Bob (Baird) Meets Burt (Bacharach)

Back in 2003, in an uptown New York City studio, a man who epitomized cool in the 1960s waited patiently for my next question. Well into his 70s but still thin and handsome, Burt Bacharach was casually dapper in his contrasting sweater and polo shirt. In town to perform with Ronald Isley in support of their new record together, Here I Am—Isley Meets Bacharach, the songwriter extraordinaire is warm and approachable, wary but unusually guileless when answering the questions of a lifelong fan of his melodies, a fan who's trying hard to be professional and hide the fact that he's utterly starstruck.

As rhythm has become predominant in pop music and melody has receded in importance, Bacharach and lyricist Hal David's brand of sleek, memorable tune craft has slipped into history. Yet despite Bacharach's death in February 2023, at age 94, their body of work is timeless. While they knew how to gush in tunes like "This Guy's in Love with You" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," among others, they were at their best writing anti-love themes, such as "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "Are You There (With Another Girl)." Even better are the sweet'n'sour hybrids where heartbreak and hope mix—tunes like "A House Is Not a Home" and "Make It Easy on Yourself." David's lyrics, often a forgotten part of their collaborative artistry, were ace at detailing the downsides of love, whether contracting pneumonia from a kiss or how chairs do not make a home. While the gushing could sometimes become embarrassing, as in "What the World Needs Now Is Love," and the heartbreak could be maudlin, as in "A Lifetime of Loneliness," their best work acknowledged love's endless power for both redemption and ruin.

At one point during our afternoon together, this New York–native-become–Los Angelino—because where else can you play tennis all year round—quietly told me with a smile that as much as he desired it and as hard as he tried, he's no singer himself. Yet Bacharach's connection with singers was primal. He made them look good, and their instruments breathed life into his vision. This one-time accompanist to Vic Damone and Marlene Dietrich became expert at writing for voices, but he never made it easy for them. Uncontrolled vibrato or stumbling through the tricky twists and turns spelled instant failure in a Bacharach song.

But for singers with the chops to handle it, his songs were career makers. Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Jackie DeShannon, and Dionne Warwick all had hits with Bacharach/David numbers. Given how definitive many of the versions with female vocalists are, I have always suspected that Bacharach wrote many of his most emotional songs to be sung from a female viewpoint. Warwick's career is so intimately entwined with Bacharach/David productions that her feathery and nimble voice is what many fans think of when they think of Bacharach's music. Her album Dionne Warwick's Golden Hits—Part One, from 1967, collects many of those hits. Warwick is also a key part of the most comprehensive collection of Bacharach's music, The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-CD set Rhino Records released in 1998.

Bacharach and David challenged great singers to emote, to reach higher, to go places they'd never been before. Many of their creations have become standards. "Alfie," initially a hit for both Cilla Black and Cher, has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Welch. Although he wrote songs for singers to interpret in their own way, Bacharach always preferred to perform with singers, conducting and shaping live and recorded performances from the piano bench. His songwriting was nearly equaled by his prowess as an arranger. His distinct style was cinematic and rooted in strings and chic use of trumpets and French horns. No arranger has ever used a trumpet in pop music with more flair than he does in "Walk On By." The Bossa Nova–lite rhythm to "The Look of Love" is a brilliant touch. Arranging is also at the center of the all-instrumental easy listening albums he made under his own name, such as 1967's Burt Bacharach: Reach Out. His arrangements became the template for '60s seduction music, rechristened "bachelor pad music" in the early aughts.

Detractors, and they continue to be a passionate minority, are repelled by the elegant surfaces, cheesy lyrics, and string-soaked arrangements that, according to them, conceal vacuity and a $$$-focused insincerity. The directness and immediacy of singer/songwriters like Dylan made his music seem overly mannered and frivolous. Too cloying, crafty, or old school for later generations of music fans, who worshipped electric guitars, Bacharach's music—like the output of The Beatles, who became his contemporaries—exists in its own inimitable universe no matter who interprets it. The Beatles covered Burt's "Baby It's You" in 1963; in the US, the song appeared on Introducing...The Beatles.

The genius spark of writing singular melodies left him later in life than most. Following 20 years of silence, during which many thought his career was over, Bacharach united with Elvis Costello for 1998's Painted From Memory, a cowriting project that produced "God Give Me Strength," a hit from the soundtrack of the film Grace of My Heart.

The urge to supervise recordings of his music never left him. He shepherded the aforementioned Isley project, which turned out as haunting and effective as his '60s collaborations with Warwick. In recent years, Dutch singer Trijntje Oosterhuis has made a trio of studio albums and a live album of Bacharach's music, all sung in English, with the Metropole Orchestra, the composer on piano, Vince Mendoza conducting, and Al Schmitt as mix engineer. They all get to the heart of his music. And heart, in the end, is what Bacharach's music should be most remembered for.