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Burt Bacharach Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at the career of singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach with an emphasis on the songs created for or featured in motion pictures. Bacharach had a prolific career creating songs for mainstream pop musicians and for movies and television shows.

Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1928. His family relocated to Queens, New York where he grew up. Bacharach studied the cello, drums and piano and was influenced by jazz musicians Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. He played with several jazz combos and was schooled at the Mannes School of Music in New York and McGill University in Montreal. After serving in the United States military, Bacharach worked as the piano accompanist to singer Vic Damone as well as other performers on the club circuit. Bacharach traveled Europe as the pianist and bandleader for Marlene Dietrich.

In the 1950s Bacharach met Hal David and the two of them had a fruitful working relationship. Bacharach and David’s first major successes were the songs “The Story of My Life,” recorded by the country singer Marty Robbins and later by Michael Holliday, and “Magic Moments” which was a hit song for Perry Como.

This began a legendary songwriting career that spanned seven decades and netted Academy Awards and Grammys. Bacharach’s work was ubiquitous. His songs were featured on stage, on screen, and in commercials. The roster of musicians recording his songs included Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Christopher Cross, The Carpenters, Diana King, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. Bacharach also collaborated with notable producers and songwriters such as Tim Rice, Elvis Costello, and Dr. Dre. Bacharach died in February 2023.

“What’s New, Pussycat?” is the title song to the 1965 movie which was the first feature film written by and starring Woody Allen. The movie was a comedy about a womanizer struggling to remain faithful to his fiancé. The song “What’s New, Pussycat?” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and was performed, somewhat reluctantly, by Tom Jones. The song earned an Academy Award nomination and Jones’ recording reached the number three position on the US Top 40 chart.

Bacharach and David collaborated on the title song for another comedy about a womanizer, 1966’s Alfie. The movie starred Michael Caine as a lothario who begins to regret his lifestyle. The song was reportedly one of Bacharach’s favorite compositions. Alfie was first released in the United Kingdom with an all-instrumental score by Sonny Rollins. The song “Alfie” was added for the American release. Dionne Warwick originally recorded the song but the version in the US release was performed by Cher. A version of “Alfie” sung by Cilla Black was added to the U.K. re-release. Both versions of the song became radio hits in their respective countries. A remake of Alfie was released in 2004 and it featured a new recording of the song performed by Joss Stone.

One of Burt Bacharach’s early hits was the title song for the 1958 movie The Blob, a drive-in monster movie starring Steve McQueen. A meteor lands in the countryside and unleashes a gelatinous mass that absorbs every living thing that comes into contact with it. The title song was written by Burt Bacharach & Mack David and became a hit. “The Blob” is regularly featured on Halloween compilation albums. The song was also featured in the 1972 sequel Beware! The Blob.

One of Burt Bacharach’s most successful songs was “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” which he cowrote with Hal David for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a buddies-in-action western starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The single version of the song performed by B. J. Thomas charted number one in the United States and sold over 3 million units worldwide. Bacharach’s work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won him Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Song for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” This song has subsequently appeared in numerous films and television shows.  

The April Fools was a 1969 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve as two strangers who meet and fall in love only to find out that she is the wife of his boss. The title song for The April Fools was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and was performed by their regular collaborator Dionne Warwick.

“What the World Needs Now is Love” is one of Burt Bacharach’s most often covered songs.  It was first recorded by Jackie DeShannon in 1965. The song became popular in part because it was adopted by the anti-Vietnam War movement. “What the World Needs Now is Love” was subsequently covered by The 4 Seasons, Patty Duke, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis Jr. & Buddy Rich, Peggy March, Tony Bennett, James Brown, and Luther Vandross among many others. “What the World Needs Now is Love” has also appeared in many films and television shows including titles as diverse as The Boss Baby, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Forrest Gump, Little Man Tate, Hot Shots!, and Who’s That Girl? The song’s first appearance in a feature film was 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

The song “(They Long to Be) Close to You” was written Burt Bacharach and Hal David and was most famously recorded by The Carpenters for whom the song was a major hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary charts. “Close to You” was also recorded by Bacharach and David’s frequent collaborators Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, and Dusty Springfield as well as Diana Ross, Nancy Wilson, Perry Como, Isaac Hayes, and Frank Sinatra. The song has been featured in many films and television shows including The Simpsons, Sex and the City, There’s Something About Mary, Parenthood, and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. “Close to You” figured prominently in 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, a comedy starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. 

