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September 11, 2012

‘I Try To Write a Terrific Song’
Hal David: In His Own Words

Burt Bacharach and Hal David: incurable romantics, believing in the power of love as an existential imperative.

On September 1 a stroke claimed the life of Harold Lane “Hal” David, one of the great lyricists in American popular song history. In his fruitful partnership with Burt Bacharach, David set a standard for lyrics that rang with poetry while boiling down the complexities of relationships to their essential nubs: “What do you get when you fall in love/you get enough germs to catch pneumonia” went one memorable phrase in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”; “Anyone who had a heart would surely take me in his arms and love me too—why won’t you?” was the piercing query in the duo’s masterful examination of unrequited love, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” which spurred not one but three classic recordings, by Dionne Warwick—Bacharach-David’s supreme interpreter—and England’s Cilla Black (whose #1 George Martin-produced U.K. hit died on these shores at #91; still a great record, though, and according to BBC Radio 2 the U.K.’s biggest selling female chart hit of the ‘60s) and Warwick devotee Dusty Springfield, who recorded her version before Cilla Black got the song but featured it only as a cut on her Stay Awhile album; and no matter the degree of heartbreak and heartache in a Bacharach-David tune, their songs revealed—and reveled in–an incurable romantic’s belief in the power of love as an existential imperative, whether such position was expressed in the taut, declarative “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love/it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of” or bound up in matters of faith, e.g. As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie/I know there’s something much more/Something even non-believers can believe in/I believe in love, Alfie/Without true love we just exist, Alfie/Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.

Like Dave Brubeck before him, Bacharach had studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College. A classical composer who loved jazz, Milhaud schooled Bacharach in polytonality but also preached to him the virtues of accessible music. “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle,” Milhaud told his ambitious student. “Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.”

Dionne Warwick’s 1963 ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ hit the Billboard Top Ten in January 1964 and peaked at #8. A crossover smash, the song rose to #6 on the R&B Chart and was also a Top 10 hit in Australia, Belgium, Canada and South Africa. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ was presented to Dionne in unfinished form while she, Hal and Burt were rehearsing in Burt’s Manhattan apartment for a recording session a few days hence at Bell Sound. Bacharach had finished the score but Hal had written only about a third of the lyric and was struggling with what he regarded a bad accent in the sixth line of the first stanza, which he could not resolve. Burt played a snippet of the tune for Dionne, she fell in love with it and begged Hal to finish it. Hal, according to his 1968 memoir What the World Needs Now and Other Love Lyrics, went to Burt’s bedroom and completed the lyric while Burt and Dionne rehearsed in the living room. Recording took place at Bell Sound in Manhattan in November 1963, only days after JFK’s assassination; that same session also yielded ‘Walk On By’ and ‘In the Land of Make Believe.’ Rumor has it Warwick nailed the tune in only one take. Cilla Black, a top female recording artist in the U.K. but little known outside her own country, recorded a George Martin-produced cover version released in the U.K. in January 1964–before Scepter licensee Pye records could release Warwick’s original–and it became her first number one hit. Dionne’s original version, released two weeks after Cilla’s in the U.K., did make the charts at #43. In the U.S. the situation was reversed. ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ was Dionne’s first international million-seller. Warwick devotee Dusty Springfield’s great version was also cut in 1964—before Ms. Black’s and featuring the same backing group, The Breakaways–but was available only as a cut on her Stay Awhile album.

Dusty Springfield, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ (1964)

Hal David had no such august background in higher education. A Brooklyn native, he played violin in his high school orchestra, and later worked with a band at the Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. While playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, David began writing songs—words and music. In World War II he enlisted in the Army and contributed tunes to USO shows.

Following his discharge he came back home to New York, started hanging out at the Brill Building and soon was getting songs published. His first hit came in 1949 with “The Four Winds & The Seven Seas.” Co-written with Don Rodney, a guitarist-vocalist in the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, “The Four Winds & The Seven Seas” was recorded by no less than 20 artists, including Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby. Hits ensued after he began collaborating with other musicians–Sherman Edwards, Leon Carr, Lee Pockriss, Paul Hampton, et al.: “Bell Bottom Blues” for Teresa Brewer, “American Beauty Rose” for Frank Sinatra, “Broken Hearted Melody,” a million seller for Sarah Vaughan, who had been reluctant to record it, feeling it was a “silly” song.

