One of the most accomplished pop music composers of the 20th century, Burt Bacharach, has died at age 94. The musical maestro behind 52 top 40 hits including “Alfie,” “Walk on By,” “Promises, Promises,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” Bacharach had an untouchable run in the 1960s and 1970s with a wide range of pop, R&B and soul artists. According to the Associated Press, Bacharach died on Wednesday (Feb. 8) at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes.
Working with lyricist partner Hal David, Bacharach and David were dubbed the “Rodgers & Hart” of the ’60s, with a unique style featuring instantly hummable melodies and atypical arrangements that folded in everything from jazz and pop to Brazilian grooves and rock.
Many of their songs were popularized by Dionne Warwick, whose singing style inspired Bacharach to experiment with new rhythms and harmonies, composing such innovative melodies as “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Bacharach’s music cut across age lines, appealing to teens as well as an older generation who could appreciate the Tin Pan Alley feel of some of David’s lyrics. His fresh style could keep the listener offbalance but was intensely moving, defying convention with uplifting melodies that contrasted the often bittersweet lyrics.
His songs were sung by such major artists as Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Tom Jones, the Carpenters and B.J. Thomas, as well as hundreds of others. His first No. 1 on a Billboard chart came in a genre not typically associated with the dextrous composer: country. Bacharach/David’s “The Story of My Life,” recorded by Marty Robbins, topped the Hot Country Songs chart in 1958. That same year, Perry Como took the duo’s “Magic Moments” to No. 4 on Billboard‘s Most Played by Disk Jockeys chart, a pre-cursor to the Hot 100.
Bacharach ventured into motion picture songwriting, creating indelible soundtrack songs such as “The Look of Love” and the Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” during this fertile period (he also scored a pre-acclaim Hot 100 entry with the titular theme song to the Steve McQueen horror flick The Blob in 1958, with The Five Blobs’ “The Blob” hitting No. 33). The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid theme song “Raindrops” earned Bacharach two Oscars (best score and best theme song) as well as a Grammy for best score.
He also won an Oscar for Best Song for “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” which he shared with Carole Bayer Sager, Peter Allen and singer Christopher Cross. Bacharach’s compositions received three other Oscar nominations: for “What’s New Pussycat?,” (from the movie of the same name in 1965) “Alfie,” (movie of the same name 1966) and “The Look of Love” (from Casino Royale, 1967)
Bacharach and David team scored films as well in the ’70s, doing the music for “Lost Horizon” and “Howard the Duck,” after which they separated for a short duration.
Handsome and suave, Bacharach was somewhat of a matinee idol. Sammy Cahn dubbed him the only composer who didn’t look like a dentist. His longtime marriage to actress Angie Dickinson fueled that “hip” image. He was also known for his ownership and breeding of thoroughbred race horses for more than 30 years and his frequent attendance at the Kentucky Derby. One of his horses, Burt’s Heartlight No. One (named for a top 5 1982 hit collaboration with Neil Diamond), was a champion in 1983 and another, Soul of the Matter, was a Breeder’s cup starter in 1994 and 1995.
Mike Myers spoofed Bacharach’s ladies man/raconteur reputation in the first Austin Powers movie, in which the composer had a cameo. He collaborated with Elvis Costello on a version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” on the soundtrack to the 1999 Powers sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me (also appearing in the film) and, in 2002, he was featured in the credit roll of the third Powers film, which also had a remake of “Alfie” as “Austin,” sung by the Bangles‘ Susanna Hoffs.
Burt Freeman Bacharach was born in Kansas City, MO on May 12, 1928. His father was on the staff of Colliers magazine, where he was a nationally syndicated columnist. Dreaming of becoming a football player, Bacharach acquiesced to his mother’s wishes that he take piano lessons and playing piano in a high school band.
After discovering bop music, Bacharach attended Montreal’s McGill University, where he earned a B.A. in music in 1948. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and was shipped off to Germany, where he met singer Vic Damone and toured the First Army area as a “concert pianist.”
After the service, he moved to New York and played in clubs. He met David while both were working in the legendary songwriting mecca the Brill Building.
In the ’60s, he stretched pop music compositions beyond the norm with more sophisticated chord progressions and melodies that alighted in non-standard time signatures: instead of the typical 4/4, they often bounded in 5/4 or 7/8. He broke the rules but remained steadfast to one principle: the melody must be acceptable to the average listener. His musical heroes included Harry James and Dizzy Gillespie, who he used a fake ID to see at a 52nd Street nightclub as a teen. Later, he would headline in Las Vegas at Harrah’s Club and the Riviera Hotel and co-host TV variety shows including The Hollywood Palace with Angie Dickinson.
During his early years, A&R people would criticize his work as not being danceable. Bacharach became a producer and arranger out of self defense, he admitted. “His songs are a lot more musical than the stuff we write and a lot more technical,” Paul McCartney told Newsweek in 1965.
His work has been reissued in a number of sets, including What the World Needs Now: Burt Bacharach Classics, as well as a three-disc box set of his songs entitled The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection and 2013’s 6-disc collection Anyone Who Had a Heart — The Art of the Songwriter.
Bacharach wrote and produced a string of hit songs with his third wife, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, including: “Making Love,” as well as “Romantic Song,” which was a hit for Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson. They also wrote and produced “They Don’t Make Them like They Used To,” recorded by Kenny Rogers for Tough Guys, and the theme from the film Baby Boom.
Bacharach and Sager won a Grammy Award for song of the year for Dionne Warwick and Friends’ 1985 AIDS research charity smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” and were nominated for the R&B song “On My Own,” recorded by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald. They made record history by having two songs top three of pop music’s yearend record lists. More recently, he collaborated on a 1999 Grammy-winning collaborative album with Elvis Costello entitled Painted From Memory. In 2002, a musical based on the Bacharach/David canon entitled What the World Needs Now opened in Sydney, Australia.
The 2000s opened with collaborations on hit songs for British Pop Idol winner Will Young (2002’s “What’s in Goodbye”), a 2003 joint album with R&B icon Ronald Isley, Isley Meets Bacharach: Here I Am and the 2005 solo album, At This Time, which featured guests including Costello and Rufus Wainwright; the album, the first under his solo name in 26 years and the first to feature lyrics written by Bacharach, won a Grammy for best pop instrumental. Just six months before his death at age 91, David was on hand to receive the 2012 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, marking the first time a songwriting team had been honored with the prize.
He published his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart, in 2013.
Far from retiring, the eight-time Grammy winner performed at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival in the UK, played with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in March 2016 and was slated to perform for an intimate audience at the June 2016 Caudwell Children Butterfly Ball fundraiser in London. His 2016 tour schedule included a variety of other high-profile gigs, including stops at Vienna’s Jazz Fest Wien, the Monte Carlo Sporting Summer Festival, Copenhagen Jazz Festival and the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival in the Dutch Antilles in September.
Bacharach made a rare foray into political commentary in 2018 with “Live to See Another Day,” a song dedicated to the survivors of school gun violence, whose proceeds were earmarked for the Sandy Hook Promise charity. His final released musical composition was a joint 2020 EP with songwriter and performer Daniel Tashian, Blue Umbrella, which earned the pair a Grammy nomination for best traditional pop vocal album.
Bacharach is survived by his adopted son, Christopher, as well as two children with his fourth wife, Jane Hansen, Oliver and daughter Raleigh.