Ever since rock’n’roll came along and severed the connection between Broadway and the pop vernacular, showtunes have had a tougher time of it on the Hit Parade. But once in a while a theatre song will slip through and tickle the record buyers’ fancy, and even more rarely it will get to Number One. And so it was in the United Kingdom exactly fifty years – October 1969 – when Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s heavy-breathing “Je T’Aime …Moi Non Plus” was knocked off the top spot by a bona fide musical-comedy number:
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…
The lady singing it was Bobbie Gentry. Here’s a protean music video, in which for some reason the unreliable suitor in question is played by Austin Powers:
In 1967, Bobbie Gentry had had a worldwide hit with a little slice of Southern Gothic about “the day that Billie Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”. Which is a real bridge in Money, Mississippi – or it was until, in the wake of its global celebrity, some ne’er-do-wells set it alight and collapsed the thing. “Ode to Billie Joe” was written by Miss Gentry, and she took it to Number One in the United States. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” wasn’t written by her, and didn’t even crack the Billboard Hot 100 in America. The US hit version of the song went to Dionne Warwick, and so its association with Bobbie Gentry is confined to Britain, Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth. At the risk of over-generalizing, I’d say Miss Warwick’s recording does better by the music, but Miss Gentry’s sounds like she’s lived the lyric:
Don’t tell me what it’s all about
‘Cause I’ve been there and I’m glad I’m out.
Still, if Dionne Warwick’s singing it, you can guess the songwriters. As I wrote a few years back:
Bacharach & David always were an exception to whatever else was happening… And, as pop fashions have come and gone, ‘The Look of Love’ and the rest of their catalogue have somehow and endured and prospered. Hal David was born in New York on May 25th 1921; Burt Bacharach followed seven Mays later – May 12th 1928, in Kansas City. And, if you’re doing a bit of rough math on your fingers and toes, you’ll have worked out that both men belong to the pre-rock generation yet had their greatest run of success in the 1960s, when the likes of ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ were competing on the charts with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Bacharach & David were one of the most famous songwriting teams in the world back then, if only because the very notion of a songwriting team – Lerner & Loewe, Rodgers & Hammerstein – seemed faintly quaint. Yet in the age of the “singer-songwriter” Bacharach & David were a hit writing partnership.
Burt Bacharach, the music guy, was the famous one – a conductor-pianist, a celebrity and a star, the embodiment of what they called in Britain, somewhat to his bewilderment, ‘the Bacharach sound’. ‘I think it was something to do with the flugelhorns,’ he once told me. Women, in particular, grew very flugelhorny in his presence. He was a bona fide sex symbol. ‘Every songwriter looks like a dentist,’ said Sammy Cahn, ‘except Burt Bacharach.’ Hal David made a passable dentist, and thus generated fewer magazine covers and gossip columns, content for the most part to be the other fellow to Burt’s Bacharach… The general assumption was that Burt was the great artist, Hal the solid craftsman who did a good professional job.
Whether great art or solid craftsmanship, that school of songwriting was supposedly swept away by Dylan, the Beatles et al. Instead, as the years go by, Bacharach & David’s great run of hits from the Sixties are simultaneously one of the most appealing sounds of the era yet also transcend it. Half a century on, as the noisier fellows they shared the Top 40 with have faded, the Bacharach & David catalogue remain some of the most performed songs to emerge from that time. Hal David said to me many years ago how much he admired Irving Berlin for “his confidence to express things simply”. But he also liked Berlin as a business model: “Most writers succeed only in one or two areas,” he told me. “Rodgers and Porter were basically theatre men. But Berlin did everything. He’s unique in that he worked successfully and continuously in all three areas of popular song – shows, films, Tin Pan Alley. Burt and I tried that in the Sixties, and believe me, it’s tough.”
I’ll say. By 1968, Bacharach & David had provided big pop hits for Dionne Warwick, Gene Pitney, Cher and many others, and they’d made memorable contributions to What’s New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale and others of the more determinedly groovy films of the period. Their chance to crack that third outlet of song – the theatre – came when David Merrick signed them to write a Broadway show with Neil Simon. Promises, Promises was an adaptation of a Billy Wilder film from the beginning of the decade – The Apartment, with Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon, and Fred MacMurray. It’s the story of, well, an apartment, loaned out by its schnook occupant to his bosses as a convenient locale for office dalliances. The result was one of my favorite Wilder movies, but I’m not sure the premise quite sings enough to be a full-blown musical.
