Burt Bacharach is one of the most accomplished popular composers of the 20th Century. In the ’60s and ’70s, he was a dominant figure in pop music, responsible for a remarkable 52 Top 40 songs. In terms of musical sophistication, Bacharach’s songs differed from much of the music of the era. Bacharach compositions typically boasted memorable melodies, unconventional and shifting time signatures, and atypical chord changes. Combining elements of jazz, pop, Brazilian music and rock, Bacharach created a unique new sound that was as contemporary as it was popular. Lyricist Hal David, Bacharach’s primary collaborator, supplied Bacharach’s music with tart lyrics worthy of the best Tin Pan Alley composers. David’s unsentimental, bittersweet lyrics were often in striking contrast to Bacharach’s soaring melodies. While in the late 1970s Bacharach’s name became synonymous with elevator music (due in great part to its sheer familiarity), a closer listening suggests that his meticulously crafted, technically sophisticated compositions are anything but easy listening.
Burt Freeman Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Mo., on May 12, 1928. The son of nationally syndicated columnist Bert Bacharach, Burt moved with his family in 1932 to Kew Gardens in Queens, New York. At his mother’s insistance, he studied cello, drums and then piano beginning at the age of 12. Burt hated taking piano lessons. His dream was to play professional football, but his size—or lack thereof—kept him out of that field.
As a teenager, Bacharach fell in love with jazz and sometimes used a fake ID to sneak into 52nd Street nightclubs to see bebop legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Bebop’s unconventional harmonies and melodies became a major influence on the young composer.
When he was 15, Bacharach started a 10-piece band with high school classmates. With Burt on piano, the group gained exposure playing parties and dances. After graduating from Forest Hills High School, Bacharach enrolled in the music studies program at McGill University in Montreal. It was there that Burt says he wrote his first song, “The Night Plane to Heaven.”
Bacharach went on to study theory and composition at the Mannes School of Music in New York City; at the Berkshire Music Center; and at the New School for Social Research, where he studied under composers Bohuslav Martinu, Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud (whose influence on Bacharach’s style is apparent). He was also awarded a scholarship to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif.
From 1950-52 Bacharach served in the Army, playing piano at the officer’s club on Governor Island and in concerts at Fort Dix. His perfomances then consisted primarily of improvisations and pop medleys of the day, although he was billed as a concert pianist.