Burt Freeman Bacharach is an American composer, songwriter, record producer, and pianist who composed hundreds of pop songs from the late 1950s through the 1980s, many in collaboration with lyricist Hal David. A six-time Grammy Award winner and three-time Academy Award winner, Bacharach's songs have been recorded by more than 1,000 different artists. As of 2014, he had written 73 US and 52 UK Top 40 hits. He is considered one of the most important composers of 20th-century popular music.
His music is characterized by unusual chord progressions, influenced by his background in jazz harmony, and uncommon selections of instruments for small orchestras. Most of Bacharach's and David's hits were written specifically for and performed by Dionne Warwick, but earlier associations (from 1957 to 1963) saw the composing duo work with Marty Robbins, Perry Como, Gene McDaniels, and Jerry Butler. Following the initial success of these collaborations, Bacharach went on to write hits for Gene Pitney, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Jackie DeShannon, Bobbie Gentry, Tom Jones, Herb Alpert, B. J. Thomas, the Carpenters, among numerous other artists. He arranged, conducted, and produced much of his recorded output.
Songs that he co-wrote which have topped the Billboard Hot 100 include "This Guy's in Love with You" (1968), "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" (1969), "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (1970), "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" (1981), and "That's What Friends Are For" (1986).
A significant figure in easy listening, Bacharach is described by writer William Farina as "a composer whose venerable name can be linked with just about every other prominent musical artist of his era". In later years, his songs were newly appropriated for the soundtracks of major feature films, by which time "tributes, compilations, and revivals were to be found everywhere". He has been noted for his influence on later musical movements such as chamber pop and Shibuya-kei. In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Bacharach and David at number 32 for their list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. In 2012, the duo received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the first time the honor has been given to a songwriting team.
Early life and education
Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in the Kew Gardens section of New York City, graduating from Forest Hills High School in 1946. He is the son of Irma M. (née Freeman) and Mark Bertram "Bert" Bacharach, a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist. His mother was an amateur painter and songwriter who was responsible for making Bacharach learn piano during his childhood. His family was Jewish, but he says that they did not practice or give much attention to their religion. "But the kids I knew were Catholic," he adds. "I was Jewish but I didn't want anybody to know about it."
Bacharach showed a keen interest in jazz as a teenager, disliking his classical piano lessons, and often used a fake ID to gain admission into 52nd Street nightclubs. He got to hear bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, whose style would later influence his songwriting.
Bacharach studied music (Bachelor of Music, 1948) at Montreal's McGill University, under Helmut Blume, at the Mannes School of Music, and at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, California. During this period he studied a range of music, including jazz harmony, which has since been important to songs which are generally considered pop music. His composition teachers included Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, and Bohuslav Martinů. Bacharach cites Milhaud as his biggest influence, under whose guidance he wrote a "Sonatina for Violin, Oboe and Piano."
Beginning work as a musician
Bacharach served a tour of duty in the United States Army during the Korean War from 1950 to 1952. There he served in Germany and in Korea as a concert pianist playing at officers' clubs and arranging and playing music for dance bands. Following his discharge, Bacharach spent the next three years as a pianist and conductor for popular singer Vic Damone. Damone recalls: "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." He later worked in similar capacity for various other singers, including Polly Bergen, Steve Lawrence, the Ames Brothers and Paula Stewart (who became his first wife). When he was unable to find better jobs, Bacharach worked at resorts in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he accompanied singers such as Joel Grey.
In 1956, at the age of 28, Bacharach's productivity increased when composer Peter Matz recommended him to Marlene Dietrich, who needed an arranger and conductor for her nightclub shows. He then became part-time music director for Dietrich, the actress and singer who had been an international screen star in the 1930s. They toured worldwide off and on until the early 1960s; when they were not touring, he wrote songs. As a result of his collaboration with Dietrich, he gained his first major recognition as a conductor and arranger.
In her autobiography, Dietrich wrote that Bacharach loved touring in Russia and Poland because the violinists were "extraordinary", and musicians were greatly appreciated by the public. He liked Edinburgh and Paris, along with the Scandinavian countries, and "he also felt at home in Israel", she wrote, where music was similarly "much revered". Their working relationship ceased by the early 1960s, after about five years with Dietrich, with Bacharach telling her that he wanted to devote himself full-time to songwriting. She thought of her time with him as "seventh heaven ... As a man, he embodied everything a woman could wish for. ... How many such men are there? For me he was the only one."