Pop

Burt Bacharach at L.A.'s Saban Theatre: Still Performing His Incomparable Songs at 91

Burt Bacharach
Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

Burt Bacharach performs on stage at Kelvingrove Park on July 26, 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.

"You may be asking, why am I still doing this at this time in my life? It occupies my time. It keeps me from watching the news."

Burt Bacharach doesn't need to perform -- he wrote literally dozens of hits that have made him a wealthy man. And at 91, Bacharach has reached an age when most people prefer to take it easy. Luckily for us, he doesn't believe in taking it easy.

So there he was on stage at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Friday (Dec. 13), performing some of the most beloved songs of the modern pop era. Among them: "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "This Guy's in Love With You," "Walk on By," "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart." And that's just drawing from an opening medley of some of his prized '60s classics.

Bacharach addressed this issue head-on.

"You may be asking, why am I still doing this at this time in my life? It occupies my time. It keeps me from watching the news. It gets me off of MSNBC."

At another point, in introducing "Mexican Divorce," a 1961 song he and Bob Hilliard wrote for The Drifters, Bacharach hinted at his political leanings.

"It was a time before anyone was thinking of building a big beautiful wall."

Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote some of the best and most enduring songs of the 1960s. Their songs rank with the Beatles and Motown as one of the most undeniable bodies of work of that exceptional musical decade. Bacharach's melodies often have a light touch; David's lyrics go deep. Their songs include some of the most moving breakup songs ever written, including "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

The set also included "Don't Make Me Over," Dionne Warwick's first hit (1962) and an early feminist anthem: "Accept me for what I am/ Accept me for the things that I do."

Bacharach and David split in the early '70s, but Bacharach has continued writing. He had a second wave of success in the 1980s with his then-wife Carole Bayer Sager. Bacharach didn't mention her in the show, but he should have. The Bacharach/Sager songs won't make anyone forget the Bacharach/David songs, but they hold up. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," "That's What Friends Are For" and "On My Own" -- all No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 -- are solid songs. Of their less famous works, "Making Love" has a wistful, bittersweet quality that was ideal for the 1982 coming-out film for which it was written.

Bacharach also included more recent songs, such as "Live to See Another Day," which he co-wrote with Rudy Pérez. ("We wrote this when there seemed to be another school shooting every week for a whole god damn year," he said pointedly.)

In addition to being exceptional on a musical level, the show was smartly conceived. David's lyric for "Wives and Lovers," a 1963 hit for Jack Jones, is hopelessly dated and chauvinistic. ("Hey little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup/ Soon he will open the door.") But in every other way, it's a great song -- it was the first Bacharach/David song to receive a Grammy nomination for song of the year. So would he just drop the song to avoid the issue? Include it anyway and risk seeming clueless? He included it, but interrupted it and said

"Can you believe this lyric? This could never be written at this time. Back then, it was OK. So apologies for that."

Bacharach received excellent support from his backup singers and musicians, including his 26-year old son, Oliver Bacharach, who played keyboards. Bacharach (the elder) also sang a few songs, despite a voice that is average at best. This was the one gift he wasn't given. He was movie-star handsome and was gifted with an unmatched melodic sense, but he can't sing a lick. But somehow, his vocal limitations added to the poignancy of such nakedly emotional songs as "Alfie" and "A House Is Not a Home."

Bacharach had an excellent rapport with the audience, sharing stories about writing with Jerry Leiber and recording sessions with Aretha Franklin. He was loose and uninhibited in his stage patter, especially in the segment introducing "Mexican Divorce," in which he talked, from personal experience, about the subject.

The audience response was strong and loving. Audience members don't know how many more times they'll have to see these songs performed by the man who composed them. Bacharach made note of the warm response just before his final song, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," which was closing in on the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 50 years ago this week.

"When I was first starting out in this business, I was told Beverly Hills is a very tough place to play. In total sincerity, I enjoyed myself playing my music with you."