It has been written here and there that the days of the Great American Songbook ended when rock ‘n’ roll washed over the music industry in the 1950s. What really happened is that someone merely turned the page, for the team of lyricist Hal David and composer Burt Bacharach created another chapter that in retrospect looks about as lasting and important as any that came before them.
David, who turned 90 on May 25, receives the first-ever Visionary Leadership Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame today. He was the Gilbert to Bacharach’s Sullivan, or the Lerner to Bacharach’s Loewe, but he had a long gestation period before his star rose.
“I started writing songs as a teenager, and little by little, it became my major ambition,” David tells Variety .
After his discharge from the Army, David worked his way into the Brill Building and started writing lyrics with an ever-changing cast of collaborators. He scored his first hit in tandem with Don Rodney with “The Four Winds & the Seven Seas” in 1949, and wrote “American Beauty Rose” for Frank Sinatra the following year.
He met Bacharach in the offices of Famous Music in 1957 — “He was experienced, and he had some hits and knew the business more than I knew the business,” Bacharach recalls — and soon, the two wrote a jaunty hit for Marty Robbins, “The Story of My Life.”
“We worked together in this way,” says Bacharach. “I’d have an idea, a couple of bars or something; he’d have an idea and give it to me. I don’t think there were many instances where we sat in a room and worked together. We both did better on our own away from each other.
“It was a good process for Hal, too.”
Yet David continued to work with other composers besides Bacharach until about 1962, around the time that they met Dionne Warwick — then a session singer whose uniquely flexible voice caught their ears — and when Bacharach and David assumed control over the production of their recordings. From this point, the team caught fire for a decade, piling up one hit record after another, writing for films and Broadway.
In working with Bacharach, David found himself gradually cutting loose from the conventions of Tin Pan Alley. The usual topic of love, unrequited or not, would now and then give way to deeper, more philosophical musings on the topic (“What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Alfie”), specific statements against war (“The Windows of the World”), a no-illusions look at making it in the rough-and-tumble entertainment world (“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”).
David’s lyrics could sometimes form an ironic counterpoint to what Bacharach was saying in the music — the gentle Warwick vocal chiding vapid consumerism in “Paper Mache” or a happy-go-lucky B.J. Thomas ambling through what sounds like the aftermath of a natural disaster or nuclear war in “Everybody’s Out of Town.” Somehow, the veteran wordsmith managed to stay in tune with his times, forging links with several generations while maintaining his own way with words.
“Hal is one of the most sensitive men that I know,” says Warwick. “He has a heart as big as a house. He thinks about things that people don’t think about.”
Even after the breakup of his partnership with Bacharach following the debacle of “The Lost Horizon,” for which they wrote the soundtrack, David found his bearings in yet another era, and in other ways. Columbia Records linked him up with singer-songwriter Albert Hammond, and they produced “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” which became a major hit down the road for Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson. He teamed with Joe Raposo to write “To Love a Child” for Sinatra some 32 years after “American Beauty Rose.” He became deeply involved in music business organizations, serving as the president of ASCAP from 1980 to 1986; he sits on its board of directors. He is also chairman emeritus of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, having formerly been its chairman/CEO.
While there are no firm plans for more Bacharach/David collaborations, Bacharach says, “We never say never. Maybe for old times sake we’ll write again. I’m very proud of the songs we wrote; he’s a brilliant writer. Amazing.”
In the meantime, David continues to write songs to this day.
“And I guess I always will,” he adds.