Rest in peace, Burt Bacharach: A celebration of his greatest songs

(Above: Burt with Dusty Springfield on his television show, 1969)

In terms of loss to the Great American Songbook, this is a big one.

Burt Bacharach passed away yesterday at the age of 94.

Just the numbers on Bacharach’s career are staggering. He won a Grammy award six times, which was a much lower number than I would have guessed. The Academy Award was his three times; twice for Best Song, with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” winning the award. (He also wrote “The Look of Love” and “What’s New Pussycat?”, which could have claimed a few more.) In total compositions penned by Bacharach hit the US Top 40 charts seventy-three times. If we count the cover versions of his work, over a thousand singers have recorded him.

As is often the case, when a songwriter of such magnitude passes, there’s a focus on the biggies. That’s easy here, since there’s a slew of #1 songs to pick from. Of course, just because a track hits the top doesn’t mean it’s the best – at least not from where I sit. Instead, I’ll make this one personal and spotlight some of the tracks that Bacharach wrote – some with Hal David’s help, some without – that I thought of as I read the news this morning.

The Blob” – The Five Blobs (1958). We’re going to jump right in with something ridiculous. While The Blob is a horror (?) classic, you might not have the theme song rolling off of your tongue. Let’s fix that, because it’s fantastic. Bacharach started his writing career in 1952 after getting out of the Army, and was already a Brill Building success story by the end of that decade, inking a Country chart-topper for Marty Robbins in “The Story of My Life” in 1957. Lest you think there isn’t any versatility here, the next year he followed that with… this. I sought out this 45 for a long time and finally found it a few years ago. This made it to #33 on the charts, so ask your local Oldies station to dig it up for you. It’ll ooze around in your brain for a while.

“Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)” – Chuck Jackson (1962), Ronnie Milsap (1982). This one is such a great record that it transcends format. Co-written with Bob Hilliard, it’s hard to go wrong with any iteration. The Milsap version is the biggest hit at #14, but don’t sleep on the Elvis cover, either.

“Make It Easy On Yourself” – Jerry Butler (1962), The Walker Brothers (1965), Dionne Warwick (1970). The Walker Brothers took this to the top of the charts in the UK. Did I mention that there are 52 British Top 40 hits to Burt’s credit as well? Despite that, I think I give the nod to the Iceman, but that could be my Chicago bias. It could also be because the two versions are so similar. (No, I’m not picking Ms. Warwick here, but she’ll get her due soon enough.)

“(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me” – Lou Johnson (1964), Sandie Shaw (1965), Dionne Warwick (1968), R.B. Greaves (1970), Naked Eyes (1983). It would be really super easy to pick the Naked Eyes version, which was constantly on the radio and on MTV when I was in high school. (I just gave a lecture to radio students last week about how you will always, always listen to the songs that were popular when you were in high school, even if you didn’t like them at the time.) But instead I will give the nod here to the original. Lou Johnson’s version is simultaneously peppy and a little sad.

Don’t Make Me Over” (1962), “Walk On By” (1964), “I Say a Little Prayer” (1967), “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (1968), “Promises Promises” (1968), “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (1969) – all Dionne Warwick. Take your pick out of this stack of hits. In total Dionne’s voice put Burt’s words on the charts 22 times – and that’s just the Top 40 hits. This was a partnership that just clicked. I could have taken this a lot deeper, too – Dionne’s version of “This Girl’s In Love With You” serves as a fantastic answer to the Herb Alpert original – and made #7 on its own. But out of this pile, we have some absolute gold. “Don’t Make Me Over” is a fantastically powerful record. I will always crank the volume just a bit on “San Jose” no matter the circumstance. And “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” may be the most well-known track in this catalog – spanning generations and getting a new life when it appeared in an Austin Powers film performed by Elvis Costello in 1999.

Turkey Lurkey Time” – The cast of Promises, Promises (1968). I couldn’t let this one pass by. Bacharach was responsible for this show, which claimed Actor and Actress Tony awards in 1969. (The music award missed Bacharach, though, instead going to 1776, a fine show in its own right.) But this earworm isn’t just for Thanksgiving, and the choreography here is a thing of art.

Casino Royale,” Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (1968). This, and The Look of Love” by Dusty Springfield, were key to one of my favorite films of the period, the original Casino Royale. (I know, it’s a delicious train wreck of a film, but I like it.) Here again we see the versatility of the songwriting on display here. Herb Alpert and the TJB was always a go-to for cruising music in our youth, and “Casino Royale” sounds great at full blast on the highway – especially the high trumpet note. And I defy you to find something more than Dusty’s performance here.

What The World Needs Now” -Jackie DeShannon (1965). Pop songs don’t get much better than this record. I, for one, could listen to Jackie DeShannon sing the phone book and be OK with it. (Same with Karen Carpenter, and hey – Burt wrote “Close To You” as well, which of course was a 1970 #1 for The Carpenters.) But this song just has that ability to stop you in your tracks on the worst of days and give you hope. It’s a powerful piece of music pretending to be light entertainment. (It’s also powerful in the hands of Detroit DJ Tom Clay, as was done in 1971.)

Nikki” – Burt Bacharach (1969). While we are on the subject of films and instrumentals: This song didn’t chart, and I’m guessing that you don’t recognize it by name. But if you watched the ABC “Movie of the Week” from 1969 to 1975, you recognize it. Nikki was Burt’s daughter from his marriage to Angie Dickinson, and he named it for her. “Nikki” – Burt Bacharach (1969). While we are on the subject of films and instrumentals: This song didn’t chart, and I’m guessing that you don’t recognize it by name. But if you watched the ABC “Movie of the Week” from 1969 to 1975, you recognize it. Nikki was Burt’s daughter from his marriage to Angie Dickinson, and he named it for her.

The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” – Burt Bacharach (1968). OK – Burt gets the label credit, but that’s clearly not him singing. It’s going to take some research to figure out just who is, however, as I can’t seem to turn it up. What I can say is that the song itself goes back to the early 1960s; the hope was to develop another routine Christmas legend that could be animated (think Frosty, Rudolph, etc.). It didn’t work, and the song remained in relative obscurity save a few Oldies stations that I programmed along the way. More popular versions were done by Herb Alpert (on his fantastic Christmas album) and by Bobby Vinton. This later iteration is a great example of the Bacharach sound; if you needed to explain it to someone, you could start here and it would make sense.

There are many more that I could list here. But if I have to pick one song that stands out of the pile, at least for me, it’s “My Little Red Book.” Originally released by Manfred Mann in 1965, it’s better known in the States as the debut single for Arthur Lee and Love – a band that I haven’t written about and should. Love’s version of the song is a sort of proto-punk that when my students hear it, they have a hard time thinking that it’s from 1966. (The version turned in by The Litter in 1969 is a hauntingly psychedelic take that perhaps didn’t get much airplay for good reason.) I picked up the 45 in Moline in 1989 and included it – along with Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo,” ironically – on a compilation of “lost” 60s hits on cassette. (Now there’s a mixtape to track down in the basement.) Despite only topping out at #52 on the charts, it’s a song that I always enjoyed, and yet had no idea that Bacharach had written it, for as performed by Love it doesn’t “sound” like one of his hits.

I’d say that’s a true testament to the skill that was lost with his passing.


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