Burt Bacharach’s Secret to Writing Timeless Music: ‘Don’t Overwhelm’

One of the greatest American composers of all time, Burt Bacharach passed away earlier today at at 94. In celebration of him — and his long, unparalleled life — I unearthed my previously unpublished full interview with the beloved Bacharach on November 14, 2003.

Our conversation took place eight days after my mother and I saw him and Ron Isley perform their collaborative album, Here I Am, with a full orchestra at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills, California. Tears gushed copiously onstage and in the crowd as Isley and Bacharach delivered one of the most touching concert performances of that — or any other — year.

The record, subtitled Isley Meets Bacharach, featured them reinterpreting “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Alfie,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “Count on Me” and more classic pop songs whose arrangements Bacharach had composed.

Here is the transcript of our conversation:

Hi, Mr. Bacharach. How are you?

I’m OK. A little pressed, a little rushed. I’m working with this symphony here in Pittsburgh [and] a couple things went a little off last night. Not with the symphony; they’re really good. Just a couple [of] mechanical problems. But I’ll try to give you as much time as I can.

Thanks very much, I really appreciate it. I spoke with Ron a couple days ago, and he said you’re thinking about extending the tour.

We definitely should. He’s in Atlanta now on tour. And I’m here with the symphony here in Pittsburgh.

We did these two showcases, these two concerts, and they were unbelievable. The music felt so great. They just sent me the review by Stephen Holden of the New York Times. You can’t get a better review than that. I’m sorry you didn’t get to see it.

Actually, I was at the Los Angeles performance.

You were there! Oh, good.

It was phenomenal.

Same thing happened in New York, you know? It’s very exciting doing this onstage together. As exciting as it was in L.A., which was our first time. The second time [was] in New York. We did the Conan O’Brien show the next day, and then I flew to Pittsburgh. We had it pretty well set up. We could’ve gone on the [American Music Awards], but Ron couldn’t get off his tour, and I’ve got a concert here with the symphony.

Are you doing just one concert in Pittsburgh?

I’ve got four in a row with the symphony. Then I’m back in L.A., and then I have about nine days off before I come back and work with the Baltimore Symphony [Orchestra].

You know, we both have schedules and dates that have been on the books for a long time. What I’d love to do is be out doing this with [Isley]. You haven’t been there, don’t know how exciting it can be.

Does it feel new?

Mmm-hmm. It was a big challenge for me to go back and reinvent these songs. Take a song like “Raindrops.” When Ronnie went through “Raindrops,” there was just no way I wanted to do it. Until I heard him sing maybe one or two bars for me. Then it just opened up for me, what it could really be like.

So he brought a new dimension to it.

Yeah. That was a challenge as an orchestrator, with songs I’ve done for years, that I really love, that are close to you: to make them different, and to make them exciting for me. I like this version of “Raindrops” we did better than the original. I made the original with B. J. Thomas. [This new version] feels like a different song.

The other thing is this [collaboration] enabled me to go to a place that I’ve always been very comfortable with, which is the soulful side. Ronnie said, “Are you sure you’re not a little bit Black?” You know, because the record sounds amazing.

Some time ago, it was so comfortable. There was Chuck Jackson doing “Any Day Now,” The Shirelles, Tommy Hunt, Dionne Warwick, Jerry Butler. These artists I’m very comfortable with, ’cause I can go into the urban … Black … sophisticated … music.

I’ve got this one song [“Falling Out of Love”] on Aretha [Franklin]’s album [So Damn Happy] that’s out now that I really love. It’s just hard to record her, ’cause you gotta go to Detroit. That’s where you get her vocal. 

With Ronnie … I think he’s the best soul singer out there.

He infuses the songs with such warmth and comfort.

Yes. This is how I’ve found I feel comfortable. Very, very comfortable. I made the original record with Dusty [Springfield] on “The Look of Love,” but, you know, when Ronnie [did it] that was, like, a new turn. “Let me go in with a new attitude here. Let me give a drive to it that was different than the original.”

