Dionne Warwick’s “Alfie” Is a Classic
And her long collaboration with Bacharach and David resulted in many masterworks.
Let’s go way uptown. Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach and Hal David accomplished something far beyond the reach of most artists. It isn’t fair. The standard they set and managed to maintain during their golden years has never been topped. They did everything first class and had the sort of upscale appeal that might sound slick. But those highly polished surfaces disappear when you let yourself be drawn in and yield readily to some very expressive human moments.
They did this not just in today’s song, “Alfie,” but in all their work. There was a time when they absolutely owned an era, creating what was arguably a genre unto itself. Although they were overshadowed by a lot of amazing British bands, who scored higher on the hipster index, they hung around and did quite nicely for themselves. A lot of those bands and artists covered their songs, bringing a slightly rougher edge to them Often relegated to the Easy Listening stations, they were creating throwback pop that kids and parents liked. Not many artists managed that trick. The term Easy Listening doesn’t really work on them. Most everything in that category was meant to be ignored. Bacharach and David’s creations paid dividends to close listeners. It was elevator music that elevated.
Arranging and conducting the orchestra while recording Alfie for Cilla Black, Bacharach was somewhere around the 29th take when producer George Martin said, “Burt, I think you got it on the fourth take.” Recording that song and others with Dionne may have been easier: she read music and easily negotiated the hairpin turns in melody and rhythm he was prone to. The coolness in her voice is first thing you hear, but soon you notice the depth of emotion. It’s not the Gospel-based style so familiar to fans of R&B, but there is an abundance of soul. Living in the era of Black Power, Warwick cut against the grain — she never sounded angry or less than dignified.
Warwick brought a new inspiration to their writing. She became their muse, one of the first black voices Bacharach fell in love with. Writing for her and other black artists moved their writing 180 degrees. The very first song she sang with them should be considered significant for a lot of reasons. “Don’t Make Me Over,” a certified masterpiece, could easily be read as feminist statement. But it was also bothersome in the way it swung back and forth between helplessness and empowerment. I can ignore that when the melody is this hummable.
“Alfie” from the classic Michael Caine film, expresses as much, if not more, of the movie’s theme. The song confronts an unrepentant ladies man from a woman’s point of view. For that alone it’s a powerful piece of writing. Caine always did heartless rogues very well.To hear that character described so perfectly from one of his victim’s point of view is disarming to say the least.
What’s it all about, Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind
And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie
© Burt Bacharach/Hal David
This is goose bump music, a pop tune that summarizes what spiritual leaders have been teaching for eons. Love and kindness, here is your ultimate jingle. Take a look at those lyrics again, Hal David was as fastidious with his words as Bacharach was with his hair and clothes. There’s nothing missing or out of place, and anything extra would have sunk it. This goes in the category of miracle songs… and Dionne’s performance is always moving.
When Bacharach wrote with the enormously talented and ambitious British artist, Elvis Costello, the results were dense and somewhat unfathomable. That valiant effort featured a double layer of complexity that maybe should have had a warning sticker of some sort. It was the opposite of Easy Listening. The subtle brilliance of David’s work was obvious in his absence. If he and Bacharach could have avoided their acrimonious split, which was all about a single percentage point, we might have had more of their sterling creations. As it turned out, their lawsuits lasted about as long as their golden era. I sometimes think marriage counseling for temperamental creative partners would be a good thing. But you take what you can get and appreciate it. Keeping in mind just how devilishly hard it is to produce one great song or record, the glut of great music produced by this trio is one of the wonders of the modern world.