Burt Bacharach turned 85 this month but did almost nothing to lighten his still hectic schedule. When The Pitch contacted the producer-composer-pianist by phone, he was about to leave a New York hotel to catch a flight, on to the next event.
It has been this way for him since the late 1950s, when the Kansas City native launched a career that would yield 73 Top 40 hits and various Grammys and Oscars. His work on the road now is to promote his new memoir (co-written with Robert Greenfield), Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music. Naturally there's a six-CD boxed set, too, with the same title, and it's rich with those very familiar songs: "Walk on By," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "Arthur's Theme," "On My Own," "This Guy's in Love With You," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "What's New, Pussycat?" and "That's What Friends Are For" among them. (Figuring prominently in the track listing: singer Dionne Warwick and another frequent Bacharach collaborator, lyricist Hal David.)
Set against all that pop lightness, Bacharach's book also recalls some painful memories. He talked with The Pitch about some of them, and about how he has been able to write catchy songs, challenge musicians and woo generations of listeners.
The Pitch: During our research, we found the house where you lived as a toddler. Do you remember the address?
Bacharach: No kidding? I left when I was 1 year old, so I have no memory.
Wow. How about that for a coincidence? I did play with the Kansas City Symphony, maybe in the last 20 years. [He was here in February 1997 and October 2002.] It was maybe the first time I was back in Kansas City. I was going onstage, and I started talking to the orchestra about how I was born here and my dad worked at [department store] Woolf Brothers. It kind of caught me off guard. I really got emotional onstage, and I didn't see it coming.
In the book, you said two fellow Kansas City pianists led you to stop seeing your piano lessons as drudgery: Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams. What was it about those two that made you change your mind about music?
She was from Kansas City? [She recorded six of her early songs here in 1929.] I loved the Basie band. Mary Lou Williams was just a great jazz pianist. She was a judge at a jazz-piano festival competition that I had entered in New York. She wasn't one of the original judges. There were eight judges.
First prize was going to be 14 lessons with Teddy Wilson. Second prize was going to be with Joe Bushkin. It ended up with a split decision. Four voted for me, and four voted for a pianist named Warren Vaughan. So Mary Lou Williams walked in, and she became the deciding vote. Warren Vaughan played his song, and I played my song, and she opted for Warren Vaughan.
Instead of Teddy Wilson, I got Joe Bushkin, who was a great guy. I learned a lot from him, nothing about music. Fourteen lessons on life from Joe Bushkin when you're a kid is real. [Laughs.]
When you put chords together, it's like you're taking a square peg, putting it into a round hole, and somehow it magically fits. Why do you think you've been able to pull that stuff off where it doesn't sound awkward or dissonant?
That's interesting. You do it unintentionally. You just do it. It's a natural process. I don't try to make it more unusual or more difficult for the player or the listener. Never beat up the listener. Never overwhelm them. Never exhaust them.