Burt Bacharach, singer, songwriter, and composer chats with Kevin Cooper about the process of writing a song, his creative partnership with Hal David, his fondness for Dionne Warwick and his forthcoming UK tour.

Burt Bacharach is an American singer, songwriter, composer, record producer and pianist. A six-time Grammy Award winner and three-time Academy Award winner, he is known for his popular hit songs and compositions from the late 1950s through the 1980s; many with lyrics written by Hal David as part of the duo Bacharach and David.

Most Bacharach and David hits were written specifically for and performed by Dionne Warwick, and following the initial success of these collaborations, Bacharach went on to write hits for Gene Pitney, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Jackie DeShannon, Bobbie Gentry, Tom Jones, Herb Alpert, The Carpenters, amongst numerous other, now world famous artists. Also famous for his songs in the movies Casino Royale and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Bacharach is still composing.

Whilst preparing for his forthcoming tour, Kevin Cooper caught up with him at his home in Los Angeles, and this is what he had to say.

Mr Bacharach how are you?

Hello Kevin I’m good thank you.

Firstly let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

I’m glad to do it.

For me this is a real pleasure.

Thank you Kevin.

So how is life treating Burt Bacharach?

Life is great. Every day is special; every day is a gift.

I have to ask you, just what motivates you to keep on touring?

Well Kevin, you must have by now guessed that I quite like it a little bit, right (laughter). It is also a way for me to make contact with people and to play music for them. The people who come to my concerts come to hear my music, and that is all that I do; I don’t play anybody else’s music. The fact that they are there is a way for me to have direct contact with them. The fact is that if you can go into a city like Nottingham, where I have never been before, or wherever it may be, and make friends with the audience, and if you are able to bring some kind of pleasure to make people feel good or emotional, and I do write a lot of love songs Kevin; if you can make people feel something even if it is just some pleasure for 15 minutes of their day, it feels very good to be able to do something like that.

I don’t mean to make it sound so grandiose, it is just the case of here is my music and I like sharing it with you. I think that is a sensible reason as to why I still like to tour. Do I like the travelling? Well I have to say that it used to be easier simply because travel is very hard these days. The security isn’t all that it should be, the seats on the plane are smaller and airplane travel is not what it used to be. But I get there, I do my work, I vacation a little bit when I get back home, and then I write some more.

Do you enjoy your time spent here in the UK?

Listen Kevin, I will tell you about the UK. For me the UK has always been a wonderful, wonderful place. I have scored movies there, for example, What’s New Pussycat whilst I have been in residence over in the UK. I was living in London when I scored Casino Royale; they basically gave me a flat to live in whilst I wrote the score and then recorded it in England. That is one aspect of it and the other aspect is that you people over there in the UK discovered me way before I was ever discovered in the States really. The first album that I released was called The Hit Maker and it was released on KAPP Records here in the States. It sold 5,000 records here whilst over in the UK it was a top ten album. Also, the single taken from that album was Trains And Boats And Planes which was also a very big hit in the UK.

The UK audiences also have a thing for artists. It seems that the writers and artists are not as disposable in the UK as they are here in the States. You in the UK hold them up with a little more reverence Kevin. The audiences in the UK have always been very warm and friendly towards me.

Mr Bacharach that is because the audiences over here love you.

That is so nice to hear, thank you Kevin. I love you guys too and I mean that. There have been some great moments for me over there in the UK. And I am really looking forward to the forthcoming tour.

So tell me a little about the process of how you write?

As a composer and a songwriter Kevin I tend to spend most of my time in isolation when I am writing. I am alone when writing and alone when listening to what I have written so I am basically judging myself. It all comes down to the fact that I am judging myself and not playing it for a bunch of people to see if it is any good. I am not playing it for the maid, the cook or the help. I play it in my head or at the keyboard for myself. I simply make it as good as I can make it. If I am not feeling it and it doesn’t survive, then I will simply throw it out totally.

