Burt Bacharach – the man with the magic melodies
Tuesday 15 May 2018 Jørgen Nielsen
When Burt Bacharach performs live, he brings three singers on stage. They have big shoes to fill as his greatest hits include collaborations with artists such as Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield. However, the bandleader picks his people carefully.
‘They are great!’ he assures us over the telephone from Los Angeles. Yet, he also has a dog in this race: ’Truth be told, I am mainly a composer and an arranger, and I don’t start singing before the concert has progressed to certain point’, Burt Bacharach says and continues with a little laugh: ’I want to my audience to be in the right state of mind before I open my mouth! Not because I am a bad singer, and there is something real about a composer who sits at the piano and sings. But I want the audience on my side before that happens!’
For six decades, Burt Bacharach has written amazing songs for many vocalists, which helped kick-start his great singing career. He himself has rarely been recorded: ’There was an A&M album, Something Big, where one can hear me sing; we had a technician who made me sound good – better than I ever will!’
Why do I do it?
A few days before this interview, Burt Bacharach performed with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, bringing in a few of his own musicians in addition to the three singers, who will also be on stage in Aarhus: Josie James, Donna Taylor, and John Pagano.
‘It is a wonderful symphony orchestra, but they are more constrictive than when I play with my own band. We have more room to stretch out and immerse ourselves. With the symphony orchestra, you get half an hour, and time can easily run out if you take a moment to communicate with your audience between songs’ says the man who created so much music during his long life that he could play for a week without repeating himself.
’I want to be in contact with the audience and also have time to play plenty of music both old and new, such as some of the tunes I wrote with Elvis Costello’, Burt says, hinting at what we may expect from the show in Aarhus.
’So why am I still doing this, you might ask’, says the man whose music has been a part of the soundtrack of generations and who at the age of 90 still writes new music every day as long as he is not on tour.
‘I am sitting here in my house in beautiful Pacific Palisades. I can sit at my grand piano and work on new material before I go back to the outside pool. However, the conditions for making music have changed with the digital revolution. Is it even possible to have your music heard, and if you release something, will it last more than two weeks? Bands such as Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Eagles no longer release records. Previously, you would do a tour to promote a release. Now, you tour with your old material to make a living. And I get it! Personally, I think it is great that people still want to book me to do shows around the world, although all the travelling can be exhausting.’
Music and Politics
Burt Bacharach was born to a Jewish family in 1928. He has experienced nearly a decade of global conflict, unrest, and disruption. His crisp voice becomes serious:
’The state of this country is, from my perspective, fucked up, so far out under this president. Every day is chaos. Who will be charged, who will be fired now? He has no interest in protecting our country, is without empathy, and only thinks of himself. Over in Denmark, you must think of him as a bad joke! If your conscience is clean, you don not fire the people in charge of investigating the accusations made against you! But instead of talking more about this, I will claim that working with music helps me stay sane and once I am done talking to you, I will go back to working on a tune that I started writing last night after I recovered from the Pittsburgh concert. My sense is that making music helps me find peace, feel relevant, and have a good time, and if others can feel the same, then I am happy. Here I bring a stack of music and play for you for a few hours, and I know that the world is cruel and complex, but if I can fill the role of a doctor and spread joy, if only for a moment, then I feel like I am contributing.’
It should be no surprise if his show at Aarhus Jazz Festival contains some commentary on ’The Donald’ and his calamities.
Praise from Miles Davis
As a young man, Burt snuck into the jazz clubs on New York’s 52nd Street with a fake ID and heard the big bands of Baise, Dizzy, and Tadd Dameron and Modern Jazz Quartet. He would not become a full-blooded jazz musician during his career, but it was quite the accolade when Miles Davis told him: ’Hey, that song Alfie, that´s a good song.’
’It was Miles himself who said that and if I ever needed any confirmation, that was it’,
Burt laughs over the phone from his music room, which is actually adorned with a large portrait of Miles Davis.
’I recently experienced the real jazz club vibe when I performed at the Seattle venue Jazz Alley, where there is room for a few hundred people, for a few days in a row. It’s about music, you know, and I am comfortable with the bonds that are formed among musicians on stage and with their audience.’
Young Burt played a different role when he experienced the great big world. As a 28-year-old, he became the accompanist and bandleader for the German world star Marlene Dietrich:
’That was one way of experiencing the world, but the music was dreadful’, he laughs, ‘However, Marlene adored me and I could do the job while I wrote songs for other, younger artists’.
Burt Bacharach has often been tempted by offers of working as a permanent arranger in Europe, where jazz music has enjoyed better conditions than in the USA, but it was not to be
‘I have no regrets in life. If I had to pick, it would be that I have not yet recorded with Alicia Keys!’
A Bucket of Tears
On the other hand, celebrities have lined up to record Burt Bacharach tunes, and he wishes to highlight a particular collaboration:
’Try listening to the album Isley Meets Bacharach with soul singer Ron Isley. He wanted to sing Raindrops keep fallin´ on my Head, and I could not understand why until I heard his version and everything made sense.
On the other hand, he is not fond of what sounded like a match made in heaving in 1968: to let Stan Getz record an album with the best of Burt:
‘Stan played as if he was only doing it for the money, so the record did not turn out well’, the composer states with some displeasure.
The music that Burt Bacharach is working on now is a collaboration with producer Billy Mann and will be used for a show dedicated to children with autism. The contributors are Sheryl Crow, Neil Young, and Stephen Stills, who, like Burt, have personal experiences with the disorder. Another big event in the near future is turning 90 on 12 May. However, the day will be preceded by an even bigger life event:
‘I will be handing my daughter Raleigh, 22, her diploma from the University of South Carolina, where I will also receive an honorary doctorate. That will be an emotional rollercoaster. I will need a bucket for all the tears!’
My son Oliver tours with me as a keyboard player, which is a great way of working together as father and son. I was lucky to have been blessed with children late in life and you learn to treat them differently compared to when you were 35 and chasing chart positions. I take my time for them. They have an old father, but you cannot blame them for that!’
When Burt Bacharach and his band swing by Musikhuset Aarhus, they will play a small selection from his great production, but one thing is certain: the encore will be That’s What Friends are for.