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Posts tagged ‘Burt Bacharach’

Uptown soul masters

Gene Burks

If you’ve been reading these pieces for a while, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for heavily orchestrated male soul balladeers from the first half of the 1960s. Much of this kind of music came out of the Brill Building in New York, but as Ady Croasdell points out in his notes to an excellent new compilation called Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads, it was a style that migrated to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and elsewhere.

Its great producers and songwriters included Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns, Teddy Randazzo and Van McCoy. Among the most expressive voices were numbered Chuck Jackson, Garnet Mimms and Ben E. King, who were big names back then, and such cult favourites as Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe, Walter Jackson, Tommy Hunt and Tony Mason. All those luminaries are to be found among these tracks, together with such lesser known singers (to me, anyway) as Clarence Pinckney, Garrett Saunders, Gene Burks and Brooks O’Dell. Be assured of this: they all have something to say, and something worth listening to.

One way of looking at this album, admittedly in a slightly reductive way, is to see it as a 24-track publishers’ demo for the next Walker Brothers album in, say, 1966. It’s possible to imagine Scott Walker recording almost any of these songs with Ivor Raymonde arrangements in the old Philips studios on the Bayswater Road near Marble Arch, as he did with “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “My Ship Is Coming In”, “Stand By Me” and “Stay With Me Baby”.

But the results wouldn’t have been as good. Apart from the great songwriting, arrangements and production, what makes these sides so powerful is the quality shared by all the singers: a certain dignified ardour, usually resigned, occasionally optimistic, generally suave, always grown-up. A compilation that chooses to start with Walter Jackson’s sombre “Forget the Girl”, a wonderful Chicago record with marvellous Floyd Morris piano octaves tinkling through the Riley Hampton arrangement, is setting itself a challenge, but the standard never drops.

Sometimes it reaches the heights. Those moments certainly include Chuck Jackson’s “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, a Van McCoy masterpiece worth listening to all the way through again, once you’ve had your heart satisfactorily torn apart by Jackson’s lead vocal, just for the quality of Gary Chester’s drumming. Equally magnificent is Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”, a classic Bert Berns production arranged for Spanish guitar, double bass and, I’d guess, the Greek chorus of Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick.

Sometimes the individual components of the style make themselves obvious, like the gospel influence on Garnet Mimms’ “Anytime You Want Me”, produced by Jerry Ragovoy, or the Latin tinge of James Carr’s “Lover’s Competition”, or the southern soul of Gene Burks’s “Can’t Stand Your Fooling Around” or the Spectorish sweep of Jimmy Beaumont’s “You Got Too Much Going For You”. Elsewhere there’s the mellifluous strength of Roy Hamilton on “Heartache (Hurry on By)”, the striking tuba intro to Kenny Carter’s “Like a Big Bad Rain”, Al Hibbler’s gentle crooning on Randazzo’s “Good For a Lifetime”, the ice-rink Wurlitzer intro to Junior Lewis’s unreleased “I Love You So Much”, and a lot more besides, including two slices of prime Bacharach: Lou Johnson’s original version of “Reach Out For Me” and Tommy Hunt’s unreleased remake of “Don’t Make Me Over”, which uses the Dionne Warwick backing track.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slip a gaberdine raincoat over a navy mohair suit and go out and walk the tear-stained streets. This isn’t the weather for it, but the soundtrack never gets old.

* The photograph above is of Gene Burks. Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads is on Ace Records.

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

Blue shadows, etc

Chuck-Jackson-LP

Sometimes I think Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” must be the greatest pop record ever made. What could better the elegant turns of Burt Bacharach’s melody, the striking imagery of Bob Hilliard’s lyric (those “blue shadows” falling all over town), the piping organ, muffled tympani and grieving femme chorale of Bert Keyes’ imaginative arrangement, and the deep emotion of Jackson’s restrained baritone, the instrument that made him the epitome of the male mid-’60s uptown soul singer?