I mean, why not, when you really think about it? Why do the song if it’s known that it’s [already] had a life? He didn’t really [perform it like a simple cover version]. I can hear people singing some songs I’ve written and make bad good choices. Ronnie, he’s got this impeccable thing.

So much attention has been brought to the two of you not knowing each other after so many years. But there’s two interesting angles I see: One, it seems like Ron is now singing songs that were originally sent in his direction.

Well, the fact is that it’s so incestuous, in a way. It goes back … ’course, I never knew Ronnie back when he wanted to sing these songs. I mean, I’ve always been a fan of the Isley [Brothers]. I’ve liked them. But to have heard Ronnie sound like this?

I like the last album [he did] with R. Kelly [2003’s Chocolate Factory]. But when he did “Alfie,” the first tune on the [new] tape … that was the other great thing about this, doing the whole thing live with the whole orchestra playing, everything going on at the same time. They’re brilliant.

I’ve been in Italy in little bars on the seaside, and the piano player’s playing my songs, but in the wrong chords and everything. I don’t get angry. I’m very flattered that he’s playing my music.

-Burt Bacharach

I liked how you played the songs at the Wilshire Theatre in the same order you played them in the studio.

Yeah. And in New York, we wound up going back and doing “Raindrops” a second time! It was better. It was just something I wanted to do one more time. The flugelhorn player in New York welcomed the chance, ’cause he didn’t play it so great the first time. So you take that license.

There’s a very good feeling onstage between the two of us. I’m sure he’s going through withdrawal and doing something [but] he’d rather be doing this with me, and I’m doing something but I’d rather be doing that with him. Wish we had about three, four more live performances [to play together]. But when he gets off his schedule and I get off my schedule, I’m sure in December we’ll find some spots before Christmas or in January.

Is a tour realistic? Are you able to handle a full tour?

Well, I don’t know what kind of tour we’d talk about. A tour is tough in the sense of … the only way this tour works is … I did this with Elvis Costello [for 1998’s collaborative album Painted From Memory]: picked up a different orchestra in every city. And then that’s a chore in and of itself: you’ve got three-and-a-half-hour rehearsals and then the concert that night. But I think selective spots [could work]. I don’t think a tour makes sense until the people know what this album is about. Until it’s heard. Because you’d have the Isley hard-core fans going, “What’s he doing with Burt Bacharach?’ And my people would not expect this.

I’m just glad we did the showcases. I think they were important. If the record company [DreamWorks] takes the money and uses it in another way — like TV buys, promotional buys — in place of [a tour], well, it’s good, right? But I always maintain that, you put him onstage, you put me onstage, you don’t cheat on the orchestra … give it a full, 40-piece orchestra … there’s a good chance we’re gonna blow people away.

Ron told me this had been a dream of his. Do you have a dream that you still want to accomplish, something you haven’t done yet?

Yeah, I’m supposed to do another album for Tony Bennett. Mostly instrumental. I’ve been working with some of Dr. Dre’s drum loops that he gave me. There’s one thing Dre and I wrote that’s a cut on the Chris Botti album that’s out now [A Thousand Kisses Deep]. He’s very good, by the way, Chris Botti.

Doesn’t he play saxophone?

Trumpet. So, you know, am I ready to start this new album [with Isley]? I thought I would be by September but, when you’re chasing an album like this, when you’re working it, you stay involved after everything is recorded.

Seems like there’s a lot of personal and emotional feelings involved in a project like this.

I feel something — I mean really feel something — about this album. I’ve done a lot of other albums. I can unequivocally say that it’s as good as anything I’ve ever done, maybe better. Because of the challenge. Because of re-creating these songs and putting them in another [zone].

So you did see this as a challenge.

Yeah. You think I wanna do these songs the same way? No. No. Not at all.

Did you feel obligated to write the two new songs for this, or did they come naturally?

I thought it was important to have two new songs, so it wasn’t totally songs from the past. “Count on Me” went great in New York with Ronnie. He got the lyrics down; he didn’t the other night. “Love’s Still (The Answer)” got a very strong response from a number of people — particularly the African-American people that I know that were there at the concert. They reacted to that song, like … they got the message. But I don’t think that’s the song to come with, if we were to put out a single.

