Burt Bacharach, who composed the music that was the soundtrack to the lives of people all over the world for generations, is gone. He died yesterday at 94.
The beautiful thing about Burt Bacharach’s songs is that they were so widely heard yet made such intensely personal connections. Which is why, as I list my favorite Burt Bacharach songs and interpreters, someone else might have an entirely different short list of equally great Burt Bacharach songs and interpreters. You just can’t go wrong with his body of work.
My introduction to Burt Bacharach’s songs came on the TV variety shows of the ’60s. Those were regular viewing at our house. I may have known the singer before knowing the composer, but I knew the songs.
“Walk On By” — Dionne Warwick, 1964. Probably the first song by Bacharach (and lyricist Hal David) that I came to know. A year later, the Baja Marimba Band covered it on one of the last albums my dad ever bought. You may not be familiar with this instrumental or this group, but it’s seared into my head. We played the bejeezus out of that record when we were kids. Plus my dad and I heard Dionne Warwick sing it live 15 years ago.
“Walk On By,” the Baja Marimba Band, from “Baja Marimba Band Rides Again,” 1965.
“What’s New Pussycat?” — Tom Jones, 1965. We kids would have had to have heard this on those old TV variety shows. How else would we have learned to sing “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” When we saw Tom Jones in Indianapolis last year, this was the fourth song in his set. He introduced it with a winding and good-natured retelling of the story of how he initially wasn’t impressed with the song, which Bacharach brought to him in 1965. “What’s New Pussycat?” became a sing-along, with Sir Tom directing the choir from his perch on the stage.
“What’s New Pussycat?” Tom Jones, from “What’s New Pussycat?” 1965.
“One Less Bell to Answer” — Keely Smith, 1967. Which is a perfectly fine version. But for me, the definitive version is by Marilyn McCoo with The 5th Dimension in 1970. It starts cool but turns into a scorcher of a torch song. I’d listen to Marilyn McCoo read the phone book. (Oh, yeah, dating myself there.) The 5th Dimension is one of the great (and underrated and underappreciated) singing groups of our time. Just watch them in “Summer of Soul,” the Questlove documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
“One Less Bell to Answer,” The 5th Dimension, from “Portrait,” 1970.
“What the World Needs Now Is Love” — Jackie DeShannon, 1965. That version is great, but the one that sticks with me is the one I heard so often on the radio in 1971 — “What the World Needs Now Is Love/Abraham, Martin and John” — a remix/mashup produced by Los Angeles DJ Tom Clay. Fierce social commentary and a contemporary American history lesson laid over/juxtaposed with Bacharach’s gentle, elegant classic. This version is sung by the Blackberries, the great West Coast trio best known as much-in-demand backup singers — Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King.
“(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” — Lou Johnson, 1964. Don’t remember hearing this original soul version, (on which Cissy Houston, Dee Dee Warwick and Doris Troy sing backup) or British pop singer Sandie Shaw’s cover later in 1964, or even R.B. Greaves’ cover in 1970 (which I discovered almost 40 years later). No, I don’t think I came to know this one until it became an MTV-driven synth-pop smash for Naked Eyes in 1983, and that is my definitive version.
“Casino Royale” — Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, 1967. Late to the party on this one, too. Always knew it was a cool instrumental. Never connected the dots to Burt Bacharach, though.
Four, maybe five years ago, my friend Jeff bought my copy of the “Casino Royale” soundtrack. Instant seller’s remorse. Wasn’t too long before I bought it back from him.
Burt Bacharach was married four times, once memorably to Angie Dickinson. They were the super cool, super glamorous couple of their time, the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. But now Burt is gone and the gorgeous Angie is 91.
Say a little prayer for them both.