• Mon. May 15th, 2023

Always Something There to Remind Me

ByGurinderbir Singh

Feb 15, 2023

The Martini & Rossi voice was real, a kind of breathy huskiness with a little hesitation behind it. That hesitation suggested not shyness but invitation. Might you listen to me? Just for a moment? He didn’t attack notes so much as glide over them, like a skater going around and around the ice in lovely circles. Burt Bacharach, who died on February 8th, might have been the first to say that he wasn’t a great singer, not a superlative vocalist in the way that any number of the extraordinary women he helped become stars were, Dionne Warwick being the most obvious example. Rather, he learned, I think, from working with performers like Marlene Dietrich, whose musical director he was for six years during the mid-nineteen-fifties and early sixties. It would be impossible not to learn from that consummate show woman if you spent enough time with her—she was so precise—and I’m sure that one of the things she taught him was that, if you had a limited instrument, as she did, you could still use it, you could still be expressive and controlled, in a way that listeners would want to tap into.

In a 2015 interview, Bacharach said that Dietrich’s music “sucked,” but he liked her. Sometimes she would call him on short notice, and he’d fly to Warsaw for a single show: “I’d walk down the stairs from the plane . . . and she’d be standing there wearing a Dior scarf, with a bottle of vodka, pouring me a drink. Right there in the snow!” These flashes of glamour, Bacharach’s eye for feminine charm, and his ability to listen to female artists, to accept them, and shape them according to their and his specifications are part of what makes Bacharach’s 2013 autobiography, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” so enjoyable to read, along with the composer’s stories about his perfectionism in the studio and his inability to go the distance when it came to romantic love and family. The title of his memoir refers not only to his early hit of the same name, written with the outstanding lyricist Hal David (Warwick’s 1963 rendition helped make David and Bacharach the go-to guys for what I call existential pop, songwriters who asked real questions about life and love); it also alludes to Bacharach’s own feelings of distance—his relative heartlessness—when it came to his daughter, Nikki.

Born prematurely in 1966, Nikki was autistic; somewhat ironically and painfully, she couldn’t bear noise. Although she was the only child of Bacharach and the actress Angie Dickinson—the couple married in 1965 and divorced in 1981—Nikki was never really accepted by her father, and it fell to Dickinson to care for her, which she did with complete devotion. In his memoir, Bacharach describes Dickinson’s mothering with admiration, but you don’t get the sense that he would have sacrificed his songwriting to be a better anything—not a better husband or father, certainly—because it was only through working that he felt he could share his life and control it.

Where did he come from? Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to Jewish parents, in 1928, he moved to Kew Gardens, Queens, when he was just a kid. His father, Bert, was a newspaper columnist, and his mother, Irma, painted and played the piano. Irma was a force, and she insisted that her son learn to play the piano and other instruments. The first musical artists Bacharach was drawn to were Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, whose various complexities—and the apparent ease with which they poured forth—no doubt inspired some of the complexity Bacharach brought to pop music, which he began to explore after a stint as an Army dance-band arranger in Germany. Back in the U.S., he became an accompanist for the singer Vic Damone, and worked with Dietrich and others, before he and his then collaborator Hal David realized that Warwick, who was cutting demos for them, was really a star.

Those records—“Make It Easy on Yourself,” “Walk On By,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” all written and recorded between 1962 and 1968—did something profound to my way of hearing pop. They seemed to say that you didn’t have to sacrifice moral and emotional ambiguity for aural coherence, that a smooth sound wasn’t perforce a simple one. As a trio, those three gave music a different kind of voice; it wasn’t limited to one genre—not soul, not country, not standards. It was metropolitan in its sophistication, evoking a sometimes lonely, twilight world of cocktails and confidences. I remember my four older sisters dancing to Dionne Warwick in their bedroom before going out for the evening. As I watched them, my admiration for their beauty was enhanced by the music. Songwriters like Bob Dylan weren’t really known in my household in those years, but Bacharach was; when my sisters saw him on television, they were turned on by his charm, by the way he bent into a song, how he seemed to embody miscegenation in his tux—a Jewish guy with all that “real” soul that could make a Black girl melt. Or any girl, really. Look at the way Barbra Streisand talks and flirts with him on his 1971 special, “Singer Presents Burt Bacharach.”

In 2013, after I reviewed “What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined,” an incredible show devoted to David and Bacharach’s music at New York Theatre Workshop, the maestro contacted me, not only to thank me for the piece but to discuss how he could move the work forward. Somehow, during the course of our two or three conversations—he was late to one because he was taking his exercise in his swimming pool—he asked me about myself, a rare gesture from a celebrity, but seduction was his business. I told him that one of my sisters, who loved his music so much, was ill. After that, he always asked after my sister, and once, when I was visiting her, I asked him if he would mind saying hi. Why, not at all. I put my sister on the phone with Bacharach, and I could see her cheeks flush and a kind of girlishness flood her face as he said some kind words. After putting the phone down, she said, “That was really Burt Bacharach.” It was. There was no mistaking his voice, or what it could engender in women and men alike: that close-to-you feeling, if only for a moment. ♦

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