I have certain rules when I am writing, and if something tires me out or wears me out after two or three days then I will simply walk away and leave it. You must have heard songs like that Kevin that you have liked for the first week and then you never play them again (laughter). The fact is that you have to make the judgement call yourself. If you are writing in a collaboration then you can bounce ideas off of each other and make adjustments and maybe throw out a line or a lyric which will take you to another melodic rhythm.

So is it lyrics first or melody?

I have written both ways Kevin, lyrics first and also melody first. With a song like Alfie the whole lyric came first; basically the lyrics came first because they had to tell you what the story was about. On the other hand you can’t write what the story is about on stage by just writing the music first, you have to set the music to the lyric.

On the subject of song-writing, when you met Hal David back in 1957 did you appreciate that the partnership was something special?

No, Hal was just another person for me to write with in the Brill Building. Hal and I have written some terrible songs (laughter). The best way that I can describe it to you Kevin is that it was very much like a chess game. You had all of these writers in the Brill Building on different floors with different music publishers and I would probably write for two days per week with Hal and then with other writers for the rest of the week. It was like playing ping pong because we kept on going back and forth. But having said all of that Hal and I sort of clicked.

Our first two hits, Magic Moments and The Story Of My Life came after a considerable amount of time writing together. They were both big hits in the UK. But they were both different kinds of songs from the ones that I wrote when people would let me loose in the studio. I feel that there were some good songs that we wrote that got ruined by bad orchestration and bad production. I’m sure there were, in fact I know there were.

I knew that I had the ability but it was finding someone else in authority who had that same confidence and belief in my ability to go into the studio and to write the orchestration; to work with that orchestra and to make the record myself. That way I could definitely make the record the way that I wanted to. You can write songs and you can think that they are very good but if they don’t come up to it in the studio when it comes to putting it down on tape, or whatever we call it now; if you don’t put it down right, if you don’t match the quality which you thought that you had going into the studio, then I wouldn’t say that it was a failure, but it is certainly lesser than what you wanted.

Out of all of the artists that you have worked with, who has given you the greatest pleasure?

Well Kevin, with Dionne (Warwick) we had such a history; a huge history with Dionne. I loved the little time that I spent working with Dusty (Springfield) my god she was great but that was too little. I know that she sang and recorded a lot of my songs but we were never in the same studio together. I would have loved that. But she did the songs and I always loved her voice. I loved working with Aretha (Franklin) and I had fun too working with both Ron Isley and Luther Vandross.

From a fans point of view I always thought that Dionne Warwick came alive when singing your songs. It was as though something magical had happened.

It is one of those things Kevin; the more that Hal and I recorded with Dionne and the more we wrote, the more chances I could take because I could see what she could do. I would think to myself if she can cover that range then I can take that risk a little bit more if she is that musical. Therefore I was able to expand and stretch when working with her. All that you have to do Kevin is just comparatively look at a song like Promises, Promises which was the title track from the show of the same name, and how difficult it always was for whoever was playing the lead in the Broadway show.

However it really worked when I wrote that many words and that many notes. The reason that I wrote so many notes was to give the song a sense of urgency. That song did have a lot of notes and a lot of words but in the hands of Dionne, it was just so fluent, totally fluent. She breezed through it with consummate ease. Hey they were truly great moments Kevin (laughter).

Is it true that Dionne was envious with the success that Cilla Black had here in the UK covering the songs that you had written for her?

Yes Kevin, whether it was Cilla or Sandie Shaw, yes, Dionne was ever so slightly aggrieved (laughter). I can understand Dionne feeling, hey they are my songs and how come someone’s cover of it is doing better than mine. But you have to remember that we are in a different country but yes, I can understand where Dionne was coming from. From my point of view I was glad that the song was getting the recognition over in England as it had in the States. But those records were very special like Walk On By, which someone covered and that got played in England but Dionne never got played. It may not have been as good as the original but it still got played while Dionne’s original didn’t.

