Burt Bacharach: A Musical Giant Turns 93

Over the course of a sixty-plus year career, composer Burt Bacharach has amassed an amazing string of popular hits, and he's still going strong.

Posted in , May 11, 2020

Legendary composer Burt Bacharach

Few composers have experienced the longevity and success that Burt Bacharach has. And Bacharach, who turned 92 on May 12, 2021, is still keeping busy.

Bacharach, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City. His father was a syndicated newspaper columnist, and his mother was an amateur songwriter who insisted that her son take piano lessons. As a teen, Bacharach spent a great deal of time in Manhattan, listening to musical greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie in the jazz clubs on 52nd Street.

Bacharach earned a Bachelor of Music from McGill University in Montreal, which he followed with further studies at NYC's Mannes School of Music and the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California. After a stint in the Army, Bacharach spent three years as pianist and conductor for Vic Damone, who once wrote of his former accompanist, "Burt was clearly bound to go out on his own. He was an exceptionally talented, classically trained pianist, with very clear ideas on the musicality of songs, how they should be played, and what they should sound like. I appreciated his musical gifts."

After working with singers such as Polly Bergen, Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers and Joel Grey, Bacharach was hired as arranger and conductor and eventually musical director for Marlene Dietrich's nightclub act. When Dietrich wasn't performing, Bacharach was writing songs.

Bacharach and David met in 1957, and later that year, two songs they wrote together became back-to-back number one hits in the U.K.: The Story of My Life, recorded by Michael Holliday and Magic Moments, which was a hit on both sides of the pond for Perry Como. Those two records marked the first two songs by the same composer to top the charts consecutively in the UK.

Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick
     Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick

In the early to mid-'60s, Bacharach and David were impressively prolific, writing more than 100 songs together. In 1961, Bacharach met a young singer named Dionne Warwick, and it's fair to say they were a match made in heaven. Warwick's recordings of Bacharach and David's songs sold over 12 million copies over the next two decades, with 22 Top 40 hits, including Walk on By, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie, I Say a Little Prayer, I'll Never Fall in Love Again and Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, among others.

Bacharach was a success writing for Hollywood, too. He composed the theme song for the campy 1958 horror classic The Blob and went on to write hit songs for movies such as What's New Pussycat? (1965), Alfie (1966), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Arthur (1981), among others. He also contributed music and songs to many television programs over the years.

Bacharach and David also conquered Broadway, when they wrote the music for the Tony-nominated 1968 musical Promises, Promises. (Warwick had a hit record with the show's title song.)

In the 1980s, Bacharach, no longer collaborating with David, began working with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager (the two were also married for a time), and the hits kept coming: Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) by Christopher Cross, Heartlight by Neil Diamond, Making Love by Roberta Flack, That's What Friends Are For by Warwick and On My Own, which was recorded as a duet by Patti LaBelle with Michael McDonald.

At 88, Bacharach worked with Joseph Bauer to compose and arrange the score for A Boy Called Po, a film based on a true story about a child with autism. Bacharach's daughter Nikki, who died by suicide at 40, had gone undiagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and Bacharach asked to work with director John Asher in tribute to her. "It touched me very much," Bacharach told the show business publication Variety. "I had gone through this with Nikki. Sometimes you do things that make you feel. It's not about money or rewards."

In 2013, at age 85, Bacharach became a published author with his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. He's a six-time Grammy Award winner and a three-time Academy Award winner. He's written 73 songs that made the top 40 in the U.S. and 52 in the U.K., and his songs have been recorded by more than 1,000 different artists and groups. He played himself in all three Austin Powers movies. And he even collaborated with hip hop legend Dr. Dre. What other songwriter's résumé includes both Perry Como and Dr. Dre? And he’s still going strong, releasing the album Blue Umbrella (The Complete Recordings), written with songwriter Daniel Tashian, in January 2020 (the 2020 EP version of that release was Grammy-nominated).

But for all the rewards Bacharach's hard work have brought him, he's always been one to give back, supporting such worthy charities as the American Foundation for AIDS Research, Autism Speaks, and the cancer research and treatment center City of Hope.

An inspiring artist, an remarkable career, a long life well lived.

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