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Sat May 4, 2013
Author Interviews

Burt Bacharach: 'Never Be Afraid Of Something That You Can Whistle'

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 8:25 am

Burt Bacharach has written huge hit songs, each recognizable after just a couple of notes: "Alfie," "What the World Needs Now," "That's What Friends Are For" — the list goes on. He's written 73 Top 40 hits, along with musical comedies and other collaborations. He's won Oscars and the Gershwin Prize. His songs are often poised on the edge between poignancy and joy, or sometimes the reverse.

Bacharach's new memoir is called Anyone Who Had a Heart. He speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about the value of melody, and writing a song about rain for a movie scene that had none.


Interview Highlights

On the value of melody

"Darius Milhaud taught me at the Music Academy of the West, and he's this brilliant French composer, wonderful man. I'm taking this composition class with him where I'd written a piece, a sonatina, for violin, oboe and piano. You know, it was very extreme music that people were writing — we were all influenced by 12-tone music, Alban Berg.

"I had this one piece at the end of the semester that I got to play for Milhaud — not with violin, not with the oboe; I just had to just do it at the piano. I was very, very reluctant when it came to the second movement, because it was quite melodic instead of being harsh and dissonant [and] avant-garde. And he took me aside afterward, and maybe he sensed what I felt or maybe just his observation was: Never be ashamed of something that's melodic, one could whistle. I said, 'Wow.' So that was a valuable lesson I learned from him. Never forgot that one. Never be afraid of something that you can whistle."

On writing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" for the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — in a scene without rain

"They started doing tricks on the bicycle, and it becomes a little more circusy. I just kept hearing it: "Raindrops keep falling on my head." No, there is no rain, Scott. It's a clear sky, but it's symbolic.

"Everybody connected with the film wanted Ray Stevens for the picture. He was a very hot singer at the time. He saw the movie; hated the movie. He heard the song; hated the song. [Laughs.] We got B.J. Thomas."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Burt Bacharach has written huge hit songs recognizable after just a couple of notes - "Alfie," "The Look of Love," "What the World Needs Now," "That's What Friends are For" - boy, we could go on. He's written 73 Top 40 hits, along with musical comedies and collaborations. He's won Oscars and the Gershwin Prize. And his songs are often poised on the edge between poignance and joy; or sometimes the reverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE AGAIN")

THE CARPENTERS: (Singing) What do you get when you fall in love, a guy with a pin to burst your bubble. That's what you get for all your trouble. I'll never fall in love again...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW")

DIONNE WARWICK: (Singing) What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of...

SIMON: He has a new memoir out called "Anyone Who Had a Heart." And Burt Bacharach joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

BURT BACHARACH: Thanks for having me, Scott. And if you call me Burt instead of Mr. Bacharach, that would make my day, Scott.

SIMON: All right. Well then I would do it.

BACHARACH: Who was that that was singing on "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"?

SIMON: It was the Carpenters. So Karen Carpenter, yeah.

BACHARACH: Oh my God. What a voice. You know, and I was not so aware of that record, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," that she had recorded it and how that good that sounded to me. I love it. When I get home, gee, I'll just download it or upload it, whatever the word is, and hear that song sung by Karen, who was this extraordinary voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE AGAIN")

CARPENTERS: (Singing) Don't tell me what it's all about, 'cause I've been there and I'm glad I'm out. Out of those chains, those chains that bind you. That is why I'm here to remind you. What do you get when you fall in love...

SIMON: Let me ask you about Hal David, 'cause there's a particularly astonishing sentence in the book where you're talking about writing songs with Hal in the famous Brill Building in Manhattan. And you say during the next four years I wrote 80 songs with Hal - dot-dot-dot - none of them were hits. I can't imagine that Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote 80 songs that weren't hits. Can you remember any of them? What happened to them?

