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Self-Portrait of an Experimental Songwriter

02/19/2014 12:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

As a high school student, Burt Bacharach always had trouble getting to school on time: he couldn't sleep at night because he kept hearing music in his head. Throughout his life, Bacharach would never stop hearing music, because for him music would always be about sounds rather than ideas.

Bacharach was born in 1928, but he was not a precocious young genius, and he didn't write his first hit -- "The Story of My Life," recorded by Marty Robbins -- until he was 29 years old. He met Hal David when he was 27, and Dionne Warwick seven years later. These became the two most important relationships of his professional life. During the 1960s, the composer-lyricist team of Bacharach and David would produce more than a hundred songs, and Warwick would make dozens of these into hits.

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Bacharach during 1972 ABC-TV special. All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bacharach's work of the '60s stands among the greatest decades ever enjoyed by a songwriter. The hits sung by Warwick included "Make It Easy on Yourself," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," "Walk on By," "You'll Never Get to Heaven," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," and "Promises, Promises;" those first recorded by others included "Any Day Now," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," "Close to You," "Always Something There to Remind Me," "A House is Not a Home," "What the World Needs Now," "What's New Pussycat," "Alfie," "The Look of Love," "One Less Bell to Answer," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." All of these songs are immediately familiar to anyone who loved popular music during the '60s. Just when Bob Dylan and the Beatles were creating a conceptual revolution in popular music, producing works that were highly personal, obscure, and often incomprehensible to listeners, Bacharach was the greatest composer who continued the experimental tradition of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and the other giants of the Golden Age, writing sophisticated but direct and simple love songs that would have universal meaning and appeal.

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Bacharach with Stevie Wonder in the 1960s.

Bacharach's recent memoir, Anyone Who Had a Heart, provides a fascinating and detailed self-portrait of a great experimental innovator at work. Bacharach is a classic example of the experimental syndrome in which the perfect is the enemy of the good, and even of the excellent. Early in his career, he discovered he needed to produce the songs he wrote: "by actually being in the studio while the record was being cut, I could protect my material and make the song sound the way I had heard it in my head and then played it. I could start with a framework and then evolve from that as the musicians heard the song and then played it."

He was tough on musicians and singers, but tougher on himself:

"In the studio, I would do as many as 20 or 30 takes, listen compulsively to all the playbacks and mixes as many times as I could, and then play the acetate over and over again. Before a record was ever released, I would have heard it about a thousand times and I was still never satisfied with the way it sounded on the radio."

After a recording date, he would wake up in the middle of the night and agonize: "No matter how hard I tried, nothing was ever perfect."

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Bacharach with wife Angie Dickinson in 1965.

Bacharach was classically trained, and often wrote songs that were difficult to play and sing perfectly, but this was never his intention: "the last thing on my mind was to ever make a song that would be difficult for musicians to play or for an audience to understand." Like the great Golden Age songwriters, Bacharach and David wrote not for themselves, but for their performers: "Hal and I were always trying to come up with material for Dionne to record. Like tailors in the apparel business, we were making goods for her to sing." When Bacharach began to score movies, he worked to craft his songs for situations: "the only way I could really learn how to time the music cues was by watching the film over and over until I knew it by heart."

In typically experimental fashion, Bacharach wrote slowly and painstakingly, and revised endlessly: "I have never had a song come to me fully formed, in a blinding flash of inspiration. What I do is tinker. I fiddle. If a melody comes too easily to me, I don't think it's any good, so I turn it upside down and look at it in the middle of the night...I play with the melody, explore it, question it, and see if I can keep making it better." And in spite of his enormous success, Bacharach has always had the uncertainty of an experimental artist: "I still always had the feeling that maybe I was putting the world on and I wasn't really all that good or original." It wasn't until Miles Davis told him he thought "Alfie" was a really good song that "he dispelled a lot of that doubt for me and gave me the kind of credibility I had never been able to give myself."

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Bacharach in 2008.

In 2012, Burt Bacharach and Hal David were awarded the 2012 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which had previously been won only by Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney. Decades earlier, however, he had received perhaps an even greater honor from Ira Gershwin, who gave him the sheet music from a song he had written with his late brother, inscribed to Bacharach "with admiration." The tribute was fitting, for there is little doubt that Gershwin's brother George, and his friends Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter, would have appreciated Burt Bacharach's music, and admired the professionalism and craftsmanship of their fellow experimental songwriter.