A Tribute To Forest Hills’ Own Burt Bacharach
Legendary Composer Defined 20th – 21st Century Music
By Michael Perlman
There will never be another Burt Bacharach, but there will forever be a star in the sky that shines brighter in his memory. With a career spanning seven decades as an internationally acclaimed American composer, songwriter, singer, pianist, conductor and record producer, his spirit will live on through recordings, performances, audiences, collaborations and personal encounters.
Burt Freeman Bacharach, a former Forest Hills resident, was born on May 12, 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri and passed away on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles. With over 500 compositions that merge jazz, pop, rock and Brazilian elements, Bacharach scored 73 American and 52 U.K. Top 40 hits, as well as seven Billboard Hot 100 number ones. He was the recipient of six Grammys, three Oscars and one Emmy Award, and was honored with the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Along with the late lyricist Hal Lane David (1921 – 2012), he composed the chart-topper “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (1969) for B.J. Thomas. He achieved “Song of the Year” with “That’s What Friends Are For” in 1986, which was composed for Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. Some other most memorable tunes are “Magic Moments” (1958) for Perry Como, “Please Stay” (1961) for The Drifters, “I Say A Little Prayer” (1968) for Aretha Franklin, “This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968) for Herb Alpert, “(They Long to Be) Close To You” (1970) for the Carpenters, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” for Christopher Cross and “On My Own” (1986) for Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald. He also worked with an extensive list of other greats, including Vic Damone, Sammy Davis Jr, Dusty Springfield and Steve Lawrence.
The public shared many memories and aims to preserve Bacharach’s legacy. Musician Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone’s brother, has been a resident of The Grosvenor Square since 1974. He explained, “I heard that Burt lived in Forest Hills, but didn’t find out that he lived in my building until decades later. My brother and I heard his songs on the same Top 40 AM radio stations as The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. We didn’t know at the time that we were listening to his songs, but ‘Walk on By’ was a favorite, and as we got older, we could appreciate the more lite pop songs like ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart.’”
There is growing support for a Burt Bacharach street co-naming and/or mural in Forest Hills. “Let’s name a street after him near Forest Hills High School or where he lived,” said Marilyn Lober Colucci, a Hyannis, MA resident, formerly of Forest Hills. She considers his music to be very sophisticated and first-class. “His passing felt like an end to an era in popular music. From what I see on old TV shows, he looked like he loved what he did, so he was blessed to make a living doing what he loved by making music and bringing joy,” she said.
“Burt’s music is magical and original, with lyrics you can never forget, and each song is unique,” said Pam Fischer Dickman of Fresh Meadows. “The music industry lost one of its best and brightest pop composers.” Her fondest memories were seeing him on TV, such as on the set of “Kraft Music Hall: An Evening with Burt Bacharach” in 1970 and “A Bacharach Potpourri” in 1971.
“Burt was a master of melody and incredibly beautiful songs that still hold up today,” said Colorado resident Andrea Stone, who once resided in Forest Hills and was a huge fan since he, Dionne Warwick and Hal David teamed up. She reminisced, “Hit after hit, I would sing into the mirror in my room, as most young girls do. Luckily, my parents were big music lovers, so my brothers and I followed. The radio was always on, and I’d take out my notebook and write the lyrics. Burt is woven into my life. Burt was one of the first modern day composers I became interested in.”
“Burt Bacharach’s Restaurant” was the destination, located at his East Norwich Inn. John Cupples, an East Meadow resident, met Bacharach in 1982, while working at his restaurant, now known as Rothman’s. He later became assistant manager. He always found him to be approachable and a gentleman. Cupples reminisced, “I let him know that my mother was a huge fan and she always bought records that had his name, so naturally I knew many lesser known hits, and he was kind of amazed. From that moment on, he would let me know what was going on in his life musically.” One day Bacharach told him he was writing a song for “Night Shift” titled “That’s What Friends Are For.”