The excuse for mentioning it, if one were needed, is the vinyl release of Chuck Jackson: The Best of the Wand Years, an Ady Croasdell compilation for Ace Records, in which “Any Day Now” is just one of 14 treats. “I Keep Forgetting”, with Teacho Wiltshire arranging the staccato boo-bams and tuba on behalf of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, leads the way, and other well known tracks include the beautifully poised “Since I Don’t Have You”, the operatic “Tell Him I’m Not Home” (with Doris Troy singing the title line), and “I Don’t Want to Cry”, Jackson’s first Wand single from 1961, with its sprightly Carole King string arrangement.

My other favourites are a magnificent King/Gerry Goffin song, “I Need You”, which I wrote about here, Van McCoy’s stately “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, and the unutterably groovy “Two Stupid Feet”, a song whose writers, Cara Browne and Luther Dixon, manage to feed Jackson the phrase “comfy and cozy” without disturbing his credibility. But really there isn’t a track here that isn’t outstanding, nothing that doesn’t make the world a better place.

The parable of the credits

It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t get on well with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But I did stay until the end of the film, all the way to the credits, at which point I was unexpectedly rewarded by the sound of a record that I sometimes think would be the one I’d save from a burning house: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)”.

For me this record, a US Top 40 hit in the summer of 1962, is Burt Bacharach’s finest hour as a writer of melodies and arrangements. His creation finds its perfect match in Bob Hilliard’s poetic words, with their gloriously gloomy prediction that “those blue shadows will fall over town” when the singer’s lover leaves, as he is convinced she will. Jackson, one of the best singers of his type and era, does the song full justice: of all the many artists who later covered it, none ever improved on this original version. In the lovely clip above, Bacharach mimes the distinctive organ intro; it was actually played in the studio by the great Paul Griffin.

Hearing it at the very end of a film I disliked was a reminder of sitting through Wim Wenders’s three-hour 1991 film Until the End of the World, until the moment when, after what felt like several weeks, the credits rolled and a half-familiar voice croaked: “I tried to reach you… on Valentine’s Day…”. Thus I was introduced to Robbie Robertson’s “Breakin’ the Rules”, a track from the 1991 album Storyville which — thanks not least to the understated nobility of its horn arrangement by the late Wardell Quezergue, as well as the achingly soulful vocals shared by Robertson with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan — has existed for me ever since on a plane only half a notch below “Any Day Now”, which is to say within touching distance of heaven.

So the moral must be: whatever your opinion of the film, don’t leave your seat until you’ve see the line about no animals being harmed and the lights have come up.

Dionne Warwick: the lost years…

Dionne WarwickThere are days, even now, when only the sound of Dionne Warwick will do. How strange, then, that between 1972 and 1978, when she was in her prime and had the strength of a major record company behind her for the first time, she couldn’t buy a hit.

Try to put yourself in her shoes on the day in 1977 when she sat in the control room of A&R Studios in New York City with her new producers, Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, listening to this final mix. There would have been just a single thought in your head: whatever it is that makes a hit, this one’s got it.

Dionne had already been with Warner Bros for five years, after leaving the independent Scepter Records, where she had spent a decade and enjoyed that astonishing string of hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to sign a $3m contract with a major label in the clear and reasonable expectation of further and even greater success. But her move coincided with the acrimonious sundering of the Bacharach/David partnership, which gave her new label a very nasty shock. The trio made one more album together — Just By Myself, released in 1973 — before a row between the two songwriters resulted in a prolonged series of lawsuits all round.

The hasty search to find new collaborators saw her shuffled, over the next six years, between Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell, Randy Edelman and Joe Porter. Amazingly, none of them could come up with the hit for which she was so anxiously waiting in order to prove that her early success had not been completely dependent on her original Svengalis. The sessions with the Barri-Omartian team represented the last throw of the dice.

“Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” — which you’ll have heard if you clicked on the first link — is included in a compilation called The Complete Warner Bros Singles, which came out earlier this year on the Real Gone Music label, a Warner/Rhino offshoot. It astonishes me now, as it did then, that it failed to give her another  hit. Curiously, the song — written by Frank McDonald, Chris Rae, Ron Roker and Gerry Shury — had been Britain’s entry in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when Polly Brown, late of Pickettywitch, brought it home in 10th place.