I don’t recall I ever put out a single [when I collaborated] with Elvis Costello. If there is a single down the line, I don’t think [“Love’s Still (The Answer)” is] the right song necessarily. It [doesn’t] represent what the album in general is about. But … there is a possibility that it might be a hit. I don’t know.

Would this collaboration have been possible 30 or 40 years ago?

Oh, I don’t know. Because I was so into Dionne. She was my vehicle. So, I don’t know the answer on that. Probably not, probably not. But, you know … I think it’s meant to be when it’s meant to be. There’s no regret for Ronnie … the Isleys got to do “Twist and Shout,” and that was a huge hit!

I’ve always been attracted to the way he sings. You don’t see me cut many guys. But Ronnie’s got this fine balance, you see, because he’s got that — I’ve said it before, that fine balance between masculine and feminine sides. It’s soulful. Some people are [asking], “Are you going to do Volume Two?” [That was] even before the Conan O’Brien show the other day.

You can’t do [an album like] this with just anyone and these songs. You have to establish them. I think the ground rules are: You write a new song, and then let the singer come see it, and if he changes the chorus and changes the melody, that’s kind of a little off-balance, you know? Let the song be known in its original form first, and then make changes.

But sometimes it gets changed for the worse. Then you don’t like it — even with the license and everything like that. I’ll give you an example: Aretha cut “Say a Little Prayer.” That’s a better record, to me, than the record I made with Dionne. And I love her [version of] “Say a Little Prayer.”

[Bacharach briefly steps away to answer another phone call, then returns.]

What was I saying?

You were talking about breathing new life into a song that’s already well-known.

I’ve been in Italy in little bars on the seaside, and the piano player’s playing my songs, but in the wrong chords and everything. I don’t get angry. I’m very flattered that he’s playing my music. Right, good, bad, whatever.

I gotta wind this [interview] up in a minute, too, ’cause I gotta get over to the symphony hall.

OK. Last question: What’s the secret to writing a great pop song?

There is no secret. You just have to … well, sensibility’s pretty good. Don’t make it too tough on the listener. And don’t beat them up either, OK, that’s a big one for me. I’ve heard records that sound really good, but I don’t want to hear it after six times, y’know? Over-the-top performances by a singer. Like some of the divas going for the jugular. You see, it wears out. You don’t see it as much in vogue anymore. I’m not naming any names, but you can put the six, seven artists in there, right? So that’s something that can wear a listener out.

[Also,] I’m very careful when I orchestrate not to congest things. A prime example would be Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid]. When I scored Butch Cassidy … you know, there might be 16 minutes of music in the whole film. But you see where it’s used. George [Roy] Hill, the director, maybe taught me a lesson [about song placement].

When you think of that movie, the first thing that comes to mind is “Raindrops.”

Sure. And he was open enough – this is the last thing – he wanted some important music in that sequence. He hadn’t envisioned a song, but I got that melody off just watching it. Because I scored the film watching it over and over and over.

So many movie songs were born that way, scoring a film: just watching a sequence. [Like when I scored 1967’s] Casino Royale. Watching a pussycat run off Peter Sellers and singing “Behavior” [in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat]. Never would’ve happened, a lot of things like that. So it’s a direct correlation. You service the picture first.

Melody always, in general, will outlast. A lot of these records are very, very good that are out there. But they’re slick. They sound great. The technology, the machinery, of it all. But you’d better peel it back, if you really want to look at it, and see: “Is there really a melody there?” And you’ll hear something sometimes. There have been a couple records in the last year that were so simple. There are a couple things on Ronnie’s last album [2002’s Make Me Say It Again, Girl with the Isley Brothers] that I can’t get out of my head.

On the last Isley Brothers album?

Second cut on the album [“Long Voyage Home”]. It’s good.

You see, a melody is a melody. You can put all the funk around it, and all the great sounds, but always be supportive of the singer. Don’t be in competition with him. And don’t overwhelm. Don’t overwhelm.

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