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Burt Bacharach, legendary composer of pop songs, dies at 94

The Grammy, Oscar and Tony-winning artist died at his Los Angeles home of natural causes, said the publicist Tina Brausam

Burt Bacharach performs on the Pyramid stage at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, June 27, 2015.
Burt Bacharach performs on the Pyramid stage at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, June 27, 2015.Dylan Martinez (REUTERS)

Burt Bacharach, the singularly gifted and popular composer who delighted millions with the quirky arrangements and unforgettable melodies of Walk on By, Do You Know the Way to San Jose and dozens of other hits, has died at 94.

The Grammy, Oscar and Tony-winning Bacharach died Wednesday at home in Los Angeles of natural causes, publicist Tina Brausam said Thursday.

Over the past 70 years, only Lennon-McCartney, Carole King and a handful of others rivaled his genius for instantly catchy songs that remained performed, played and hummed long after they were written. He had a run of top 10 hits from the 1950s into the 21st century, and his music was heard everywhere from movie soundtracks and radios to home stereo systems and iPods, whether Alfie and I Say a Little Prayer or I’ll Never Fall in Love Again and This Guy’s in Love with You.

Dionne Warwick was his favorite interpreter, but Bacharach, usually in tandem with lyricist Hal David, also created prime material for Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and many others. Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra were among the countless artists who covered his songs, with more recent performers who sung or sampled him including White Stripes, Twista and Ashanti. Walk On By alone was covered by everyone from Warwick and Isaac Hayes to the British punk band the Stranglers and Cyndi Lauper.

Bacharach was both an innovator and throwback, and his career seemed to run parallel to the rock era. He grew up on jazz and classical music and had little taste for rock when he was breaking into the business in the 1950s. His sensibility often seemed more aligned with Tin Pan Alley than with Bob Dylan, John Lennon and other writers who later emerged, but rock composers appreciated the depth of his seemingly old-fashioned sensibility.

“The shorthand version of him is that he’s something to do with easy listening,” Elvis Costello, who wrote the 1998 album Painted from Memory with Bacharach, said in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press. “It may be agreeable to listen to these songs, but there’s nothing easy about them. Try playing them. Try singing them.”

A box set, The Songs of Bacharach & Costello, is due to come out March 3.

He triumphed in many artforms. He was an eight-time Grammy winner, a prize-winning Broadway composer for Promises, Promises and a three-time Oscar winner. He received two Academy Awards in 1970, for the score of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and for the song Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (shared with David). In 1982, he and his then-wife, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, won for Best That You Can Do, the theme from Arthur. His other movie soundtracks included What’s New, Pussycat?, Alfie and the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale.

Bacharach was well rewarded, and well connected. He was a frequent guest at the White House, whether the president was Republican or Democrat. And in 2012, he was presented the Gershwin Prize by Barack Obama, who had sung a few seconds of Walk on By during a campaign appearance.

In his life, and in his music, he stood apart. Fellow songwriter Sammy Cahn liked to joke that the smiling, wavy-haired Bacharach was the first composer he ever knew who didn’t look like a dentist. Bacharach was a “swinger,” as they called such men in his time, whose many romances included actor Angie Dickinson, to whom he was married from 1965-80, and Sager, his wife from 1982-1991.

Married four times, he formed his most lasting ties to work. He was a perfectionist who took three weeks to write Alfie and might spend hours tweaking a single chord. Sager once observed that Bacharach’s life routines essentially stayed the same – only the wives changed.

It began with the melodies – strong yet interspersed with changing rhythms and surprising harmonics. He credited much of his style to his love of bebop and to his classical education, especially under the tutelage of Darius Milhaud, the famed composer. He once played a piece for piano, violin and oboe for Milhaud that contained a melody he was ashamed to have written, as 12-point atonal music was in vogue at the time. Milhaud, who liked the piece, advised the young man, “Never be afraid of the melody.”

“That was a great affirmation for me,” Bacharach recalled in 2004.