BACHARACH: Those are the songs you want to forget you wrote, I think. It just wasn't with Hal. I was writing with Bob Hilliard. And I think it was also finding my voice. There was a song called "Peggy's in the Pantry" and that one should not have been heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEGGY'S IN THE PANTRY")

SHERRY PARSONS: (Singing) Peggy's in the pantry, so are all the boys. Peggy's in the pantry. Can't you hear the noise? Bet she isn't picking on a chicken bone...

BACHARACH: Not every one is a gem. Where I came from to get the Brill Building, 'cause it was a background in classical music and certainly hanging out, you know, and studying with Darius Milhaud. Darius Milhaud taught me at Music Academy of the West, and he's this brilliant French composer, wonderful man. I'm taking composition class with him where I'd written a piece, a sonatina for violin, oboe and piano. You know, it was very extreme music that people were writing, like, we were all influenced by 12-tone music, Alban Berg. And I had this one piece that at the end of the semester I got to play for Milhaud - not with violin, not with the oboe, not with the piano; I just had to just do it at the piano. And I was very, very reluctant when it came to the second movement, 'cause it was quite melodic instead of being harsh and dissonant and avant-garde. And he took me aside afterwards, and maybe he sensed what I felt or maybe his just observation was: Never be ashamed of something that's melodic, one could whistle. And I said, wow. So, that was a valuable lesson I learned from him. Never forgot that one. Never be afraid of something that you can whistle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF MY LIFE")

MARTY ROBBINS: (Singing) There's one thing left to do, before my story's through. I've got to take you for my wife, so the story of my life can start and end with you.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the music we know so well: "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD")

B.J. THOMAS: (Singing) Raindrops keep falling on my head, and just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed, nothing seems to fit, those raindrops are falling on my head, they keep falling...

SIMON: It is not raining in that scene.

(LAUGHTER)

BACHARACH: I know, I know, I know.

SIMON: How did that lyric come about? What happened?

BACHARACH: Well, I hadn't scored that many films, Scott, so, you know, that one kind of squirreled me for a lot, you know. I kept watching it on my movie auto machine. And the more I watched it, the more I heard melodically where I wanted to go, how it would be. This one melody that would then go into sort of, like, when they started doing tricks on the bicycle, it becomes a little more circus-y. I just kept hearing it, that raindrops keep falling on my head. No, there is no rain, Scott, and it's a clear sky - but it's symbolic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD")

THOMAS: (Singing) But there's one thing I know, the blues, they send to meet me, won't defeat me...

BACHARACH: Putting a voice like B.J. Thomas on there, the ukulele. Everybody connected with the film wanted Ray Stevens for the picture. He was a very hot singer at the time. He saw the movie; hated the movie. Heard the song; hated the song. We got B.J. Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD")

THOMAS: (Singing) Nothing's worrying me. It won't be long till happiness steps up to greet me.

SIMON: Another song I'd like to ask you about. You wrote "That's What Friends Are For" with your then-wife Carole Bayer Sager. It's a song that begins with and.

(LAUGHTER)

BACHARACH: Yeah. Ex-wife, Carole, me, writing that song. Carole's one of the fastest lyric writers ever. But Carole didn't have a lot of patience to sit in a room while I went, like, do I like it like this or do I like it like that? You know, I want to make it as perfect as I can make it. You know, often it will be the original instinct, but I kept pushing for and I - start the song and. And she said why? I mean, finally she said just to get out of the room, all right, say and I. OK. I got to get out of here, she said. And, you know, I mean, Carole'd be the first to tell you it makes a difference, because it makes a conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR")

WARWICK: (Singing) And I never thought I'd feel this way and as far as I'm concerned, I'm glad I got the chance to say that I do believe I love you. And if I should ever go away, well then close your eyes and try to feel the way we do today...

SIMON: Burt, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BACHARACH: Well, I appreciate you and I like it that you care about the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR")

WARWICK: (Singing) Keep smiling, keep shining, knowing you can always count on me...

SIMON: Burt Bacharach. New book, "Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life in Music." Thanks so much.

BACHARACH: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHAT FRIEND ARE FOR")

WARWICK: (Singing) For good times and bad times, I'll be on your side forever more...

SIMON: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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