Download: Wait…Was Burt Bacharach Always Cool?
As the cliché goes, timing is everything in life. Just three days ago, as I was scrolling through all my streaming options, looking for something to commit to, I came across a documentary about Dionne Warwick. Now look, Dionne Warwick has never been my jam, but I am endlessly fascinated by how music is made and by the people who make it (probably because I have zero musical talent of my own). Basically, even though I’m a rock and roll guy (Prince, U2, Bowie, and the Stones are among my favorites), I’ll watch just about any musical documentary put in front of me.
So, I went ahead and cued up Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, and I pressed play. It’s a fine documentary that touches on Warwick’s humble beginnings, her path through stardom, and even her stint on the Psychic Friends Network. But the most interesting portion of the doc covered the nine years that Warwick worked almost exclusively with Burt Bacharach. Over that stint, they produced some of the most massive and indelible hits of the ‘60s. “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk on By,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and “This Girl’s in Love With You” are just a few of the huge hits Bacharach and his then songwriting partner Hal David had with Warwick.
And to be honest with you, for many years, I really didn’t like any of those songs. Sure, some grew on me as my taste changed over time, but for the most part, I thought this was cornball stuff. Saccharine lyrics, excessively swoony strings, and the nagging feeling that this music just isn’t cool. But then a funny thing happened as I was watching Don’t Make Me Over as the songs they recorded together played over the top of the story, I began to notice how sophisticated the melodies and harmonies are. What Bacharach and David did was create songs that require the singer to truly be an additional instrument on the song, and their complex chord and time changes struck me as, well, otherworldly. I don’t mind telling you, I’ve been cueing up Dionne Warwick on my Apple Music for a few days now, and it’s getting really good to me.
Of course, Bacharach’s career is hardly limited to his association with Hal David and Dionne Warwick. Artists from those as square as Andy Williams and Engelbert Humperdinck to those with everlasting cool like Dusty Springfield and Elvis Costello have recorded Bacharach songs. Bacharach’s string-laden arrangements and songs of love and longing were a natural fit for film too. Over his incredibly long career, Bacharach was nominated for six Oscars, winning three (Best Original Song for Arthur’s Theme and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as best score for Butch and Sundance).
Look, at a certain point, you just have to say, “I give.” If a person has enough success for a lengthy duration, you may have to accept that while you may not like what they create, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, if you wait a few decades, you just might find yourself idling through your TV options, and on a whim, making a choice that makes you rethink the entirety of someone’s career and what they accomplished. While Burt Bacharach’s sound was not one I typically favored, there can be no doubt that it was his sound, and his sound alone.
How many artists can say that? Only the geniuses, I suspect, and all geniuses are cool.