The Man From Heaven

The songs of Burt Bacharach are enjoying a revival that seems unlikely only at first hearing.


Burt Bacharach

BURT Bacharach, the composer with the lyricist Hal David of "The Look of Love," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," was once the subject of an article in an academic quarterly, though the larger social significance of those and his other pop hits of the sixties and early seventies would seem to be nil. Almost two years after Bacharach won a pair of Oscars for his work on the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one for best original score and the other for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," Bruce A. Lohof's "The Bacharach Phenomenon: A Study in Popular Heroism" appeared in the Winter, 1972, issue of Popular Music and Society, a journal published at Bowling Green State University. Lohof discussed Bacharach's music in some detail, acknowledging its melodic sophistication and metrical complexity, but what most interested him was Bacharach's emergence as a "national idol" -- a celebrity songwriter who was to his day what Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter had been to theirs.
According to Lohof, Bacharach met several of the criteria of popular (as opposed to classical) heroism that had been outlined by a sociologist named Orrin E. Klapp some twenty years earlier. Bacharach's two Oscars, along with a pair of 1970 Grammys, qualified as "formal recognition and honor." As for "the building up of an idealized image or legend of the hero," two television specials devoted to Bacharach and a series of best-selling albums that featured him conducting orchestral versions of his hits had gained for him a degree of visibility almost unheard of for a songwriter not primarily identified as a singer. He had even appeared on the cover of Newsweek. And though Lohof discreetly downplayed the point, it didn't hurt that Bacharach was married to the actress Angie Dickinson, a thinking man's trophy blonde who had been John Wayne's love interest in Rio Bravo, Frank Sinatra's in Ocean's Eleven, and, according to rumor, one of John F. Kennedy's in real life.

Lohof's thesis appeared to be that a modern-day hero like Bacharach, as much image as flesh and blood, was made of flimsier stuff than the mythological heroes of antiquity. On what seems to have been intended as a lighter note, the author observed that Bacharach's "total" heroism -- his fulfillment of Klapp's final two criteria, "commemoration" and "established cult" -- might depend on his death in an automobile accident or a plane crash.

Yet a quarter century later, after dying only in the metaphorical, show-business sense -- nothing new on the pop charts for a seven-year stretch beginning in 1974, and then nothing new on them since Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald's No. 1 recording of "On My Own," in 1986 -- Bacharach has seen his name become synonymous with the craft of songwriting at its most elegant and imperiled. He is a cultural signifier -- far more meaningful than being the face on a posthumous postage stamp. Just as John Coltrane's name is dropped by black essayists and novelists to signify artistic commitment and racial pride, Bacharach's is pressed into service by pop-record reviewers to commend groups that at least recognize the value of good songs, even if they haven't figured out how to write any yet.

BACHARACH and David's hits, because they were pop rather than rock, were anomalies in their own day -- bridges across the generational divide, built by men born in the 1920s, whose musical sensibilities were formed before the onslaught of rock-and-roll. While competing for a rung on the Top 40 with Lennon and McCartney and with the Motown songwriting and producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Bacharach and David were also competing for movie assignments with older writers such as Dimitri Tiomkin, Johnny Mercer, and Jimmy Van Heusen. ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" was Bacharach and David's fourth song to be nominated for an Oscar, following their title songs for What's New Pussycat? and Alfie and "The Look of Love," from Casino Royale.)

Bacharach and David were also, however fleetingly, men of the theater. On her 1995 album The Story Goes On, the cabaret singer Liz Callaway includes a medley of "Promises, Promises" and "Knowing When to Leave," from Bacharach and David's only Broadway score (Promises,), alongside songs from Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, and Merrily We Roll Along. The two Bacharach and David songs seem out of place in this company only because Callaway, with the overearnestness typical of so many younger cabaret performers, sounds as if she's mentally counting beats on them. Her rendition of "Promises, Promises" -- a song that starts off in a 3/4 time too fast and diabolically syncopated to be called a waltz and then changes meter twenty times, often after just one bar -- makes one yearn for Dionne Warwick, Bacharach and David's premier interpreter. On her hit 1968 recording of the song Warwick refused to be thrown by any of this rhythmic trickery, let alone by the many notes she was required to hold for a measure while the chords and instrumentation behind her shifted along with the rhythm.

Warwick appeared with Bacharach on cable television last New Year's Eve. American Movie Classics promoted their gala concert at the Rainbow Room (which had been taped several weeks earlier) as an attempt to restore "elegance" and "glamour" to a New York New Year's Eve -- that is, as an alternative to Dick Clark and rock-and-roll in Times Square. Thus Bacharach was positioned as the new Guy Lombardo.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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