Hal David’s first hit, ‘Four Winds & The Seven Seas,’ co-written with Don Rodney, as recorded by Bing Crosby (1949)

In 1956 he was introduced to Bacharach while in the Brill Building, and right off the bat they crafted a classic for Marty Robbins in “The Story of My Life,” produced by Mitch Miller. As their collaboration deepened, so did their music: Bacharach brought all his Milhaud training to bear in fashioning sparkling melodies over adventurous rhythmic patterns betraying his interest in Latin music; David supplied a conversational touch in his lyrics but economically so, with pithy emotional weather reports shaped by a poet’s understanding of the turf wars fought by the heart and the mind. They wrote for records and for films; they had a good Broadway run with the 1968 production of Promises, Promises (and a lesser celebrated one more recently with Lost Horizon, which had been a box office bomb as a motion picture in 1972, no matter its B&D soundtrack, and fared no better in its later stage incarnation). If the Coasters were a lab for Leiber and Stoller, Dionne Warwick was certainly one for the Bacharach-David artistry. From 1962’s “Don’t Make Me Over” to her 1971 Dionne album for Warner Bros. (her first recording project after leaving Scepter, where she had been dominant in the ‘60s with Bacharach-David tunes), the team could do no wrong– over their decade-long collaboration, Ms. Warwick recorded more than 60 Bacharach-David compositions, with 19 of those peaking in the Top 40. At that juncture Bacharach and David epitomized the highest standards of pop songwriting, carrying forward the legacy of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Loesser, et al., and Warwick carted home award after award as critics rhapsodized over her interpretive artistry (“you could write fugues for Warwick’s voice” exulted one reviewer).

Joanie Sommers, ‘Johnny Get Angry’ (1962), lyrics by Hal David

From 1958 to 1961, Bacharach-David collaborations included the Jane Morgan single “With Open Arms” (which reached #39), Connie Stevens’ “And This Is Mine” and a couple of Drifters B-sides. Despite their initial success together, both continued to work with other writers as well. Bacharach wrote with the estimable Bob Hilliard (the Drifters’ “Please Stay” and “Mexican Divorce”) and co-wrote the Shirelles’ hit “Baby, It’s You” with Hal’s brother, Mack David (who had advised his younger sibling to stay away from the music business). Hal, meanwhile, saw his Iyrics reach the charts on pop hits by Joannie Sommers  (“Johnny Get Angry”) and Sarah Vaughan (the aforementioned gem, “Broken-Hearted Melody”).

Sarah Vaughan, ‘Broken Hearted Melody,’ written by Hal David and Sherman Edwards. The single was a million seller for Ms. Vaughan, who was reluctant to record the song, feeling it was ‘silly.’

The disaster of Lost Horizon (the movie) spelled the end of the Bacharach-David partnership, and for many years the two were estranged. It took the troubled stage version of that show for them to smooth things over, and afterwords they occasionally did get together again on a song.

In paying tribute to the man whose catalogue is effectively a soundtrack of the times (and we haven’t even mentioned “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”), we turn to the words of Hal David himself, talking about his life and career to various reporters over the years in a Q&A stitched together from multiple sources. Each question is followed in parentheses by the initials of the interviewers: (DK) for Dale Kawashima, interview published in SongwriterUniverse; (BD) for Bill DeMain, Performing Songwriter, interview originally published in Issue 10, January/February 1995; and (PW) for Paul Williams for the British music industry trade publication Music Week, 2004; reprinted and posted online at the Music Week website.

‘…chemistry among artists is something that’s organic and from the moment Burt and I started to write together it just seemed to happen. Whatever the two of us had it was something more than just two people.’

How did you and Burt Bacharach first meet and start writing together? (DK)

I was working at Famous Music and Burt was also working at Famous. There was always a great mixture of people writing together. You’d write with one composer in the morning and another in the afternoon. Pretty much a lyric writer wrote with a lot of composers over a period of time. So I met Burt and we liked each other. One day we decided to try writing some songs together, and things worked out very quickly for us. From the first five songs we wrote, two of them became hits. We had a hit, “The Story Of My Life,” with Marty Robbins. It was in 1957 that we started writing together, and we began having hits in 1958. We had the hit “Magic Moments,” which was recorded by Perry Como. During this period I was still writing with other people. It wasn’t until 1962 that Burt and I wrote only together, which was around the time we met Dionne Warwick.

