Burt Bacharach found success as a songwriter beginning in the 1950s, eventually collaborating with Hal David to write a string of hits for vocalist Dionne Warwick over the next decade. Bacharach, known for his beautiful melodies, wrote the popular Broadway musical Promises, Promises and worked on movie theme songs and scores, winning two Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bacharach also won six Grammys and saw his songs remade and sampled in a variety of genres as a huge pop chart presence. He died on February 8, 2023, at the age of 94.
Background and Early Career
Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri on May 12, 1928, but raised in New York City by artist/songwriter Irma Freeman and newspaper columnist Bert Bacharach. Bacharach studied music at the Mannes School of Music, McGill University, The New School for Social Research, and Music Academy of the West, initially encouraged by his mother. After serving in the United States Army, where he played piano and arranged music for a dance band, he began a career as a songwriter at the end of the 1950s.
Bacharach worked in the famed Brill Building, where many songwriters produced hits. The Jewish American composer wrote the music for Perry Como’s “Magic Moments” as well as Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life” there. He collaborated on those songs with lyricist Hal David, who would soon become Bacharach’s full-time collaborator.
Dionne Warwick Hits
From 1958 to 1964, Bacharach was Marlene Dietrich’s accompanist, accompanying her on tour. The legendary actress and performer grew to admire the aspiring songwriter. Despite their distinct personalities, Bacharach began working regularly with Hal David in the early 1960s. Bacharach had seen backup singer Dionne Warwick perform with the soul group the Drifters around this time. He was blown away by her talent, and Warwick soon began interpreting many of the pair’s songs.
Between 1962 and 1968, Warwick charted a whopping 15 Bacharach/David songs. “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Reach Out for Me,” “I Say a Little Prayer” (later made famous by Aretha Franklin), “Message to Michael,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” were among their collaborations. “You’ll Never Get to Heaven,” “Walk on By,” “Trains, Boats, and Planes,” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” are among the songs.
Grammy and Oscar Wins
Bacharach and David went on to write the theme songs for What’s New Pussycat? (performed by Tom Jones, amidst five out-of-sync pianos) and Alfie (performed by Cilla Black and later Warwick), both of which received Academy Award nominations. Bacharach and David received their third Oscar nomination for the sultry “The Look of Love,” as performed by Dusty Springfield in the film Casino Royale (1967).
Bacharach won a Grammy in 1968 for his instrumental arrangements on Alfie. Bacharach won another Grammy and an Oscar for his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Bacharach and David also shared a second Oscar for the film’s lighthearted theme song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was performed by B.J. Thomas.
Broadway Success: Promises, Promises
In addition to film work and hit songs, Bacharach and David wrote the 1968 musical Promises, Promises, with Neil Simon writing the book. Promises, Promises, based on the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder film The Apartment (1960), starred Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara and became a long-running Broadway success, nominated for eight Tony Awards and winning two. The related album was also nominated for a Grammy.
The Sound of Burt Bacharach
Bacharach established an enduring sound known for its complex time signatures, lush textures, and affable, tender charms, helping to define what would become popularly labeled as “lite” music. Melody lines seem to come to life and float in the songwriter’s world, with the flugelhorn frequently featured. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass hit No. 1 in the United States in 1968 with a song that arguably epitomized Bacharach’s style: “This Guy’s in Love With You.”
The Carpenters then went to No. 1 in the United States with another signature Bacharach/David song, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” in 1970, the same year the 5th Dimension went to No. 2 with the broken-heart song “One Less Bell to Answer.” Along with his ongoing success as a songwriter, Bacharach released his own album, Burt Bacharach (1971), which was a commercial success. In 1972, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The following year, he released Burt Bacharach’s Greatest Hits, which included “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Close to You,” and “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head.”
More No. 1 Hits and Awards: 1970s and Onward
Bacharach’s popularity waned dramatically as the 1970s progressed. Bacharach ended his partnership with David after a disagreement over royalties for Lost Horizon, a 1973 science-fiction film musical starring Peter Finch that bombed at the box office. He also backed out of producing a Warwick album, which resulted in years of litigation and strained relationships. Bacharach’s album releases with A&M Records were also unsuccessful.
Despite the fact that his collaboration with David was over, Bacharach found success with other songwriting partners. In 1982, he won his third Academy Award for “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” which he performed and co-wrote for the 1981 film Arthur, with additional writing contributions from Peter Allen and Bacharach’s third wife, Carol Bayer Sager.
Bacharach also co-wrote with Sager the No. 1 hit “That’s What Friends Are For,” which featured the talents of Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder and earned Bacharach a fourth Grammy in 1987. He also collaborated with Sager on Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” and “On My Own,” a somber No. 1 duet with Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald. Furthermore, Bacharach and David eventually reunited when they wrote a new song for Warwick, “Sunny Weather Lover,” for her 1993 album Friends Can Be Lovers.
Remakes and Reinterpretations
Bacharach wrote dozens of top 40 hits in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Classic Bacharach tunes (some of which would clash with more progressive notions of gender and romance) have been remade across a variety of genres over time.
Isaac Hayes turned Warwick’s “Walk on By” into a smoldering, 12-minute tour de force, with his version eventually sampled by Beyoncé for her 2016 album, Lemonade. “Always There to Remind Me” became a top 10 synth-pop hit for British group Naked Eyes in 1983, while the Pretenders later covered “Windows of the World” for the soundtrack to the film 1969. “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk on By,” famed for Warwick’s slow-paced renditions, were turned into more uptempo, top 5 r&b jams for singer Sybil going into the 1990s. An instrumental version of “I Say a Little Prayer” was also sampled by U.K. soulster Omar on his tune “Syleste” from Best by Far (2001). And later, Dionne Farris, known for her top 5 hit “I Know,” worked on the 2014 album Dionne Dionne with musician Charlie Hunter, featuring acoustic covers of Warwick, Bacharach, and David tunes.
Bacharach and his music were introduced to a new audience when he appeared alongside Mike Myers in the ’60s-inspired Austin Powers (1997). Bacharach also worked frequently with fellow singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, with whom he shared a Grammy for “I Still Have That Other Girl.” Costello contributed to Bacharach’s 2005 album At This Time, which also included contributions from Dr. Dre and Rufus Wainwright. Bacharach received his sixth Grammy for the instrumental album.
Bacharach’s music returned to Broadway in the new millennium. In 2003, he and David’s songs were featured in the short-lived musical revue The Look of Love, and Bacharach contributed music to the film The Boy From Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman. Promises later returned to the stage in 2010, with a new version starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. Bacharach was then awarded the Gershwin Prize by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Personal Life and Death
Bacharach, known for being both a playboy and a perfectionist, was married four times, with the songwriter claiming that his work always came first. Bacharach’s first wife was actress Paula Stewart, who was warned against the marriage by Bacharach’s mother. In 1965, he married actress Angie Dickinson, who had helped Bacharach secure the project What’s New Pussycat? In 1980, the couple divorced. From 1982 to 1991, he was married to fellow songwriter Carol Bayer Sager. Bacharach married ski instructor Jane Hanson, for whom he had left Sager, in 1993.
Bacharach had a daughter, Nikki, with Dickinson. She was born several months premature, had developmental issues, and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Nikki committed suicide at the age of 40. In his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music (2013), Bacharach shared some of the pain surrounding her death, with Dickinson providing a different perspective on the family trauma as well. He had three other children: a son, Cristopher, from his first marriage to Sager, and a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Raleigh, from his second marriage.
Bacharach died at his home in Los Angeles on February 8, 2023. He was 94.