrimoniously, and Warwick's record label forced her to sue them for breach of contract. Bacharach resurfaced only sporadically in the '70s and '80s, turning out the occasional hit with his new wife, Carole Bayer Sager. Their 1991 divorce marked a personal low point shortly before a professional resurrection. Embraced by a new generation of fans (including the members of Oasis), Bacharach popped up as the epitome of '60s swinger cool in the Austin Powers movies, collaborated with Elvis Costello for 1998's great Painted From Memory, and became the subject of numerous retrospectives. Bacharach's latest project provides another high point. The new Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach pairs him with the venerable Ron Isley for a revelatory tour through the Bacharach catalog, with a few new songs thrown in for good measure. It's a career-best vocal performance for Isley and confirmation of Bacharach's sustained power as a producer and arranger, and Bacharach was eager to talk about it in a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: How did your new album come about?
Burt Bacharach: I've always had a good relationship with the people at Dreamworks. We had talked about doing a project of some kind, maybe an album with nine or ten different singers, each writing a song with me. It never seemed to happen. That's a hard one to do, because it's hard to get permission from the different labels, say, for Sting. But the relationship has always been a close one. So, they had this project… And [executive producer] John McClain was very involved. He's terrific, you know? He's a powerhouse. He's a machine. He makes things happen. The Isleys were coming off… Well, when we had our first meeting with Mo Ostin and the rest of the group the Isleys record with, R. Kelly was just about to come out [with his Isley collaboration], and McClain said, "It's going to be a number-one album." And they were coming on top of another album that was huge. I was very glad to see that they were back with that kind of force, that kind of selling power and acceptance. They've been around a long time.
O: You've had a definitive female interpreter of your songs with Dionne Warwick, but you've never really had a male equivalent, although you've worked with a lot of great singers.
BB: Yeah, I worked with Chuck Jackson, and I've always been attracted to the more soulful singers. Ron [Isley] is a spectacular singer. I'm not sure there's anyone better. The beauty of it was, I signed on to do five or seven songs. Then they were going to use two other producers to finish the album. Which is always smart with a record company: You don't want to commit to one producer, because you don't know how it's going to turn out. But after the first five… And incidentally, we did it all live, so everyone was playing at the same time. Which was a huge thrill, because hardly anyone records this way.
O: Is that your preferred way of recording?
BB: Well, it always was. There's a real interconnection with everybody involved with recording. You've got a drummer relating to what the singer's singing.
O: As a perfectionist, however, you've got to be somewhat attracted to what can be done with computers these days.
BB: Sure, you can make it absolutely perfect. You can get a perfect bass line. You can spend a day… I've seen bands spend a day on a couple of bars of a bass line, making a loop. But when you peel it all back, it's the overall picture, you know? You can get a lot of stuff sounding really great with synthesizers. But if you peel it back, is there a melody there? Is there something that's memorable, not perfect and slick? [The new album] was thrilling for everyone. Listen, those vocals of Ronnie's on "Alfie," that's take number one. With everybody playing. We had a string balance, a rhythm balance. There was even me talking a little on my talkback mic, which they were able to lose when they mixed. I didn't even know they were running tape. To walk out of there with five songs done in one day… What I liked so much was being able to work with Ronnie. Spending time at my house at the piano. Getting the feel of where he might go. Taking out some licks that were really great, that he might not remember, and putting them on the arrangement. Reminding him how special that one line is. And then to try and rearrange all these arrangements I've worked with for so many years. I've done "The Look Of Love" one way for so many years, and it was great to get inside and do it totally different.
O: You're known for your melodies. But you grew up loving bebop, and you studied a lot of avant-garde classical music. Do you see those genres' influence in your music?
BB: I see the influence. I'm glad I learned all the rules. To orchestrate… I'm always learning about orchestrating. Here, we had four isolation booths. You don't need to bring a flugelhorn player in to play on "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," because he's playing in an iso booth in one of the studios with a camera, so he can see what's going on. Melody is key, though.