Time passed and Bacharach remembered that Cupples’ mother sparked his musical interest. “It was 10 p.m. and he asked me if I could get her on the phone, and they had a nice 40-minute conversation. He even asked her to come to the restaurant to play music on piano for her, but she was way too shy. Around 1995, he was working at Westbury Music Fair with Dionne Warwick, so I took my mom there for Mother’s Day, and he invited us to his dressing room.”
As a child, Bacharach studied piano, cello and the drums, and later snuck into Manhattan jazz clubs where he felt inspired by the bebop sounds of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He also studied piano at McGill University in Montreal, where he composed “The Night Plane To Heaven,” his first song. He also studied under composers Henry Cowell and Darius Milhaud.
At the time, Bacharach said, “It was Milhaud who changed my mind for me about the kind of stuff I wanted to write when he said, ‘Don’t be afraid to write a tuneful melody.’”
In Bacharach’s early years, he lived at first on Talbot Street in Kew Gardens in 1932, and then spent many more years at The Grosvenor Square, a historic Tudor-style building at 150 Burns Street in Forest Hills Gardens. He attended P.S. 99 and transitioned to P.S. 101 (Class of 1942) and was a Class of 1946 Forest Hills High School alumnus. This was where he created a 10-piece band with his classmates at the age of 15 and would tickle the ivories at dances and parties. His yearbook, “The Forester,” referred to his interest as business, but read, “A better musician than Burton, would be hard to find, we’re certain.”
Locally, he could be found at the Forest Hills Inn’s piano bar, according to principal Robert Hof of Terrace Sotheby’s International Realty, among other longtime Forest Hills residents.
In December 1969, he was the conductor for the film “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” screened at the Midway Theatre. His credits also include the films “What’s New Pussycat,” screened at the Drake Theatre in Rego Park, and “Casino Royale.” His score made “Promises, Promises” a Broadway hit.
At the 1973 Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament at Forest Hills Stadium, Bacharach competed among other notables, including Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy, comedian Alan King, columnist Art Buchwald, football star Jim Brown, and actors Dustin Hoffman and Sidney Poitier, and tennis greats Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith.
Bacharach was also a catch on television. In anticipation of “The Burt Bacharach Special” in 1971, he was interviewed by the Watertown Daily Times. This show featured interpretations of his music by Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Rudolf Nureyev, an internationally recognized Russian ballet dancer.
His music was known for his melody and bridging the generation gap, in which the publication referenced an “eclecticism of his composing style, in the application of his melodic lines to today’s rampant rhythmic forms and sounds.” Bacharach said, “I am not trying to break the rules. It’s just that sometimes melodies work out better if they don’t adhere to a set pattern. In the final analysis, I’m just writing what’s satisfying to me.”
Pop tunes often featured a 32-bar chorus, preceded by an eight or sixteen-bar verse, but Bacharach embraced experimentation, consisting of atypical intervals and time changes. “Frequently he will stop short on a seven-bar phrase instead of going on to the standard eight,” it read.
Bacharach was not only a highlight of definitive 20th to 21st century music, but a man of great wisdom, as evident in his quotes. One that conveyed a universal message was “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of,” hence his 1965 song with Hal David. Some others reflected his compositions, such as “Never be ashamed to write a melody that people remember” and “For me, it’s about the peaks and valleys of where a record can take you. You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute, then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution.”
“Burt’s music with Hal Davis’ words addressed the most elemental of human conditions, love. I’m sad he is gone, but happy that he helped spread joy and comfort to so many,” said Danny Louie of Cranford, New Jersey. Bacharach had compassion, as in the case of how he impacted his son Eric in the musical production he collaborated on, “Some Lovers” in San Diego 11 years ago. “Burt composed ‘Some Lovers’ and signed his sheet music to my son. His humility had a tremendous impact. He even sang to my son, ‘Knowing When To Leave’ in an elevator ride, when my son mentioned his job in the theater was uncertain. He even invited my son to dinner at his home in La Jolla and got to meet his equally welcoming family.”
Today, Eric is managing La Jolla Playhouse. “I can only imagine that Burt helped him put things in perspective,” he continued.