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.
You've worked with Dionne Warwick, who's conservatory trained, but you coaxed great vocal performances from Marlene Dietrich, who could barely get past an octave, and Herb Alpert, a moonlighting trumpeter. Why do you think you did such good work with them?
You try to, certainly with Marlene, try to get the best out of her. You try to teach her about not rushing. I used to use the expression, "Sit back on the tempo, sit comfortably in the song instead of that knee-jerk discomfort." Herbie, while not a great singer, is a tremendous musician, a tremendous trumpet player, a very musical guy. He gets by on musicality.
Your stuff still gets covered a lot. The White Stripes did a fascinating reworking of your 1962 song "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."
I really liked what Jack White did with that.
It's primal, whereas yours is orchestral.
I think a good song is a good song. I've started doing it in concert more and more.
How did you get to where you could write about your daughter's death?
I think it's a process. It goes on, and you try to understand it. When it happened, I'd just had surgery on my shoulder. Then, all in a 48-hour period, my son (Christopher) had ruptured his spleen in a snowboarding accident up in Aspen, so [my wife] Jane had to fly up to Aspen.
I was just coming out of the hospital, on Vicodin. I went by the house to see her [actress Angie Dickinson, his ex-wife and the mother of his daughter, Nikki]. It was like sleepwalking. You're in terrible physical pain. Your arm's in a sling, and you're stoned out of your mind, and you can't believe what just happened.
That's two days in your life that indelibly stick in your mind, and you don't get away from it. And you shouldn't get away from it. You should be conscious of it, but you shouldn't dwell on it. You shouldn't let it overtake you and overwhelm you and take you down to dark places constantly. It's stuff you have to learn.
Nikki had those kind of odds stacked up against her. Nobody was talking about that [autism and Asperger's]. Now you hear this talk about out how one out of every 50 kids has it. Maybe it's a larger number. And you wonder: Was it always this way? Or have they just been able to diagnose it? Or is there something going on that's changing the environment to produce more young people with a form of autism? I just don't know. Clearly autism has existed or been known about in psychiatric terms for years and years and years. They just didn't know about it in the hospital or in the treatment center [where Nikki was treated].
In the final chapter of the book, you list several projects that you're working on. Why do you think that people like you and, say, Woody Allen have kept working for so long?
It's important to keep on going. It's part of living. It's what you do.