Still touring at 85, Burt Bacharach completes a run of British concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Sunday, having played in Israel on Tuesday to adoring fans at the Shuni Ampitheatre in Binyamina. One of the world’s greatest living songwriters — with an enviable back catalogue of almost a half-century of top 40 hits — he is still working hard, with the concert dates following on from the release of a memoir of his life and music, Anyone Who Had A Heart, and a six-CD career retrospective.
And his writing regime is as simple as his music is timeless: “What you do is stay with your craft. Work, even if it’s just improvising. Try to write, even if it’s a little bit, every day. Try to be creative, even when you are not working on a project. Stay in touch with your muse and some days will be very revealing. I don’t think you could just cut out, any more than if you were playing on the ATP Tennis circuit and say: ‘Well, I think I’ll miss this tournament and take off three weeks and not play any tennis at all.’ You would lose your edge.”
Although raised in a Jewish household in Queens, New York, Bacharach “never went to synagogue. Neither did my family, cousins, uncles, aunts. None us really practised the religion at all. Growing up with a bunch of Catholic kids that I played ball with, there was lot of antisemitism. It screws you up as kid.”
His piano skills led him to study at the Mannes College of Music, New York, before heading out to California to finish his education. Brought up on Stravinsky and Ravel, he would take the F train in his native city to hear the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and the Harry James Big Band in the jazz clubs of 52nd Street. “All of this was light years ahead of any music I had heard of and it was exciting,” he recalls. Although some may categorise Bacharach’s prodigious output as easy listening, the striking syncopated rhythmic patterns, irregular phrasing and unusual chord passages in his songs certainly suggests more than just a fleeting jazz influence.
On graduating, he began a productive partnership with fellow Jew Hal David, whom he met while struggling for his big break in a small rented office on Broadway. Their list of classics includes Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, I Say a Little Prayer, Walk On By, Close To You, What the World Needs Now Is Love, Alfie and Do You Know the Way To San Jose? It was a partnership that endured until 1973 after the two worked on the film, Lost Horizons, a critical and commercial failure which spawned countless lawsuits. “A film we should’ve never got involved in,” Bacharach laments. “The songs were good, but it was a disastrous film and it created a breach in relationships [with David and Dionne Warwick].” Forty years after the acrimonious split, there is still a sense of deep regret in his voice as he reflects on the ill-starred venture, adding: “You know you could go back and say it was something we shouldn’t have done but forget it, you make mistakes.” David died last year, aged 91.
For the current tour — which has taken in six countries — Bacharach has been accompanied by a nine-musician ensemble. He was upbeat before the Israel show, saying: “We’re gonna do a lot of music — all my music. I am very excited to be in Israel. It is very meaningful for me to be here. It was something we wanted to do on this tour.”
It is more than 50 years since Bacharach was last in Israel, working as a string arranger with Marlene Dietrich in 1960. “It was a tremendous time,” he recalls with fondness. “We’d just come from Germany. When we got to Tel Aviv, we were informed that she shouldn’t sing in German on stage because it was not being done.” But Dietrich — a staunch anti-Nazi who had become an American citizen in the 1930s — was undeterred. “She sang nine songs in German, Richard Tauber songs — heavy.”
In recent times, Bacharach’s musical influence has extended further with collaborations with artists as diverse as Rufus Wainwright, Elvis Costello, Oasis and even hip-hop producer Dr Dre.
For the octogenarian, “every day is a treasure. I try not to think too far into the future but stay in the moment and appreciate everything I have, especially my family. I would say this is as much a time as I have liked for years.”