I can only think of one example where one version was so much better than the other version but they were both hits. Dionne’s version of Say A Little Prayer, which I had written and arranged with Hal, got to number four in the charts in the States, then Aretha recorded it and it was so much better than the version that I ever did (laughter).

I was always a great fan of Dusty Springfield’s and I think that her recording of The Look Of Love from the movie Casino Royale is simply a sublime piece of music.

Thank you Kevin, thank you. I was scoring that movie at the time that I was living in London and in this case the music came first. I never knew that it was going to be a song. But the music had to depict what was going on with Ursula Andress in the movie and to me it is a very sexual and sensual piece of music with a Brazilian beat. It worked well with the movie but then the director suggested that I put a lyric on it and so Hal wrote a lyric for the melody which we then put into the movie. I knew Dusty and we had previously spent time together but this was the only time that I was ever in the studio with her.

She had come into the studio to record The Look Of Love for the soundtrack to the movie and man, was she hard on herself. She would listen to a play back not with me, and not in the control room, but in another control room by herself. That was her thing; she was always so very hard on herself. It is a beautiful song Kevin. I also love the version recorded by Diana Krall.

That’s the whole thing Kevin, you never know what is going to happen. You simply write some music and you never know when it is going into another life. You don’t write it as a song, you write it for a specific purpose, which is the way that I have always thought about scoring a movie. I never thought that we were going to have a song in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid with Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. I was simply writing music which I thought would suit that bicycle sequence. I kept using dummy lyrics, and the dummy lyrics were Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head (laughter) and they became a song. It is just one of those things; it was a western taking place at the turn of the century and we had a song that could be played on the top forty radio list and it still works in the movie.

It is just one of those things and you have to be guided by your taste. You either have taste or you don’t have taste Kevin. And as I have said before your taste is derived in your room, by yourself, totally isolated and you get it. My kids can tell me that something is great and I know that it’s not great (laughter).

Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite Bacharach and David song?

Lyrically Kevin that would have to be Alfie.

Another of your songs which Cilla Black had a hit with over here in the UK.

That’s right Kevin, I recorded Cilla singing the song.

You have written some great songs Mr Bacharach, even one that is popular on our underground soul and Motown scene. A really popular song is Long After Tonight Is All Over by Jimmy Radcliffe.

That’s great Kevin, how nice it is to hear that Jimmy is finally getting the recognition which his work deserves. Are you telling me that I wrote that song Kevin (laughter).

You did indeed, it was written by you and Hal back in 1964 and it was another of your songs that Dusty recorded.

Oh Jesus, let me make a note of that Kevin. Jimmy was a very nice man and it was always a pleasure to work with him. Jimmy’s son tries to keep his music alive in the modern day. I’m very glad for Jimmy’s family that he is finally being recognised. Another artist who was a pleasure to work with was Lou Johnson. These two guys both recorded some very good songs Kevin.

It’s funny that you mention Lou Johnson because he too is very popular over here in the UK, especially his song Unsatisfied which I’m sad to say you didn’t write (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s ok Kevin. It’s so good and refreshing to hear that both of them are being appreciated over there in the UK as neither of them really made it here in the States. I don’t know why because when we made records with them I thought that they were pretty good. But that just highlights what I have been saying to you Kevin, you shouldn’t really believe that you have done something good until you later find out that everybody agreed with you.

What can we expect from your show here in Nottingham?

Well Kevin, what I can promise you is that you are not going to get rock ‘n’ roll from me onstage (laughter) I don’t mean to put it down but it is something that I have never been comfortable with. I have written a great many songs in my lifetime, and many have been recorded by great artists. I hope that each of my songs will evoke pleasant memories with the audience and that we can have an enjoyable time together.

On that note may I thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

It’s been a pleasure talking to you Kevin. You have a great day and I look forward to seeing you in Nottingham.