The list of songwriters who don’t sing but who you can still recognize on sight is a short one. Burt Bacharach, the three-time Academy Award winner who died at 94 on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, was the epitome of the celebrity songwriter. With his thin, angular face, trademark turtlenecks, and thatch of gray-white hair, he was a visual embodiment of effortless mid-20th century cool. “Easy listening” in the flesh.
Bacharach’s best songs are iconic. None more so than the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (for which he also won the Academy Award for Best Original Score — he’d later win his third Oscar, Best Original Song, for “Arthur’s Theme”). If there’s a song from that era with tinkly piano and a chorus of “na-na-na,” you’re probably listening to a Bacharach song. But the “easy listening” label attached to him, and to songs like “What the World Needs Now,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and “This Guy’s in Love with You” — the latter two of which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart — was deceptive.
Bacharach’s songs, with the immortal contribution of lyricist Hal David, are about loneliness and longing, bouncy enough to encourage surface-level reads that ignore the profound ironies that often lie within. Anyone who hears “Walk on By,” his signature song for one of his greatest ongoing collaborators, Dionne Warwick, can’t help be struck by its mercurial depths. Was Bacharach taken seriously enough as a songwriter? There’s an argument to say that he wasn’t, that the popularity of his work obscured its artistry. How the dickens was Bacharach never recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors?
IndieWire will not overlook him as well. His contributions to movies and TV of the past 60 years can’t be praised enough. But here are his eight best music moments worthy of your attention.
With contributions from Tom Brueggemann, Steve Greene, and Dana Harris-Bridson.
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Bacharach's Collaboration with Marlene Dietrich
Before he became a songwriter, Bacharach at 28 first achieved major success as Marlene Dietrich’s arranger and conductor for her concert career. Per Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva, his transformative influence shaped her mother’s work and image in a manner similar to that of the man who made her a star, director Josef von Sternberg. “No one ever was a better arranger for Dietrich’s vocal capacity than Bacharach,” she wrote. What had been a nightclub act became a wildly successful multi-year international tour that cemented the Dietrich legend.” It was during his time with her that he, in his spare time, started to write songs.—TB
"What's New Pussycat?"
Bacharach earned his first Oscar nomination with Tom Jones’ signature song. The Welsh heartthrob belted out those whoa-whoa-whoa’s with parody-ready gusto. Listening to Jones’ booming voice accompanied by a tinny piano, playing over the sequined title sequence of the 1965 film of the same name, is perhaps peak ’60s. This is the Bacharach which made him perfect to appear as himself in all three “Austin Powers” movies.
"The Look of Love"
Bacharach’s third Oscar nomination — after “What’s New Pussycat?” and “Alfie” — was for “The Look of Love,” the seductive song sung by a silky Dusty Springfield over the ridiculous James Bond parody movie “Casino Royale.” One moment in slow motion in front of a fish tank was particularly memorable.
If you want a plush ’60s sound, this is it. Of course, it was inevitable Matthew Weiner would use it for “Mad Men,” and initially, he included it in the Season 5 premiere in 2012. But nitpicking fans pointed out that the song was not released until six months after the events depicted in the episode, so Weiner had it retroactively removed.
Bacharach’s second Best Song Oscar nomination, again with Hal David writing the lyrics, was “Alfie” from the 1966 British film of the same name that made Michael Caine a star. Taking its cue from a line of dialogue (“What’s it all about?”), it was used under the end credits with Cilla Black in the original U.K. release, then with Cher’s version for most of the world including the U.S. Neither version made much of an impact on U.S. charts. But a year after its initial release, Dionne Warwick’s cover reached #15 on Billboard. It lost the Oscar to “Born Free,” which had the advantage of already having been a Top 10 hit ahead of the awards.—TB
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"
“Raindrops” is the major cultural takeaway from “Butch Cassidy from Sundance Kid,” but Bacharach’s most impressive achivement in heading up that film’s music is “South American Getaway,” a five-minute opus that seems like a minor miracle a half-century later. Who else could possibly underscore a negotiation and a tense escape with a handful of vocalists singing wordless syllables and easy listening harmonies over a session band? Those vocal swells! Those horns! That one jazzy drum fill transition from those a cappella sections! That tambourine!! And with a single violin line underneath it all that proved his gift for melody didn’t just rest on notes coming out of the mouths of singers. All put together, it’s a perfect example of Bacharach’s skill, his ability to create something so inextricably linked to a time and place that it became timeless in the process. —SG
"What the World Needs Now Is Love"
In “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” Bacharach’s music provides the sole soundtrack to one of the most enigmatic endings in cinema. After the four friends utterly fail in their attempt at swinging, they silently emerge from their Las Vegas hotel room. As Bob (Robert Culp) presses the elevator button, a mournful French horn kicks in to introduce “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Jackie DeShannon’s singing tracks them through the casino until, two by two, the hotel guests file out behind the quartet. Everyone from a priest to a man in a Native American headdress silently mingles in the parking lot, sharing only warm smiles. And, Scene.—DHB
"I Say a Little Prayer"
“I Say a Little Prayer,” with its kneejerk tempo change leading into that all-time earworm of a chorus “For-ever! And ever! (You’ll stay in my heart / and I love you!)” is a natural fit for a moment of increasing freneticism in any rom-com. In fact, after Dionne Warwick debuted it in 1967, followed by an equally popular version by Aretha Franklin not long after, it appeared in the delightful 1969 rom-com “The April Fools” just to that end. Nearly three decades later it was used in a similar way, for an impromptu, slightly unhinged group performance, in the Julia Roberts vehicle “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Try to get this one out of your head. We dare you.
"That's What Friends Are For"
Maybe the ultimate karaoke jam to drunkenly sing with friends from the Bacharach songbook, “That’s What Friends Are For” made its debut in the early Ron Howard movie “Night Shift,” sung by Rod Stewart. But the version that’s embedded in people’s brains is the all-star fundraiser edition in the mode of “We Are the World.” This version, performed by Dionne & Friends (basically Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Gladys Knight), made its debut in 1987. “We Are the World” was to raise money for USA for Africa, and “That’s What Friends Are For” was to raise money to help in the fight against AIDS at a time when the U.S. government remained starkly indifferent to the deadly effect of the epidemic within the LGBT community.