Dionne Warwick, her first Bacharach-David hit, ‘Don’t Make Me Over.’ In a 10-year collaboration with the songwriters, Warwick recorded more than 60 Bacharach/David compositions, with 19 of those peaking in the Top 40.

We used to meet every day at Famous Music in New York. I’d come in with some titles and some ideas for songs, lines. Burt would come in with opening strains of phrases or what might be part of a chorus section. It was like Show And Tell: I’d show him what I had thought of and he’d show me what he had thought of. And whatever seemed to spark the other would be the start of whatever song we started to write that day. I’d write four lines or sing lines of a lyric and he’d have a melody and, very often, we’d sit in the room and write the song together, sort of pound it out. I’d be writing Iyrics and he’d be writing music and, all of a sudden, we’d have the structure of a song, which we’d keep working on. We didn’t write songs so quickIy that they were done overnight or that day. I’d take home his melody and he’d take home my lyrics and so, very often, we’d be working on three different songs at one time.

Bobbie Gentry’s version of Bacharach-David’s ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ (a #6 U.S. single for Dionne Warwick in 1970) was a #1 U.K. for her in October 1969

You were both very prolific. (BD)

Even as we worked together on one song, he’d give me another melody or I’d give him another lyric, and very often we were writing three songs at a time—a song together, a song to his tune, a song to my lyric. So we had a number of things going.

Isaac Hayes performs a live version of Bacharach-David’s ‘Walk On By’ on The Music Scene (1969). Hayes featured the song on his classic Hot Buttered Soul album (also 1969).

How did you meet Dionne Warwick? (DK)

[Burt and I] started getting hot and we got a lot of records. Then one day, a young girl named Dionne Warwick sang on one of our sessions. We were blown away with how good she was. We then hired her to sing demos for us. We realized she was an extraordinary singer. We took her demo to Florence Greenberg (president of Scepter Records), and we signed a contract to produce Dionne. The first record we did was “Don’t Make Me Over,” which became a big hit. Then we had hit after hit after hit for 17 years.

Class incarnate: Dusty Springfield, ‘Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa,’ originally a #3 single for Gene Pitney in October 1963. This Bacharach-David tune was not a hit for Dusty, but she did okay with two other B&D gems, ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’ and ‘The Look of Love.’

Can you explain the magical chemistry between you, Burt and Dionne? (PW)

Chemistry, unless you’re really a scientist and know what you’re doing, chemistry among artists is something that’s organic and from the moment Burt and I started to write together it just seemed to happen. Whatever the two of us had it was something more than just two people. Two became one in the best sense and then a few years later Dionne came into our lives and we came into her life and from “Don’t Make Me Over” it just worked.

Jack Jones, ‘Wives and Lovers,’ live, 1964.  This title song for the 1963 movie starring Janet Leigh and Van Johnson, directed by John Rich, was heard neither in the movie nor on its soundtrack album. It was a curious breed of song called “exploitation songs,” which used the song title as a device to promote a film coincidentally bearing the same title as the song. Often covered—by Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Julie London, Stan Getz, even by Burt Bacharach himself on his 1965 LP Hit Maker! Burt Bacharach Plays the Burt Bacharach Hits—this recording won Jack Jones a Grammy in 1964 for Best Vocal Performance, Male. Years later Jones released the song in a disco version. Yeah. No.

Can you describe your first steps in approaching a lyric? (BD)

The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music was saying to you. If you’re a lyric writer, you should hear the music talking to you. That’s what I’d be doing initially.

Jackie DeShannon on Shindig (1965) performing her hit Bacharach-David tune, ‘What the World Needs Now,’ which Hal David cited as his favorite among the songs he and Burt wrote, owing to its message.