The Great White Way’s Golden Age had come to a close four years earlier with Fiddler on the Roof. Although the ending of the era was not discerned quite that precisely in 1968, there was certainly a sense that the old ways were running out of puff and something different was needed. Hence, the yoking of fresh non-Broadway songwriting blood in Bacharach & David to old-school Broadway savvy in Doc Simon. Promises, Promises proved to be a modest and conventional hit, enlivened by some memorable moments – such as the office-party disco frenzy for “Turkey Lurkey Time”, choreographed by Michael Bennett, a few years before his blockbuster Chorus Line. For the rest, it was traditional musical comedy interrupted by untraditional numbers. Alain Boublil recalled to me being utterly bored by the scene-song-scene-song format of Promises. He went on to write Les Misérables in the Brit pop opera style that in the Eighties finally overwhelmed the Broadway musical.
At the time, David Merrick was also trying to tempt to Broadway another contemporary hitmaker, Mort Shuman, writer of “Save the Last Dance for Me”, “Sweets for My Sweet”, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and the man behind that year’s big off-Broadway smash Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. “Merrick gave me house seats for Promises, Promises,” Mort told me. There was a plot song called “She Likes Basketball”, which he imperfectly remembered as “I Like Basketball”. “And I thought, ‘I don’t like basketball. And I don’t like this song about basketball. And I don’t like the way the story’s come to a stop for a song I don’t like that’s not doing anything for the story and isn’t a good song in its own right.”
But 1968 was peak Bacharach & David – “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”, “This Guy’s in Love with You” – so Merrick got the sales-boosting hit songs he wanted. Dionne Warwick put the frantic title number, “Promises, Promises”, on the charts, and would eventually do the same for the big take-home tune. When songwriters get asked, “What comes first – the words or the music?”, the correct answer in this case is: The hospitalization.
Promises, Promises was in Boston for its pre-Broadway tryout, and in pretty good shape – in better shape, in fact, than the composer, who three days into the run came down with pneumonia. There was a spot in the Second Act with a song called “Wouldn’t That Be a Stroke of Luck?”, which Bacharach thinks to this day is a hit title. He liked the song, David like it, Merrick liked it, director, choreographer, cast liked it. “The only people who didn’t like it,” said Hal, “were the audience.”
But what to replace it with? David went to visit the pneumonia-stricken Bacharach in hospital. And then he wrote:
What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia
After you do, he’ll never phone ya
I’ll Never Fall In Love Again…
On the day Burt got out of the hospital, Hal gave him the lyrics and they finished the song. That evening they played it for Neil Simon and David Merrick, and the following night it went into the show. Wait a minute, how does that happen? You’ve got a big theatre orchestra; how do you rustle up an orchestration that quickly? Well, their leading lady Jill O’Hara – in the Shirley MacLaine role of Fran Kubelik – had mentioned a few days earlier that she played the guitar. So they got her one – and on that first public performance in Boston “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” stopped the show:
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is such a great title for a pop song you’re amazed no one ever got to it before. In fact, they did. Here’s Johnnie (“Cry”) Ray with his last ever chart hit – Number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959:
Who wrote that? Johnnie Ray himself.
Eight years later Tom Jones had a much bigger hit – Number Two in the UK – with another “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, written by Lonnie Donegan, Britain’s skiffle king, with Jimmy Currie. Here’s Sir Tom earlier this year performing the song with Lonnie’s son, Peter Donegan:
That was the year before Bacharach & David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, but if they ever felt themselves laboring under the enormous shadow of the tightly-trousered Welsh boyo you’d never know it. There is no copyright in title, so if you want to write a song called “Over the Rainbow” or “White Christmas” feel free. What’s interesting is how different writers set the same title phrase: Bacharach looked at David’s lyric and set it with that elongated “I’ll”, either because he was careless or perhaps because, in dramatic terms, the singer is trying to persuade herself of the declarative statement to follow.
Cole Porter once heard a French nightclub singer perform “All Through the Night” and chop out two bars along the way. Instead of being furious, as Richard Rodgers would have been, he was fascinated – because the chanteuse had clearly concluded the music was superfluous to the needs of the lyric. As the musicologist Alec Wilder, no fan of rock, conceded:
If only one good thing has come out of the experiments of the rock era, it is the natural phrase, whether or not it be an even number of measures. Oddly, the credit for this should go principally to Burt Bacharach, who is certainly not a rock composer.
Take Bacharach’s fondness for shifting time-signatures: A Sinatra said, giving Burt a shout-out from the stage one night, “He’s a helluva composer. He writes in hat sizes – seven and three-quarters.” But, if that’s how the phrase should sing, why not? Rodgers & Hart would surely never have stretched the second syllable of “again” over four notes. But for Fran Kubelik commiserating with herself over her guitar at the emotional high point of the drama it feels right.