O: It seems almost impossible that such dynamic music could come out of the tiny office cubicles of the Brill Building, where you and Hal David worked. Why do you think that arrangement worked so well?
BB: Because it was the acceptable way. The window didn't open, and Hal smoked all the time. You went to work every day. You worked at home away from each other. I always liked that, to do some time with a person in a room, and then to get away. The same with Hal. I've never been big on sitting down and writing a song from top to bottom on the spot. I want to look at it again. It profits from it.
O: You don't compose at the piano very often, either, do you?
BB: I'll take it down at the piano, but for me, too many great songs have been written at the piano by too many composers. I'm never going to knock that. I get the whole line, the length of where things are going. Orchestrally, too: where elements should come in, where they shouldn't come in, how they should be voiced. Otherwise, you go to familiar spots. You know where your hands go on the piano, and you don't hear the long lines. I don't. I'll then go check it out. Do I have the right chord? How about if I invert it this way? I can pretty much hear the harmonization, too. A lot of these songs are born at the same time as the orchestrations. As they get written, I can hear what should be going on.
O: When you worked with David, how often did you write with a particular singer in mind?
BB: Well, certainly once we had Dionne… She was an artist. As we spent more time in the studio with her, we could see more and more what she could do. Although if you look at the first record we ever made with Dionne, that's a pretty risky song right there. She's so musical. We'd always be prepared. I'm a big believer in being prepared when you go into the studio. That's how you get five songs done in a day. You come in unprepared, and you don't.
O: I'm not going to ask you to pick a favorite interpreter, but have you ever heard a version of one of your songs where the people doing it just didn't get it?
BB: Many, many times. But I'm not going to name them.
O: Do you ever feel like offering input?
BB: No, because they're on their own. Listen, I've heard songs of mine done better than I did it. Aretha [Franklin]'s record of "I Say A Little Prayer" is a better record than the one I made with Dionne.
O: We recently interviewed Conor Oberst, who started songwriting and recording at age 14. When did you start?
BB: I certainly wasn't recording. I was learning piano.
O: Has anyone recorded your first song, "The Night Plane To Heaven"?
BB: I was in college, and to my knowledge, nobody has recorded it.
O: Is it worth revisiting?
BB: That song? I think it's probably bad.
O: You worked as a piano player and arranger for hire when you started out, including for the Harlem Globetrotters. What did you contribute to the Globetrotters show?
BB: With the Globetrotters, I had a chance to go to Africa with them. I was really young then. I guess it was a Christmas show for troops, at bases in Libya. I always really wanted to play basketball, to be put in with the dummy team, a pushover team. But I never got in the game.
O: Around the same time, you first started working for Marlene Dietrich. Did you learn much from working with her?
BB: I learned a little bit more about perfection. She was an incredible perfectionist, which just reinforced my philosophy about getting as close to 100 percent as possible, on record or anything. Musically, it wasn't… I wrote a lot of arrangements for her, but it wasn't great musically.
O: When you got an assignment like writing a song for The Blob, how did you approach it?
BB: It was one of those periods where you were hired to provide promotional songs. I did a bunch of them when I was at Famous Music. You got the contract and you got paid $500, something like that. The publishing company basically owned it, and you took your writer's share. I guess I just wrote it. Maybe we saw the picture, maybe we read a synopsis, I don't know. It was a long time ago. But it was a hit, and I kind of like it. I still do it in the act. It's kind of humorous, the way we do it.
O: When did you realize that you'd found a partner in Hal David?
BB: We were all writing for different people. Maybe when we first had a couple of hits. Then we found Dionne and had a commitment to write for her. Then Chuck Jackson, The Shirelles… We began having this success, and there was no need to write with anybody else. His lyrics… Some of the lyrics are totally brilliant. It didn't mean that much to me at the time, because it was just what words would sound good with my notes. But now, boy, a lyric like "Alfie"… Jesus, man, you know? "A House Is Not A Home." He's brilliant.
O: When you compose, do you work from lyrics or vice versa?
BB: Either way. Like with "Promises, Promises," we had the lyric first, because it had to be believable coming out of the book. It almost had to be a continuation of Neil Simon's dialogue.
