A highly productive—and tragic—musical life
MUSIC | Remembering hit songwriter Burt Bacharach
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In January, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello announced the forthcoming release of The Songs of Bacharach & Costello to celebrate their quarter century of intermittent collaborations. Then, four weeks later, Bacharach died. He was 94.
His teamwork with Costello was the last in his long line of celebrated songwriting partnerships, the best known and most successful of which was with the lyricist Hal David.
From 1957 through 1972, Bacharach and David wrote career-defining hits for B.J. Thomas, Gene Pitney, Bobby Vinton, Dusty Springfield, Jackie DeShannon, Tom Jones, the 5th Dimension, Cilla Black, and the Carpenters.
The duo’s go-to interpreter, however, was Dionne Warwick. Beginning in 1962, the Warwick-Bacharach-David consortium placed 20 songs in the Top 40 over eight years. The seven that made the Top 10—“Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”—exemplified sophisticated ’60s pop at its most seemingly effortless.
It wasn’t effortless, of course. The classically trained Bacharach labored long and hard over arrangements, production, and melodies, and the resulting insomnia and dependence on sleeping pills plagued him for years.
His perfectionism proved debilitating in other ways too. When the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon on which he had exhausted himself for two years bombed and handed him his first massive failure, he spiraled into a lost decade. “I disappeared from Hal,” Bacharach wrote in his autobiography, “I disappeared from Dionne, and I disappeared from my marriage.”
The marriage was his second, his wife the actress Angie Dickinson. He would marry twice more, finally finding stability with the ski instructor Janie Hanson, whom he met on the slopes when he was 61. (She was 29.)
He would also experience a rebirth of his cool thanks to his work with the ever-hip Costello and his appearances in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films.
But nothing made up for what became his biggest regret: his failure to “be there” enough for his daughter Nikki, who suffered from Asperger’s but was undiagnosed until she was 34, by which time she’d come to resent her father for having committed her to an institution for 10 years. She took her own life at 40.
In 1969, he named an instrumental after her that became the theme song of the ABC Movie of the Week. It was the most significant—and the saddest—Bacharach melody ever.