NEW YORK – Music played softly, almost imperceptibly, in the background of a hotel lounge where Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello talked about their songwriting collaboration, “Painted From Memory.”
Bacharach noticed, however, that it was the instrumental version of “The Look of Love,” his song popularized by Dusty Springfield. He mischievously asked, during their 1998 interview with The Associated Press, if Costello had arranged to play it. Nope. It wasn't the first time he'd been interrupted by Bacharach's work.
“It happens all the time,” Costello said.
That will surely happen again, too. The composer, who died at age 94 Wednesday in Los Angeles, left behind an indelible songbook that will long outlive him.
At its heart were the collaborations with songwriting partner Hal David and singer Dionne Warwick, 19 of them Top 40 hits.
“Anyone Who Had a Heart.” “Walk on By.” “I Say a Little Prayer.” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” “I'll Never Fall in Love Again.” “Alfie.”
The work extended far beyond that, every title a memory and invitation to break out into song — even if you can't carry a tune.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head.” “That's What Friends Are For." “What the World Needs Now." “Always Something There to Remind Me.” “This Guy's in Love With You.” “One Less Bell to Answer.” “I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself.”
“I’ve always been inclined to write romantic music, hopefully from the heart,” Bacharach said in that 1998 interview. “There are not a lot of up-tempo songs in my catalog.”
If you hear a flugelhorn, chances are you're listening to a Burt Bacharach composition.
The work with Costello was a milestone long after the Top 40 charts had moved on, and is being celebrated in a box set being released March 3.
“I'm so sad to hear we've lost Burt Bacharach,” the English singer Badly Drawn Boy said on Twitter on Thursday. “Growing up in the '70s, his music somehow penetrated my soul and has remained every since. When it comes to melodic songwriting, there’s never been anyone better.”
Bacharach's songs were often categorized, even minimized, as “easy listening,” perhaps because so many flowed freely during a tumultuous time in the nation's history. While the “Austin Powers” movies may have brought Bacharach's music to the ears of younger listeners, the cheesy context did him no favors.
What may have been easy listening was usually quite complex, said Nathaniel Sloan, musicologist at the University of Southern California and co-host of the “Switched on Pop” podcast.
Bacharach would frequently stretch beyond pop conventions into odd time signatures, which would challenge musicians but usually go unnoticed by regular listeners. Sloan cited the way the beat changes in “I Say a Little Prayer,” later copped by OutKast for their hit “Hey Ya.”
Similarly, “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” is constructed to convey both the ominousness of life's storms and the narrator's confidence ("nothin's worrying me"), he said.
Bacharach drew from classical and jazz music to enrich his harmonies, giving the music a memorable lushness. Think “This Guy's in Love With You.”
“He told me he just didn't want to do anything that was milquetoast,” said songwriter Daniel Tashian, one of the last musicians to work with Bacharach extensively. “He wanted to do something that got him excited, got him fired up.”
A debonair celebrity who married — and later divorced — actor Angie Dickinson, Bacharach seemed at ease with his musical talents compared to another 1960s genius, Brian Wilson, who often seemed tortured by them, Tashian said.
The Beach Boys songwriter was one of the first musicians to tweet a tribute to Bacharach after his death was announced on Thursday.
“Burt was a hero of mine and very influential on my work,” Wilson wrote.
Tashian released the collaboration “Blue Umbrella” with Bacharach in 2020 and is finishing up two new songs they wrote together. The Nashville-based composer, writer of the Kacey Musgraves hit “Slow Burn,” got to know Bacharach through a demo he recorded with another singer who sent it to him.
He believed Bacharach appreciated his talents and also took pity on him because Tashian couldn't read music.
At one point in their collaboration, Tashian recorded a vocal that he knew wasn't quite right, yet hoped the authenticity of the performance outweighed a few technical flaws.
Bacharach wasn't buying it.
“There's nothing wrong,” the veteran composer told him, “with a little bit of perfection.”