Polly Brown was a pretty good pop singer, but she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. This version of “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” is irresistible: three minutes of pop perfection. If it lacks the emotional depth and musical inventiveness of a great Bacharach/David song, it is nevertheless beautifully constructed and performed, full of good things like a great hook, a bubbling bass line, an exultant lead vocal.

The earlier sessions with Jerry Ragovoy produced a track that is among my all-time Dionne favourites: in my view, her exquisitely sultry version of “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” shades earlier treatments of this fine song by Baby Washington, Pat Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister — all of them terrific in their own right, with Dee Dee’s being the closest contender.

Dionne’s album with Thom Bell, Track of the Cat, contained some piercingly lovely songs, such as “His House and Me”, “Ronnie Lee”, “Love Me One More Time” and “Once You Hit the Road”, exposing the incomparable Philadelphia producer/arranger/composer’s debt to Bacharach, in particular the use of syncopation to create hooks. But Bell couldn’t repeat the formula that delivered “Then Came You”, with which he had given Warwick a No 1 in collaboration with the Spinners.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the the story. After Dionne and Warner Bros parted company in 1978, a move to Arista and collaborations with Barry Manilow and Barry Gibb propelled her back into the charts. The preceding period was quietly forgotten as the Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the Gibb-composed “Heartbreaker” lengthened the list of her greatest hits.

Now, in addition to the complete Warners singles collection, Dionne’s unhappy time with the Burbank label is commemorated by We’ve Got to Go Back, a new Real Gone Music compilation containing 19 songs that never found their way on to the release schedule. It’s aimed at completists and obsessives like me, I suppose, but the Holland-Dozier tracks “Too Far Out of Reach” and “It Hurts Me So” are fine examples of early-70s soul, and “Am I Too Late” and “I’ll Never Make It Easy (To Say Goodbye)”, supervised by Joe Porter, are gorgeous grown-up ballads. I wouldn’t want to be without them.

It was sad to read about the financial problems that drove her to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. She deserves better than that.

* The photograph of Dionne Warwick is from the sleeve of We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters and is uncredited.

The art of the songwriter

Bacharach 1The biggest mistake Burt Bacharach ever made was to place an international call to Hal David one day in 1972 and tell him he wanted a bigger share of the five per cent royalty due to the pair from their songs for the film Lost Horizon, a misbegotten musical remake of Frank Capra’s pre-war classic. Until that point the composers of “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and so many others had split the proceeds of their work straight down the middle. But suddenly it occurred to Bacharach that here he was, working himself to the bone in the studio on the arduous task of recording the songs and the background score, while David, having done his job by furnishing the lyrics, was down in Mexico, playing tennis. In Bacharach’s view, a 3:2 split would more accurately reflect the relative amounts of effort involved.

David’s answer, quite understandably, was a brusque negative. From the lyricist’s standpoint, it was the suavely handsome and charismatic Bacharach who had already been attracting the lion’s share of the personal publicity accruing from their success; he was the one who appeared in concerts and on television and made his own albums devoted to instrumental albums of their songs. By contrast, David was a charisma-free zone, but the words he provided were certainly as important as the music in what had become known, to his quiet chagrin, as “Bacharach songs”. And that dispute marked, to all intents and purposes, the end of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships in the history of 20th century popular music.

Bacharach tells the story in Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, an autobiography ghosted by Robert Greenfield and just published by Atlantic Books. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of sometimes corrective first-person testimony from ex-wives, lovers and former collaborators, but he leaves us in no doubt that he rues his hot-headed decision to reply to David’s refusal with these words: “Fuck you and fuck the picture.” In the short term, it led to Dionne Warwick suing both of them for their failure to come up with the songs promised for her next album, her first for Warner Brothers; there were countersuits, and the three of them didn’t speak to each other, let alone work together, for 10 years. “It was stupid, foolish behaviour on my part and I take all the blame for it,” Bacharach says now. Later in the book he ruminates on how many great songs might have been lost to that sudden rupture.