As for the lyric, “pneumonia”/”phone ya” is a cute rhyme. But the great comedy writer Dick Vosburgh never tired of pointing out what he saw as one slight problem with it: pneumonia is not a communicable disease. We were once on some terrible BBC Light Ent show together and he brought up the subject yet again, and I remember tossing out alternative ailments to Dick and inviting him to rhyme them:
What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs for halitosis
After you do, he won’t send roses…
But parlor-game nitpickers don’t get the hits, and Burt, Hal and Dionne did:
Bacharach arranged that record and co-produced it, and that’s how he hears this song, even after half a century. In that sense, he doesn’t write standards: If he composes a jazz waltz (“Wives and Lovers”), he has no desire to hear it as a bossa nova. He likes to hear it as he wrote it, and arranged it, and produced it.
And for that very reason Burt Bacharach did not enjoy his foray onto Broadway for Promises, Promises. On a record, on a film score, a perfectionist can get it just the way he wants: recorded perfection – the flugelhorn player he wants playing the flugelhorn part the way he wants it to sound, now and forever. But what to other men is the thrill of live theatre was to Bacharach the tinny sound of not-quite-good-enough. He disliked the “subs” – the way a Broadway orchestra playing eight shows a week inevitably has a trombonist out on Tuesday night and a bass player sick on Wednesday matinee, and some guy filling in who’s not entirely on top of what he’s playing.
Discussing Bacharach’s place in the canon, Elvis Costello said to me, “I love Richard Rodgers. And Burt’s in that league.” Except that Rodgers is the quintessential theatre guy, and, as Bacharach put it to me, what soured Burt on the theatre forever was the day Richard Rodgers came to see the show. Rodgers! Mister Broadway! Coming to hear Burt Bacharach’s music! And that day the lead trumpet was a sub, and so was the drummer, and six other guys in the band. Bacharach wants Rodgers to hear his score the way he intended it to be heard, and there are eight fellows in the pit winging it, including a very indifferent drummer. I once asked Alan Jay Lerner, author of Gigi, Camelot and My Fair Lady, if there were anyone he’d like to write a Broadway show with. “Burt Bacharach,” he said. “But, after his experience on Promises, Promises, Burt will never write for the theatre again.”
Okay. So how about a screen musical? Burt can conduct the orchestra and get everything just so, just the way he likes it. So for their next full score Bacharach & David signed on to a musical remake of Frank Capra’s film Lost Horizon. As I wrote a while back:
They were a team, and a very successful one. But Bacharach was in the studio late one night working on the picture’s background score, and he thought of David, who, having turned in his lyrics, had flown down to Mexico to play tennis. And the thought rankled. So Burt called Hal and said he reckoned that, instead of their usual 50/50 split, they should move to 60/40 in Bacharach’s favor.
Partners don’t do that… And Hal had his own rankling thoughts – all those magazine covers drooling over Burt and whichever Swingin’ Sixties totty he happened to be squiring that week. If he was the archetypal songwriter who looks like a dentist, how come he felt like the one on the receiving end of a decade-long root-canal? Sixty/forty? Hal said no. Burt said, ‘F**k you and f**k the picture’, and hung up.
The picture was already f**ked. It flopped and made nothing. And sixty per cent of nothing is exactly the same as forty per cent of nothing. So it would have made no difference to Lost Horizon. But it finished Bacharach & David.
Bacharach stayed famous and successful and had hits with his new wife and writing partner Carole Bayer Sager, but I don’t think “That’s What Friends Are For” or “Arthur’s Theme” are what anybody has in mind when they rave about how great Burt Bacharach is. On the other hand, whatever one feels about Hal David’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”, some of his other songs with Albert Hammond – “99 Miles From LA”, say – have something of the same quality as those Bacharach & David songs. Maybe the other guy was more essential to that so-called “Bacharach sound” than anybody realized.
At the time, Bacharach & David were regarded as Tin Pan Alley throwbacks, easy-listening guys serving Dionne Warwick, Jack Jones, the Carpenters and somehow managing to hold on in an age of rock supergroups and singer-songwriters. Fifty years on, the Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, you name it, all sound as quaintly dated as Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians did back then. But not Bacharach & David.
“It’s like the clothes from the Sixties,” said Burt. “They don’t work anymore. A lot of the songs don’t work anymore.” And he flashed me a big smile of perfect teeth he’d been flossing in front of me just minutes earlier. “But some songs do”:
~You can hear Hal David’s two James Bond theme songs, sung by Louis Armstrong and Shirley Bassey, in our special SteynOnline audio tribute to 007’s music man, John Barry.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn’s Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we’d do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you’ll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman’s Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark’s interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse’s songs, John Barry’s Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We’ll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you’ll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
The Mark Steyn Club is now in its third year. What is it? Well, it’s an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. If you enjoy our musical offerings here at SteynOnline, you’ll know we have two exciting members-only events coming up next month with some top-flight jazz, rock and classical performers. We don’t (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits – and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you’ve got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.