O: Have you heard The White Stripes' version of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself"?
BB: It's different, you know? I'm glad there's a lot of significance attached to that record. It's not my favorite song that I ever wrote, you know? I think Ronnie and I talked about recording that, but we didn't really want to do it.
O: Do you watch American Idol?
BB: Why, yes. I have a vested interest, because I worked with those kids last year. I liked this year very much, making "What The World Needs Now" with the 10 finalists. I thought they sang so well. I think it's very good for music, because you get music on television.
O: And they play you all the time.
BB: Same in England. But not just looking at it selfishly, it's just very valuable that live music is heard. So I'm in favor of it, and some good singers have come out of there.
O: You can't fake it on stage like you can in the studio.
BB: No, you can't. No tone corrections. No tuning corrections.
O: If you had to do Lost Horizon over again, what would you do differently?
BB: I wouldn't do it. When you try to do a musical on film, you don't get a chance to rewrite stuff in Boston.
O: It also came out at a time when there wasn't a lot of interest in movie musicals.
BB: That's right. And there's something about somebody opening their mouth and just singing a song. But I'm not ashamed of the score. That's pretty damn good. But when you heard them in the picture…
O: Is your collaboration with Dr. Dre still in the works?
BB: Yeah. Dre gave me some drum loops. That's just what I was listening to when you called. I'm making an album for Sony in England which will be more cutting-edge than anything I've ever done. It's mostly instrumental. That's what they want for this particular project. Not 10 hits. Or 10 attempts at hits.
O: Your music kind of fell out of fashion from the '70s until the early '90s. When did you feel hip again?
BB: You don't start feeling hip again. These things happen, and then you feel good. You know, I've been up or down three or four times in this business. That's part of it. I don't think you can sustain at one level. Not as an artist, and not as a writer.
O: The first sign that people were rediscovering your music seemed to be when your picture turned up on the cover of the first Oasis album.
BB: England has always discovered or rediscovered me. The first album I did was a Top 10 album there. In this country, it sold 5,000 albums. In any kind of rediscovery, they are there. Though I haven't actually had times when I was away over there. Noel Gallagher… He wasn't even born when "This Guy's In Love With You" came out. Boy, do I love that track with Ronnie. It's fun. Listen to where he goes with that melodically. He's just one brave cat in the studio.
O: You're a horse enthusiast. Does the track inspire your music?
BB: Well, that goes up and down, too. No, I use it to get my mind off the music. Good relief. Something else. You know? I love horse racing. I've owned horses on and off.
O: Both you and David have claimed not to remember the particular inspiration for many songs. Can you speculate why?
BB: Hey, my life is like a stockpile. It's how you live your life, and that comes out, fortunately for me, in my music. That's how it's expressed. And I work at it. It's not sitting around waiting to get inspired. I was just listening to those drum loops and thinking where I would take the Polaroids that were already written music.
O: Your music has become inseparable from the idea of the swinging '60s. Do you identify particularly with that era?
BB: Nah. I never took too much time off to celebrate having a hit. I was just working: "Next song. Next record. Next artist. Bam." It was a very inspiring time. "Go to Puerto Rico for three days' vacation? I don't think so. I've got two more things to write." I personally do not identify with any period. I'm a romantic at heart. That's why I love Ravel. The piano concertos of Rachmaninoff. It's called melody. Hah!
O: Is your song on the latest Aretha Franklin album a new one?
BB: Yes. It was the first song I wrote with Jerry Leiber and Jed Leiber. It's good. I liked it. I think it was probably easier making this whole album with Ronnie than one track with Aretha. You've gotta go to Detroit and wait to see if they want strings on it, or if they'll let you put strings on it. That's what I love about these guys over at Dreamworks. You want a green light, and you get a green light.
O: Well, you're Burt Bacharach. You should be able to do whatever you want.
BB: Not necessarily. Didn't I just tell you how tough it was getting the record finished with Aretha? Okay, you know how this business is. You're in it, so you know it.