One might expect Burt Bacharach — the legendary composer who has written more than 70 Top 40 hits and won three Oscars, eight Grammys and an Emmy in addition to receiving a Tony nomination — to be a total romantic in conversation. After all, he’s written dozens of the greatest love songs of the past 50 years, including “The Look of Love,” “This Guy’s In Love with You” and “What the World Needs Now.”
He’s been famous for his personal life as well, having been married four times to glamorous women, including bombshell actress Angie Dickinson and acclaimed fellow composer Carole Bayer Sager. But while recently speaking by phone from New York City, Bacharach advises that people should “abstain from marriage until they’re 45” if they want to be truly happy.
That openness carries over to his new memoir, “Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life in Music,” which Bacharach wrote with the help of longtime music journalist Robert Greenfield. And it should also inspire a night of spirited conversation Tuesday, when Bacharach takes the stage of the Alex Theatre with acclaimed author Mitch Albom (“Tuesdays with Morrie”) to discuss his life as part of the LiveTalksLA conversation series.
“Writing a memoir was something I didn’t want to do, because I didn’t want to do too much looking backward, but rather live in the present and look forward,” Bacharach explains. “I definitely resisted it. But about two years ago, someone said what about the book and who’s going to know the stories if you’re not telling them?”
Bacharach, 84, was finally motivated to start the reflective process because he realized that his three children — sons ages 27 and 20 and a daughter who is 17 — had “no idea who their father was, with the pitfalls and blemishes.” He teamed up with Greenfield to write it, and would tell stories into a tape recorder in random order, vowing not to hold anything back before having Greenfield “piece it together like a puzzle.”
Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Mo., but spent most of his childhood in the New York City neighborhood of Forest Hills. The son of Mark Bertram “Bert” Bacharach, who was a popular syndicated newspaper columnist, Bacharach initially “hated” playing the piano. “My mother pushed very hard for me to take piano lessons, but I think my dad would have been OK either way,” says Bacharach. “I hated taking piano lessons, having to practice a half-hour after school every day, and had no love for music — until a certain point of my life when I heard Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, which opened that door and let me hear something other than heavy-duty classical. That other music sounded very beautiful and exciting. That made a big change.”
After studying music at three formal music programs and a stint in the army, Bacharach returned to New York City, where he became an in-demand pianist for numerous stars including Polly Bergen, Steve Lawrence and classic movie siren Marlene Dietrich. But he really hit the path to success upon meeting lyricist Hal David in 1957 at the Brill Building, a Big Apple office complex that housed dozens of pop-music composers who cranked out some of the biggest hits of the era.
Starting with their first No. 1 hit, the country smash “The Story of My Life,” sung by Marty Robbins, Bacharach and David wrote hundreds of songs together for radio, movies like the Michael Caine classic “Alfie” and the Broadway perennial “Promises Promises.” While they worked with numerous singers, their most fruitful collaboration was with Dionne Warwick, with whom they teamed up for 22 Top 40 hits over a 20-year period.
“Composing songs works two ways for me,” explains Bacharach. “I prefer having the lyrics first, and that was the case with ‘Alfie,’ because it had to tell the story of the movie. But more often we’d have an eight-bar or 10-bar musical phrase and a title, then our ideas would snowball and we’d take a couple days to do a song.”
There was one amusing exception to that rule: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” from “Promises, Promises.” In fact, that song was written as a sarcastic battle of wits between David and Bacharach.
“I had just had pneumonia and had been in the hospital, but we needed to come up with a song for that play the day I got out,” says Bacharach. “Hal really wrote the lyrics as an inside joke about me being sick — ‘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.’ The strange thing was it was the fastest song we’d ever written and became the biggest hit we ever wrote.”
With the memoir following his and David’s reception of the 2011 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by the Library of Congress, Bacharach could be excused if he chose to take it easy from now on. But he’s still composing for Broadway and touring the world, plus trying to be a good husband and father now that the fourth time has become the charm, as his current marriage is his longest one yet at 20 years and counting.
But the fitness fanatic is as feisty and opinionated as ever when it comes to sharing what he has learned about life and love over the decades.
“If you want a happy marriage, abstain from marriage,” says Bacharach. “Wait till you’re 40, maybe 45. You’ll get all the craziness out of your system and be ready to settle down because you’ll see what parts of romance are real and what parts are just made up.” Burt Bacharach will discuss and sign “Anyone Who Had a Heart” with author Mitch Albom at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets are $22 to $70. Call (818) 243-2539 or visit alextheatre.org or livetalksla.org.
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