You and Burt had a lot of success writing songs for movies. How did this happen? (DK)

At first it wasn’t easy. We wrote “Wives and Lovers” for the movie (starring Janet Leigh and Van Johnson), but it wasn’t in the movie because Burt was still under contract to another studio. We wrote the song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and the film people wanted the song in the picture, but director John Ford was opposed to the song being in the movie. Then we wrote some songs for Paramount movies. We didn’t get our great movie break until we were in New York at the Savoy Ballroom, where Dionne Warwick was performing. We ran into film producer Charlie Feldman (known as Charles K. Feldman) and his girlfriend at the time, Clotille, who later became his wife. Clotille knew our songs and she recommended us to Charlie. She said, “These are the guys who should be writing songs for your pictures.” This led to us writing the songs for What’s New Pussycat? (with the hit theme song sung by Tom Jones), and Casino Royale (“The Look Of Love” sung by Dusty Springfield). Then other people started calling us to do movies. We were quite hot (in both music and movies), and life was beautiful. We also wrote the songs (for the hit musical) Promises Promises, which is now being revived on Broadway.

Tom Jones, ‘What’s New Pussycat,’ the 1965 Academy Award-nominated title song of the Clive Donner-directed movie starring Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress, Capucine and Romy Schneider, with script (his first) by Woody Allen, who also made his film debut in the production.

How were writing show songs for Promises, Promises different from writing pop songs? (BD)

Show songs to a certain extent, for me anyway, are somewhat easier to write because you had a story to deal with. When you’re writing a pop song, you’ve got air to deal with, blank paper to deal with (laughs). You have to create out of nothingness. When you do a show, there’s a story, there are characters, there are scenes, there’s a tree on which to hang your songs. Writing a show of course in some respects it may be easier, is also more challenging with subjects that you wouldn’t deal with very often in a pop song.

From the original cast album of the 1968 Broadway production of Promises, Promises, Jill O’Hara and Jerry Orbach introduce Bacharach-David’s ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.’ In October 1969 Bobbie Gentry’s single version topped the U.K. chart; in January 1970, Dionne Warwick’s Burt Bacharach-produced single peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was also a Top 20 R&B hit. Warwick’s 1971 like-titled album won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance—Female.

I love your classic song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” How did you write this song? (DK)

We wrote “Raindrops” for the movie Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. B.J. Thomas, who was an artist on Scepter Records, recorded this song. B.J. wasn’t a big star yet, but we knew the song was just right for him, and it turned out terrific.

From Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969), the famous bicycle riding scene with Butch (Paul Newman) courting Etta Place (Katherine Ross), to the tune of Bacharach-David’s ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.’ 

After many years of hit success, you and Burt ended your prolific partnership in the ’70s. What happened? (DK) 

Things went well until the mid-’70s, when things started to slow down a bit. Burt was involved in becoming an artist himself, so he was performing live and touring more. There was a certain point when we were estranged. We didn’t talk very much for a while. But that period ended and we eventually got back in touch, and we did work together on some new projects. We would still write together, usually for a motion picture or writing pop songs.

Barefoot girl Sandie Shaw’s original recording of ‘Always Something There to Remind Me.’ The Bacharach-David tune was #1 in the U.K. for close to a month in October and November 1964, and #52 in the U.S.

Why do you think your songs have stood the test of time? (PW)

I wish I knew because I would bottle it and sell it. The first thing I always try to do is write a terrific song and try to be a little fresh and original and don’t try to follow what is the trend of the moment, which I think a lot of people do.

And what is the favorite of your own songs? (PW)

It changes over the years. At this time, which might have something to do with all that is going on in the world, it’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” In the States it’s been a big song and I think it’s even more important now.

Bacharach-David’s first hit, Marty Robbins’s ‘Story of My Life’ (1957), as performed live on the Town Hall Party TV show. Produced by Mitch Miller, the single topped the country chart and peaked at #15 pop.

What music do you listen to for pleasure? (PW)

I love to listen to Tony Bennett who still sounds fantastic. I think he’s better now than he was. I love listening to Joss Stone, which is new to me in my life, and Norah Jones is really good and she reminds me of some of the wonderful things of the past.

What advice would you give to a songwriter? (BD)

Firstly, make sure it’s what you really want to do, because there’s an awful lot of rejection that takes place, particularly early in your career, and that you want it enough to live with rejection and get past that rejection. And secondly, what you’ve got to do is get yourself to the places where music is written and published like Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, depending on what you write. Meet the people there, start writing and I think you learn by writing and you succeed by being where things are happening.

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