The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection
Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach
This is what a cultural resurrection looks like nowadays when the system is really working. The machinery is oiled and the gears properly lined up as a body of once-discarded material is inserted again and permitted to work its way, at first randomly (as a test) and then with increasing calculation, through the layers of the marketing universe, to issue as a collection of shrinkwrapped products to be duly catalogued and appraised in a range of magazines and television shows.
The case in point is that of the music of Burt Bacharach, the songwriter, film composer, arranger, and producer (and sometime performer) who enjoyed a remarkable run of hit records throughout the 1960s and then largely disappeared from view, after a disastrous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon and the breakup of his long collaboration with the lyricist Hal David. In the twelve years or so of unbroken success preceding the Shangri-La debacle, he had come to be viewed not only as a last bastion of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of the well-crafted song—hitting the Top 40 again and again with songs that even Tony Bennett could love—but as an involuntary emblem of whatever notion of luxurious glamour the beleaguered epoch could cling to. If discussions of his music tended to revolve around the complexity of its meters or the novelty of its instrumentation, discussions of Bacharach himself focused on things like his marriage (one of four) in 1965 to Angie Dickinson, the casual elegance of his clothes, the relaxed, almost bashful grace with which he appeared to enjoy the comfortable trappings of his life, his movie-star looks (he was, in the words of Sammy Cahn, “the only songwriter who doesn’t look like a dentist”).
The brilliance of his music seemed to bestow on him the rare fate of being able to enjoy his good fortune without the slightest twinge of guilt: he was simply the luckiest of guys. Then, having achieved this apotheosis, he proceeded to fade slowly into a Southern Californian haze. Not that he ever stopped working, or indeed altogether stopped having hits; he won an Oscar for the main title theme from the 1981 movie Arthur; he married the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and collaborated with her extensively; with Sager and a number of others he wrote the 1985 song “That’s What Friends Are For,” whose profits were donated to help fund AIDS research. These however were little more than after-echoes of the stream of songs he wrote for Dionne Warwick and other singers during the period that generated now-standard tunes such as “Wives and Lovers” (1963), “Walk On By” (1964), “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (1965), “Alfie,” and “I Say a Little Prayer” (both 1967), to cite only some of those that have been most hackneyed through repetition.
Perhaps the worst enemy of Bacharach’s reputation was the numbing effect of hearing his five or six most familiar songs trotted out on oldies stations or transmuted into appropriate …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.