Last week at a White House ceremony Burt Bacharach and Hal David received the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Bacharach turned 84 yesterday. David is 90 and recovering from a stroke; his wife picked up the award in his place at the White House.
The Gershwin Prize is a songwriters’ award and I can’t think of two more deserving recipients than Bacharach and David. Their careers span the end of the era of the Great American Songbook, the British Invasion that more or less killed it off, the singer-songwriter era of the Seventies and beyond. They intersected with the British Invasion via the Beatles, who recorded one of their numbers — “Baby, It’s You,” picked up from the Shirelles’ hit single — at their first Parlophone recording session in 1962.
Bacharach was a classically trained composer with a burning ambition to succeed in pop music. He met up with Hal David in the Brill Building. When they found Dionne Warwick to serve as the vehicle for their work, their careers — all three of them — took off.
Conquering pop music wasn’t enough for these guys; they also sought to make it on Broadway, which they did with the score for “Promises, Promises” in 1968, and in Hollywood, with theme songs for “Alfie” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The Wikipedia entry on Bacharach has much more of interest.
Warwick passed on “What the World Needs Now,” which Bacharach ended up producing for Jackie DeShannon in 1965. It’s a song that harks back in form to the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen number “Accentuate the Positive,” but Bacharach’s composition, arrangement and production gave it his own indelible stamp. I believe Warwick sang it at the White House last week. Watch for it on an upcoming PBS broadcast. In the meantime, let’s take a look back at Bacharach and Warwick recapturing the magic in 1996.