Obituary: Burt Bacharach

Oscar-winning American composer who scored hits across seven decades with his intricate rhythms


US songwriter Burt Bacharach performs on the Pyramid Stage on the second day of the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, south west England, on June 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Award-winning composer, producer and pianist Burt Bacharach helped define the sound of “easy listening”, with its richly textured arrangements and gently swaying, memorable melodies that danced above intricate rhythms.

One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, Bacharach was particularly known for his flurry of hits in the Sixties and Seventies, co-written with Hal David, though the six-time Grammy award and three-time Oscar winner achieved the distinction of scoring hits across seven decades.

Despite the “easy listening” moniker, Bacharach was considerably experimental, particularly in his approach to chord progressions, rapidly shifting time signatures and instrument choice, which included flutes and flugelhorns.

“I didn’t want to make the songs the same way as they’d been done, so I’d split vocals and instrumentals and try to make it interesting… For me, it’s about the peaks and valleys of where a record can take you,” he explained in 2003.

Bacharach was born into a Jewish family in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Mark Bertram “Bert” Bacharach, was a newspaper columnist, and his mother, Irma Freeman, a songwriter and painter. Irma instilled in him a deep love of music, encouraging the young Burt to learn cello, piano and drums.

The family moved to Queens, New York where Bacharach’s senses were awakened to the sounds of jazz by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.

More than a hint of those jazz influences can be heard in Bacharach’s syncopated rhythms and irregular phrasing.

He started playing jazz and studied music in New York and at Montreal’s McGill University and the Music Academy of the West in California. After graduating in 1948, he served in the US Army for two years, playing piano in clubs for his fellow officers.

During his time there he met Vic Damone, leading to his first professional break as his pianist and conductor. Success did not arrive in a flash, however. Bacharach spent much of the Fifties working at resorts in the Catskills to support his song-writing.

“When I started out I had no idea how hard writing songs was going to be, and the ones I wrote were so bad that I went close to a year-and-a-half without getting one sold,” he told the Daily Mail in 2013.

He got his break in 1956 when he became Marlene Dietrich’s arranger and conductor for her nightclub shows. They toured worldwide and he wrote for her on and off until the 1960s. While working at the famous Brill Building songwriting factory in the late 1950s, Bacharach met lyricist David.

The duo went on to forge a highly successful writing partnership, which was to spawn such hits as The Look of Love, Walk On By, Close To You, What the World Needs Now Is Love and Do You Know the Way To San Jose?

Many of these classics were sung by Dionne Warwick, who was discovered by Bacharach in 1961 singing backing vocals for the Drifters. The trio’s recordings sold over 12 million copies and from 1962-1968 they had 15 US Top 40 hits.

Aretha Franklin also reached the US Top 10 and had her biggest UK hit with her version of the Bacharach-penned I Say a Little Prayer. More success came with artists including The Carpenters, Cilla Black, The Walker Brothers and Dusty Springfield.

Next came film scores for Casino Royale, What’s New, Pussycat?, Alfie and the Oscar-winning Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. During this time Bacharach also released several solo albums.

Bacharach and David fared less well in the 1970s, falling out over a failed musical version of the film Lost Horizon.

Bacharach, however, kept writing and producing, winning an Oscar in 1981 for the film theme of Arthur, and gaining US No 1s in 1986 with a version of That’s What Friends Are For, released as an Aids fundraiser, and On My Own with Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald.

In later years he reached new, younger audiences when his songs featured in major movie soundtracks, including the Austin Powers trilogy.

Bacharach was still writing and touring worldwide well into his eighties, collaborating with artists as wide ranging as Elvis Costello, Noel Gallagher and hip-hop producer Dr Dre. He received a deluge of honours and accolades including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2008, opening the BBC’s Electric Proms in the same year, performing at Glastonbury Festival in 2015 and featuring in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

He is survived by his fourth wife Jane, their son and daughter Oliver and Raleigh, and another son, Cristopher, from his third marriage to Carole Bayer Sager. His daughter Nikki, from his marriage to Angie Dickinson, predeceased him in 2007.

Burt Freeman Bacharach: born May 12, 1928. Died February 8, 2023

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