The song “Wishin’ & Hopin’” was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1963 but the song is most associated with Dusty Springfield who released her own version in 1964. The Springfield version of “Wishin’ & Hopin” has frequently appeared in movies and television shows such as Last Night in Soho, At Home at the End of the World, and Ted Lasso. However, the first appearance of “Wishin’ & Hopin’” in a feature film was 1979’s Quadrophenia in which the song was performed by The Merseybeats.

The 1967 film Casino Royale was a loose adaption of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The 007 series was already underway with Sean Connery in the role and Casino Royale was released the same year as You Only Live Twice. 1967’s Casino Royale was conceived as a satire of the Bond series and it featured Peter Sellers, David Niven, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles as well as Ursula Andress who had played the Bond girl Honey Rider in Dr. No. Burt Bacharach composed the music for Casino Royale and co-wrote the song “The Look of Love” which was performed by Dusty Springfield. The song has appeared in numerous movies and television shows.

1967’s Casino Royale was made in the psychedelic style of the late 1960s and the movie and the song “The Look of Love” proved influential on the Austin Powers series. “The Look of Love” supposedly inspired Mike Myers to create the Austin Powers character and Burt Bacharach had cameos in all three Austin Powers films. Bacharach collaborated with Elvis Costello on a recording of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” for The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack.

Early in his career Burt Bacharach had co-created the Broadway stage musical Promises, Promises which was an adaptation of the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment. The show was a success and Promises, Promises originated of the song “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Burt Bacharach and Hal David made another attempt at a musical with 1973’s Lost Horizon, a remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 film. 1973’s Lost Horizon was a critical and commercial disaster. The soundtrack did marginally better and several songs were released as singles. According to Bacharach, Lost Horizon nearly ended his career. The aftermath of the film resulted in a temporary falling out between Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Dionne Warwick.

Burt Bacharach collaborated with Carole Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross and Peter Allen on the theme for the 1981 film Arthur. The picture starred Dudley Moore as a billionaire who must choose between love and money. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the American Film Institute named “Arthur’s Theme” one of the hundred greatest songs in American cinema. The band Fitz and the Tantrums recorded a cover of “Arthur’s Theme” for the 2011 remake.

Burt Bacharach’s career is a good example of the way film music can transcend the motion picture it was written for and have a life of its own. 1982’s Night Shift was one of the first films directed by Ron Howard. The film was a comedy starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelly Long in which a former Wall Street stockbroker runs a brothel out of a New York City morgue. Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager wrote several songs for Night Shift, most notably “That’s What Friends Are For” which was recorded by Rod Stewart for the film. The song was subsequently recorded by Dionne Warwick and released as a charity single to fund AIDS research. “That’s What Friends Are For” was the biggest success of Bacharach’s career. The Warwick version was the best-selling single of 1986 in the United States and won multiple Grammy Awards including Song of the Year.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song “I Say a Little Prayer” was written from the point of view of a woman worrying about a loved one serving in the Vietnam War. The initial version of the song was recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967 and it was released as a single with the theme from The Valley of the Dolls as the B-side. The song was subsequently re-recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1968. “I Say a Little Prayer” returned to public consciousness with the release of the 1997 film My Best Friend’s Wedding starring Julia Roberts. The soundtrack featured several Burt Bacharach authored tunes and the success of My Best Friend’s Wedding, in concert with the first two Austin Powers movies, revitalized Bacharach’s career. The soundtrack for My Best Friend’s Wedding includes two versions of “I Say a Little Prayer:” one performed by Diana King and the other featuring the film’s cast.

Based on E.B. White’s book, 1999’s Stuart Little was about a family that adopts a mouse but their cat isn’t having it. Burt Bacharach collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on the song “Walking Tall” which was performed by Lyle Lovett.

One of Bacharach’s final film scores was 2016’s A Boy Called Po, a father and son drama about a boy with autism. Bacharach composed the score and co-wrote “Dancing with Your Shadow” with Billy Mann. The song was performed by Sheryl Crow.

Here is a 1999 60 Minutes profile of Burt Bacharach: