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What Burt Needs Now

TV and stage revues and an album with Elvis Costello have Burt Bacharach looking ahead.

April 12, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Raindrops are indeed falling gently on Burt Bacharach's head as he steps toward a beachfront restaurant in Santa Monica, wearing one of his trademark sweaters under a jacket.

It's a perfect opportunity for a quip from the composer who co-wrote the Oscar-winning "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" almost three decades ago, during his phenomenally successful partnership with lyricist Hal David.

But Bacharach lets the moment pass. It's not his style to draw attention to himself. For someone blessed with an actor's good looks and who has been in the public eye for so long from concert tours and TV specials, he is surprisingly shy and understated.

In fact, Bacharach seems a bit uncomfortable looking back at it all. At 69, he prefers to focus on the work ahead, including an album of songs he is writing with Elvis Costello.

It sounds like one of pop's all-time odd couples: the king of '60s pop teaming with a singer-songwriter who was once called the angry young man of rock.

But Costello is just one of many contemporary rock artists who have expressed their love of the hits that Bacharach and David wrote and produced, chiefly for Dionne Warwick. Among them: "Alfie," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," "Walk on By" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

In an article in the British rock magazine Mojo, Bacharach's music was described as a marriage of "unexpected rhythms with daring melodies. It shimmered with rich jazz-like changes and complex harmonies. It teased with its uneven form and challenged with its mild yet exotic dissonance."

Several rock acts--including Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five--joined Bacharach onstage to perform his songs last week in New York. The program, which also features such artists as Warwick, Luther Vandross and Wynonna, will be aired Wednesday at 6 p.m. on TNT.

In addition, several of Bacharach's songs with David are featured in "What the World Needs Now . . . A Musical Fable," a new Broadway-bound musical revue that opened April 3 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. But reviewers didn't like much about it except the music.

Bacharach, who has also written such hits as "That's What Friends Are For" and the Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" with other lyricists, lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Jane, a former ski instructor. They have a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Bacharach also has a son, 12, from his marriage to songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and an adult daughter from his marriage to actress Angie Dickinson.

Bacharach spoke about the hit years with an attention to detail that underscores the drive that still pushes him as a songwriter.

Question: When you were turning out the hits in the '60s and '70s, what was the biggest thrill? Was it finishing the song, or getting it down on record, or seeing it go up the charts?

Answer: They were all thrills--particularly once the labels started letting us make the records. You didn't have some A&R man who'd go, "Burt, I like that song, but it's in 3/4 time. If you put it in 4/4 time, we'll record it."

The trouble is if you made it in 4/4 time, you ruin the song, which I did a few times in the early days. I wanted him to use the song and I also thought that maybe he's right--he's been in the business a long time and so forth. But once they let us produce the records and we were turning out hits, we didn't have to deal with that anymore.

Q: When you had that string with Dionne Warwick, was there a point where you felt invincible?

A: Heavens no, not at all. Each record was a new challenge. Even if you start off with what you think is a good song, there's the question of whether you are going to capture it on record. Can you get all the musicians to play it just right and then get the right vocal? Remember, these records were cut live. We'd normally do three songs in a three-hour session.

Today, you can go on forever. If the guitarist doesn't work out, you can bring in another one the next day. You can do each instrument at a time. I'm not putting down what they do today. In fact, I find it very addictive . . . taking the time to get just the right, say, bass part. But it's not the way we did it in those days.

Q: Did you ever have second thoughts about a song once you got into the studio?

A: We were always wrestling with the music. I can't tell you how many nights I'd make a record, then we'd maybe go out for a couple of drinks and get home exhausted about 2 or 3 in the morning. I was living alone in an apartment in New York. Everything was done on the record and you felt good. But then I'd wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning and go, "I should have put strings in this part" or "I should have done the voice different." But it was too late and it was torture every time, the second-guessing.

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