December 27, 2006

Bacharach: Love and Anger

While our competitors interview "artists" no one's ever heard of, like the lady who makes bird cages out of emery boards, The Independent consistently delivers interviews with world famous musicians, actors and writers. Rick Murphy sat down with Burt Bacharach for our Memorial Day issue.

Burt Bacharach, 78, one of the world's preeminent popular music composers, is "pissed off."

And that's good news for music fans. His anger —pointed directly at the current administration in Washington — fueled a terrific new album called At This Time, a jazzy, lush concept piece that flashes the trademark Bacharach gift for melody and much more.

He'll perform selections from the album when he appears at The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on July 3.

"I'm pissed off at this administration," Bacharach said matter of factly. "The [songs] are all connected by a thread of frustration, disappointment, worry, and concern."

The composer collaborated with Dr. Dre, trumpeter Chris Botti, Elvis Costello and scores of musicians on the project. He also co-wrote (with Tonio K.) lyrics for the first time in his career. He is extremely proud of the work, which earned him his seventh Grammy.

"I didn't like the way Bush got into office the first time, and things just got worse. That's when I started writing. I had a foundation . . . I wrote the music first. The lyrics were a challenge. It's a dramatic change . . . there are a lot of intentional voices in there." At This Time is a dramatic shift in styles for Bacharach, who is known worldwide primarily for his songs about love, either wanting it or losing it.

His 40-year resume includes some of the most unforgettable songs of this era: "The Look of Love," "Raindrops Keep Falling From My Head" (Academy Award and Grammy), "Close To You" (The Carpenters), and "That's What Friends Are For" (A Grammy for Song of the Year) among them.

It was a struggle at the beginning, he related.

After stints at McGill University and the Mannes School of Music, Bacharach said he "was writing good songs but not getting any hits." He worked lounges ("I made $40 a weekend playing piano on Fire Island"), toured with Vic Damone, and worked as a pianist and arranger for Marlene Dietrich.

Bacharach was stymied because the record producers would try to change the tunes to fit their performer. The first break came when he met producer Calvin Carter, who worked with singer Jerry Butler. "He said to me 'go ahead, make the record, take the responsibility.'" The song "Make It Easy On Yourself," co-written with longtime collaborator Hal David, became Bacharach's first of 52 Top Ten hits. "That was my foot in the door. I realized producing was self-defense to protect your record."

The floodgates opened. "Baby It's You" (The Shirelles), "Don't Make Me Over" (Dionne Warwick), "Blue On Blue" (Bobby Vinton) and "A House Is Not A Home" (Brook Benton) among them.

At the time he was married to the actress Angie Dickinson. Through her Hollywood connections, Bacharach got a gig composing the movie score for What's New Pussycat? including the hit single performed by Tom Jones. From there he became one of Hollywood's favorites, and his score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid led to his first of four Academy Awards (for "Raindrops. . . .).

One of his most beloved compositions, "Close To You" became an international hit when The Carpenters covered it. Bacharach revealed that when he first worked on the song it was far from being a hit.

"I wrote it for Richard Chamberlain, who was playing 'Doctor Kildare' at the time. It was a terrible record. I had a bad arrangement and he sang it very poorly."

Though the couple ran with a hot crowd, Bacharach seemed misplaced. "It was a high profile marriage. She was hot with 'Policewoman' [a hit television series] and I started getting hot. We were a good-looking couple, but we lived pretty simply."

Bacharach's songs were covered by many of the era's top jazz players. He recalls being apprehensive before having dinner with Miles Davis, who simply said, "that's a good tune, man," about one of his works. "I mean, that's what it's all about," Bacharach said.

Despite the rave reviews for his latest, Bacharach said he still performs his standards. "I would never cheat an audience. They are going to hear 'Raindrops' and 'The Look of Love' but you're also going to hear four or five of the new ones. I've been on tour for three months and no one has thrown anything at me yet."

After his divorce from Dickinson he married the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, who was also fond of the limelight. That marriage also ended in divorce. "I told her I'd rather be remembered for my music than for the parties I threw."

He has been married to Jane Hanson since 1993. The couple has two kids, a son and daughter, who will be in the Hamptons with him. From there, the family will go to Italy. "It will be good for them to see it."

Bacharach's dissatisfaction with the Republican regime is manifesting itself in other ways besides his music. He is also doing a series of fundraisers for L. Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot in Iraq who lost her legs during the war. She is running for a seat in Congress from Chicago's sixth district.

"I'm doing a series of informal get-togethers in people's homes, bringing my own keyboard, doing four or five songs, and then talking about the issues."

Of course, there is always the music. "I've been lucky. I've been blessed with this melodic gift. It's not going to go away."

In a sense, Bacharach's anti-war stance brings him full circle. One of his most beloved compositions is as appropriate now as the day it was written in 1965 — "What The World Needs Now Is Love," a sentiment the composer alludes to on the opening track of his latest album.

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