John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Burt Bacharach Was A Suave Throwback

The late composer, with lyricist Hal David, created so many timeless songs.

By - Mar 20th, 2023 08:35 pm
Burt Bacharach. Photo by Phil Guest from Bournemouth, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Burt Bacharach. Photo by Phil Guest from Bournemouth, UK, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Burt Bacharach was handsome, suave, stylish and he wrote, along with lyricist Hal David, elegantly constructed songs designed for the martini crowd. Question: What was he doing in the 1960s? Shouldn’t he have been rubbing elbows with the smart set in ‘20s or 30’s? The answer is yes, but he was even better suited for ‘60s, especially the first half. Bacharach paired well with Kennedys and glamor, his music exuded the kind of optimism the Camelot clan was known for. With a fashion writer father, he was literally well suited, and his pianist mother recognized the talent she had passed on and nurtured it.

When Camelot turned into Altamont and rock turned into street fighting music, it might have been his cue to exit gracefully. Instead, Bacharach flourished. Being born too late is not a crime, especially when you’re talented enough to do whatever you please. When you do it that well, the world comes to you. Make no mistake, despite the lack of tie-dyed outfits and bruising guitar solos, Burt Bacharach’s songs were not only hits, but some of the best music being made at the time. The Bacharach/David catalog rivals The Beatles in popularity and artistry.

The fact it got slotted into the Easy Listening is ironic. The music he created may be easy to listen to, but it is devilishly hard to perform. The difficulty laid in the complex harmonic structure and the oddball rhythms he threw in. This was not garage band stuff. None of it qualified as gratuitous quirkiness: every key change and daunting time signature switch is necessary — it feels like some higher logic demands them.

Here’s one: Try to sing along with “Promises, Promises,” from the Broadway show of the same name. It’s like trying to run with your laces tied together. This song has almost no connection to anything heard on the radio before or since. Its closest relative might be Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” from West Side Story — both were songs that demanded choreographers and trained dancers.

Bacharach/David could go deep, too. In an era of great protest songs, they captured the sense of perpetual sadness the world seems to be in with just one song, “Windows Of The World.” His lazy piano sounds almost too tired to get to the next note. With a stillness you might call spiritual, it’s timeless, resigned, and solemn. It’s a eulogy for optimism.

Bacharach’s complexity was tempered by David’s directness. If the lyrics hadn’t been easy to understand, the songs might have come across as too much. As a team, their chemistry was as perfect as that of Lennon and McCartney. Over and over again, Bacharach and David produced songs that were almost unbearably emotional like the kind you feel you almost have to escape from in “Walk On By.” At the same time they created songs with unbelievable lightness, like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.” That’s range.

The common denominator was the incredible voice of Dionne Warwick, which stitched it all together. It’s hard to say who made who’s career, but as good a combination of composer, lyricist and artist/muse might never come around again. But plenty of other singers ran their songs up to the top of the charts, too. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to see Bacharach and David as a mini-Motown. Their songs were always on the charts — instant favorites that never faded. When they went their separate ways neither of them had that kid of success again.

Yes, Burt Bacharach was all the way uptown, tuxedo-ed and grinning like Hefner’s little brother. Forget all that and dig into the catalog and you’ll see, these boys were polishing diamonds. Let’s let the songs speak for themselves; here are a few more of his mid-century modern masterpieces:

I could go on. Anywhere you drop the needle will hit a melody that will mug you. You can’t escape that songbook… but why would you want to?

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3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Burt Bacharach Was A Suave Throwback”

  1. ringo muldano says:


  2. Mzalewski says:

    May sound a little snarky – but – When I see an article about music in a local news source like Urban MKE, I look for some local connection. Who’s making waves. Who’s breaking out nationally What hot act is heading our way and why is that good? I never see it here. We have a great local music scene – let’s highlight it. And if we report on national acts – how about a local take on it. Maybe even spread the net to include artists with Wisconsin roots or are Wisconsin based.
    When did Bacharach play in MKE? Any connection here at all? The three recent pieces highlighted – all were interesting – but I searched for 10 minutes and could find no connection in these articles to MKE or Wisconsin. Lets work a little harder and bring the focus closer to home.

  3. schultzmeier says:

    Actually Burt Bacharach played in Milwaukee at an event celebrating the opening of the Milwaukee Center.
    It was a wonderful event.

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