Burt Bacharach is calling from the future, but also from the past.
On a hotel telephone across the international date line, the 83-year-old songwriter is on tour in Australia, where it’s tomorrow morning. But he’s happy to zip down memory lane, 55 years back, across Broadway and into the lobby of the Brill Building, the fabled Manhattan song factory where he first crossed paths with Hal David.
“Hal was kinda perfect,” says Bacharach, who met the soft-spoken lyricist in 1957. You can almost hear him smile through the phone.
At the White House on Wednesday evening, President Obama will present the duo with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Named in honor of songwriting giants George and Ira Gershwin, the prize was established in 2007 to honor a lifetime of excellence in song craft. Paul Simon won a medal that year, Stevie Wonder was the second recipient in 2009 and Paul McCartney was feted in 2010. But Bacharach and David are a little different.
“This is a pair that combined, like the Gershwins did, a very gifted lyricist and a very gifted composer, ” says James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress. “It’s taken so long for a major national prize like this to be conferred on them, so we’re very happy about it.”
David, 90, is recovering from a stroke and will not be able to travel to Washington, but he calls the recognition “the pinnacle” of his career. “Stunning, stunning,” says Bacharach of the honor. “Winning three Academy Awards was pretty spectacular, but I think this might be the absolute peak.”
Bacharach nabbed one of those Oscars with David for their soundtrack contribution to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — testament to the versatility that defined the music they crafted. Together, the pair scored movies and musicals while sending heaps of pop songs up the charts: B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s “The Look of Love” and Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat?”
Their storied collaborations with Dionne Warwick, whose elastic voice could bend to Bacharach’s unorthodox sense of rhythm, resulted in “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and more.
Bacharach never expected it to go this way. He says learning piano as a teenager was “drudgery,” but he stuck with it to please his mother. Soon, other types of music started to feel good in his ear. He liked Debussy and the French impressionist composers. He scored a fake ID to sneak into Manhattan nightclubs where Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were playing. He studied with avant-garde composer Henry Cowell. “Very extreme music,” Bacharach says.
Those influences triggered songs that were preternaturally smooth and quietly complex. “Was I ever trying to break the rules intentionally, trying to make it difficult? No,” Bacharach says of his meticulous compositions. “But I didn’t like rock-and-roll. I knew more than three chords.”
He and David didn’t hit it off instantly. In the ’50s, composers and lyricists at the Brill Building would mix and match, trying to make sparks. Bacharach remembers “two bad songs” he and David wrote early on, “Underneath the Overpass” and “Peggy’s in the Pantry.” But the world noticed the good ones. After Marty Robbins had a hit with “The Story of My Life” and Perry Como scored with “Magic Moments,” Bacharach and David stuck together — even though they often worked separately
“We were never great at sitting in a room in the Brill Building,” Bacharach says. “We did have a room that we worked in. The window didn’t open. Air conditioning was iffy. Hal was smoking all the time.”
They’d start composing at the office, obsess over it at home and hopefully come back the next morning closer to a song. It was that sort of exactitude that would earn Bacharach a taskmaster’s reputation in the studio. At London’s Abbey Road Studios, he famously squeezed 30-odd takes of “Alfie” out of poor Cilla Black. Bacharach remembers the producer Sir George Martin “looking at me like I was crazy.” But Bacharach stands by his approach.
“I do believe to this day that you may write something, and you may think it’s good, but it lives or dies in the studio, in the performance,” he says. “I’ve never been one for making a track and putting the singer on later. I want the singer to be influenced by what the drummer just played. I want the drummer to be influenced by the singer. A lot of magic can happen.”
Today’s pop songs come together much differently. With the ability to send digital audio files across the bandwidth in an instant, plenty of 21st-century pop music is made by collaborators who haven’t met in person.
But Bacharach and David’s legacy is far from endangered. Interest in their work shot up in the late 1990s. Bacharach found a champion in Elvis Costello. Songs that were once dismissed as the stuff of elevators and smoky cocktail lounges started to reveal their timelessness.
It’s the quality that producer Phil Ramone, who worked with the duo extensively over the decades, says sets Bacharach and David apart. (Ramone will produce tribute programs at the Library of Congress on Tuesday and the White House on Wednesday. Each will include performances from Sheryl Crow, Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Lyle Lovett, Mike Myers, Rumer, Arturo Sandoval, Shelea and Stevie Wonder. Warwick will perform at the library but not the White House.)
“They never dated themselves,” says Ramone of Bacharach and David’s songs. “Transcending time is what these two guys have done.”
Airs May 21 at 9 p.m. on WETA.