Ah well, the years of full production were wonderful while they lasted. It would be impossible to  convey to a young person the shock and awe one felt on hearing Dionne’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” for the first time in 1963: it sounded like a completely new form of music, something that blended the grown-up sophistication of the great Broadway songwriters with the emotional directness and urgency of the combination of R&B and gospel that was at that moment giving birth to soul music. Bacharach recognises how fortunate he was to find Warwick, the perfect interpreter of their songs, but if there is one thing missing from the book, it is his considered analysis of why black voices were in general so much more effective that white ones on the songs he and David wrote. There were exceptions, of course (one thinks of Dusty Springfield’s versions of their early songs, particularly “The Look of Love”, Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” or Gene Pitney’s “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart”), but Warwick, the Shirelles, Lou Johnson, Chuck Jackson and Jimmy Radcliffe added an uptown quality that gave the material a priceless extra dimension.

There’s interesting stuff in the book about Bacharach’s childhood and apprentice years, about his time spent as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director, and a great deal about his four wives — including the actress Angie Dickinson, the second, and the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, the third — and his many lovers. It’s seldom less than interesting, and when it comes to the description of the life and tragic death of Nikki, his daughter with Dickinson, who was born and lived most of her 30 years with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, it is deeply upsetting.

The stuff about the music is less detailed. I’d have liked much more about the thinking behind, say, his preference for legit-toned rather than jazz-toned saxophones and his liking for twangy guitars, but there are still plenty of nuggets about such topics as his fondness for using a pair of flugelhorns (e.g. on Dionne’s “Walk On By”, which also has a pair of pianos, played by Paul Griffin and Artie Butler), a few enlightening bits and bobs about the sessions in New York and London, and some insights into the variety of approaches he and David employed in order to dovetail their contributions. There doesn’t seem to have been a strict music-first or words-first formula; the constant, we are led to believe, was Bacharach’s insistence on finding the right note and harmonic colouration for each word. It’s a shame they got sidetracked by the lure of Broadway musicals and the movies, a temptation which eventually did for them. The business of crafting their jewel-like individual songs should have been enough, as Bacharach now seems to recognise.

I’m pleased that he devotes a couple of pages to the album he made with Ronald Isley in 2003 for the DreamWorks label. Here I Am, which borrows its title and its lovely title song from my favourite Dionne Warwick LP, is a magnificent recital of mostly familiar material, with quite startlingly exquisite versions of “Alfie” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” in particular, all recorded live in the studio — vocals and orchestra at the same time, with only the tiniest bits of vocal patching required. Listen to “Alfie”: you won’t hear better singing anywhere, and it was a first take. Unfortunately, as Bacharach relates, the album came out just as DreamWorks was being bought by Universal and got lost in the shuffle. It’s a half-buried classic.

Probably even fewer people heard Bacharach’s last solo album, At This Time, released in 2005. Most of the lyrics were written by Tonio K, and some by Bacharach himself. Interestingly, they express his anger at the crimes of George W. Bush’s neo-con gang. It’s a reminder that he and David also produced a couple of the Sixties’ gentlest protest songs: “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “The Windows of the World”. What a pity circumstances conspired to silence their collaboration.

Just about to start a short tour of the UK, Bacharach is promoting the book and a new six-CD box called The Art of the Songwriter, whose compilers have made some pretty strange choices, such as the complete absence of anything by Lou Johnson, who came close to becoming the male equivalent of Dionne Warwick, and whose early work with Bacharach and David is compiled on a fine Ace disc titled Incomparable Soul Vocalist. Bacharach is appearing in concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Wednesday, Glasgow on Friday, Edinburgh on Saturday, Bournemouth on July 5 and the Festival Hall again on July 7, which is when I hope to hear him.

In the meantime, here’s my all-time Bacharach top 10: 1 Chuck Jackson: “Any Day Now” 2 Dionne Warwick: “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)” 3 Ronald Isley: “Alfie” 4 Burt Bacharach Orchestra: “Wives and Lovers” 5 Fifth Dimension: “One Less Bell to Answer” 6 Dionne Warwick: “If I Ever Make You Cry” 7 Lou Johnson: “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)” 8 Herb Alpert: “This Guy’s in Love With You” 9 Dusty Springfield: “The Look of Love” 10 Jimmy Radcliffe: “Long After Tonight is All Over”.