Bacharach was essentially a pop composer, but his songs became hits for country artists (Marty Robbins), rhythm and blues performers (Chuck Jackson), soul (Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross) and synth-pop (Naked Eyes). He reached a new generation of listeners in the 1990s with the help of Costello and others.

Mike Myers would recall hearing the sultry The Look of Love on the radio and finding fast inspiration for his Austin Powers retro spy comedies, in which Bacharach made cameos.

In the 21st century, he was still testing new ground, writing his own lyrics and recording with rapper Dr. Dre.

He was married to his first wife, Paula Stewart, from 1953-58, and married for a fourth time, to Jane Hansen, in 1993. He is survived by Hansen, as well as his children Oliver, Raleigh and Cristopher, Brausam said. He was preceded in death by his daughter with Dickinson, Nikki Bacharach.

Bacharach knew the very heights of acclaim, but he remembered himself as a loner growing up, a short and self-conscious boy so uncomfortable with being Jewish he even taunted other Jews. His favorite book as a kid was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; he related to the sexually impotent Jake Barnes, regarding himself as “socially impotent.”

He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but soon moved to New York City. His father was a syndicated columnist, his mother a pianist who encouraged the boy to study music. Although he was more interested in sports, he practiced piano every day after school, not wanting to disappoint his mother. While still a minor, he would sneak into jazz clubs, bearing a fake ID, and hear such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.

“They were just so incredibly exciting that all of a sudden, I got into music in a way I never had before,” he recalled in the memoir Anyone Who Had a Heart, published in 2013. “What I heard in those clubs turned my head around.”

He was a poor student, but managed to gain a spot at the music conservatory at McGill University in Montreal. He wrote his first song at McGill and listened for months to Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song. Music also may have saved Bacharach’s life. He was drafted into the Army in the late 1940s and was still on active duty during the Korean War. But officers stateside soon learned of his gifts and wanted him around. When he did go overseas, it was to Germany, where he wrote orchestrations for a recreation center on the local military base.

After his discharge, he returned to New York and tried to break into the music business. He had little success at first as a songwriter, but he became a popular arranger and accompanist, touring with Vic Damone, the Ames Brothers and Stewart, his eventual first wife. When a friend who had been touring with Marlene Dietrich was unable to make a show in Las Vegas, he asked Bacharach to step in.

The young musician and ageless singer quickly clicked and Bacharach traveled the world with her in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. During each performance, she would introduce him in grand style: “I would like you to meet the man, he’s my arranger, he’s my accompanist, he’s my conductor, and I wish I could say he’s my composer. But that isn’t true. He’s everybody’s composer ... Burt Bacharach!”

Meanwhile, he had met his ideal songwriter partner – David, as businesslike as Bacharach was mercurial, so domesticated that he would leave each afternoon at 5pm to catch the train back to his family on Long Island. Working in a tiny office in Broadway’s celebrated Brill Building, they produced their first million-seller, Magic Moments, sung in 1958 by Perry Como. In 1962, they spotted a backup singer for the Drifters, Warwick, who had a “very special kind of grace and elegance,” Bacharach recalled.

The trio produced hit after hit. The songs were as complicated to record as they were easy to hear. Bacharach liked to experiment with time signatures and arrangements, such as having two pianists play on Walk on By, their performances just slightly out of sync to give the song “a jagged kind of feeling,” he wrote in his memoir.

The Bacharach-David partnership ended with the dismal failure of a 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon. Bacharach became so depressed he isolated himself in his Del Mar vacation home and refused to work.

“I didn’t want to write with Hal or anybody,” he told the Associated Press (AP) in 2004. Nor did he want to fulfill a commitment to record Warwick. She and David both sued him.

Bacharach and David eventually reconciled. When David died in 2012, Bacharach praised him for writing lyrics “like a miniature movie.”

Meanwhile, Bacharach kept working, vowing never to retire, always believing that a good song could make a difference.

“Music softens the heart, makes you feel something if it’s good, brings in emotion that you might not have felt before,” he told AP in 2018. “It’s a very powerful thing if you’re able to do to it, if you have it in your heart to do something like that.”

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