Easy to listen to. Tough to sing.
Those qualities alone didn’t earn them the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, but they certainly define the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
The duo were feted for their quietly complex pop songs Wednesday evening in the East Room of the White House, where President Obama honored the composer and lyricist for a lifetime of songwriting excellence.
Named in honor of American songwriting greats George and Ira Gershwin, the Gershwin Prize was established in 2007. Bacharach and David are the first songwriting team to receive the prize, joining previous honorees Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.
“Like the Gershwin brothers, Burt and Hal have never been limited to one genre or even one generation,” Obama said before presenting medals to David’s wife, Eunice, and Bacharach. The 90-year-old lyricist recently suffered a stroke and was unable to travel to Washington for the ceremony.
There were performances, too — from Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, Shelea, Rumer, Michael Feinstein, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and comedian Mike Myers — but the media were given access to only two renditions by Wonder near the close of the show. (Two-and-a-half, really. Wonder got tripped up singing “Alfie” and called for a do-over.)
But according to a set list e-mailed out moments after the White House event, the night might have felt like deja vu for the artists. The Library of Congress staged a nearly identical program Tuesday night at its Coolidge Auditorium — a concert that often sounded like karaoke on a tightrope.
As he did at the White House on Wednesday, though, Wonder seemed at ease, diving into a long, playful harmonica solo during “Alfie” and transforming “Make It Easy on Yourself” into a quirky reggae vamp.
Myers offered a bigger surprise, opening Tuesday’s show with “What’s New Pussycat?,” a coy pop bauble made famous by Tom Jones. For the big finish, stagehands tore off Myers’s tux to reveal a sequined, baby-blue jumpsuit and giant belt buckle that read “BURT.” The stunt earned big laughs from a crowd that included Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), former senator Tom Daschle and other Congress-types.
Not all the singers had wardrobe gags to help them through. Crow and Lovett struggled with their phrasing — she on “Walk on By” and he on “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.” It proved that, even in the mouths of strong singers, these are some humbling tunes.
But no one in the room seemed more humbled than Bacharach. Being honored for a lifetime of work, the 83-year-old songsmith told the audience, “It is the best of all awards possible.” He also lamented David’s absence. So instead, he introduced his other great collaborator, Dionne Warwick, who capped off Tuesday’s evening with “This Girl’s in Love With You” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”
Warwick — who did not perform at the White House on Wednesday — said that her fateful crossing with Bacharach and David in the early 1960s was merely a case of being in “the right place at the right time.”
Was she offering up a metaphor for her singing, too? No other vocalist has understood Bacharach’s uniquely delicate sense of timing like Warwick — on this stage, or any stage. She knew exactly when to pause, when to pivot, when to plunge.
She made those tough songs sound easy.
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