The numbers, chart figures and accolades for Burt Bacharach, the legendary songwriter who died February 8 at 94, are as formidable as any titan of music. Six Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement prize), three Oscars, a combined 125 Top 40 hits in the U.S. and the U.K., the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, entry into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — the list goes on.
And unsurprisingly, it’s not enough to describe the hold Bacharach — writing with lyricists like Hal David, Carole Bayer Sager and others — have had on our collective psyche. His unique song structures lit up pop radio during a time of major sonic change in the ‘60s, reinventing what American radio would deem easy listening and crafting a songbook that contained some of the greatest romantic tunes of all time.
If you’re new to Bacharach’s formidable catalog, or you’ve been singing along for decades and want to remember his best as he left it for us, here are 10 to get you started.
Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By” (1964)
Bacharach had been an accomplished employee of New York’s legendary songwriting hit factory at the Brill Building since 1957. But his 1961 discovery of singer Dionne Warwick proved to be one of the defining moments of his career. With Bacharach, Warwick put out more hits by any female artist during the decade other than Aretha Franklin. “Walk On By” was one of their first Top 10s, deftly combining heartache with a poised, sensuous approach that established Warwick as a new kind of R&B singer. Five years later, up-and-coming funk/soul icon Isaac Hayes transformed “Walk On By” into the epic opener of his breakthrough LP Hot Buttered Soul.
Jackie DeShannon, “What the World Needs Now is Love” (1965)
It took two years for Bacharach and David to finish writing this unconventional, waltz-time plea for unity. (David’s lyrics became clearer as tensions flared over in Vietnam.) Rejected by Warwick for being “too country [and] too preachy,” singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon would take the track to the Top 10.
Herb Alpert, “This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968)
While Bacharach and David were writing hits for Warwick and others, trumpeter Herb Alpert became another key figure of American pop in the ‘60s, founding his own record label, A&M, with executive Jerry Moss, and selling millions of instrumental records like Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Having signed Bacharach to the label as a performer in the mid-’60s, Alpert took advantage of a forgotten tune in Bacharach and David’s songbook, performed it with a combination of trumpet and vocals, and gave Bacharach his first No. 1 as a songwriter.
B.J. Thomas, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” (1969)
Perhaps the quintessential example of Bacharach’s light touch, from the peppy melody to the lush musical arrangement — which, like “This Guy” and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love,” was heavy on brass. B.J. Thomas’ lighthearted approach to “Raindrops” became a sensation when it was included on the soundtrack the to Paul Newman and Robert Redford box office smash Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. It topped the Billboard Hot 100, and Bacharach won his first two Academy Awards, for Best Song and Best Original Score.
Carpenters, “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (1970)
The quiet, ornate style that Bacharach had perfected as a songwriter-producer was a key influence on sibling duo Richard and Karen Carpenter, whose squeaky-clean image and polished musicianship led the way for easy listening radio in the ‘70s. Recorded for A&M with the legendary team of session players known as The Wrecking Crew, “Close to You” — which had been cut by Warwick and others to no fanfare — was another smash chart-topper.
Christopher Cross, “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” (1981)
While the 1970s offered its share of personal hardships for Bacharach — a flop movie-musical remake of Lost Horizon in 1973 led to a falling out with Hal David and, by extension, Dionne Warwick — Bacharach found himself rejuvenated by the professional and personal partnership with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, his third wife. The pair contributed a few big hits to ‘80s radio, including the lite-rock theme to the Dudley Moore comedy Arthur. It netted an Oscar for the pair with Christopher Cross, who himself had recently made history by winning all four major Grammy Awards (Record, Album and Song of the Year and Best New Artist) in one night.
Luther Vandross, “A House is Not a Home” (1981)
Even if Bacharach was less of a presence on the charts in the ‘80s, his influence could be deeply felt. When former session singer Luther Vandross stepped out on his own with the acclaimed debut Never Too Much in 1981, he closed it with an epic rendition of a forgotten Warwick hit that recast the tune as a slow jam for the ages. In 2003, Vandross’ version would become the backbone of a No. 1 hit, sped up and sampled on Twista’s Kanye West-produced “Slow Jamz.”
Naked Eyes, “Always Something There to Remind Me” (1983)
So deep was the Bacharach-David songbook that it was producing hits long after their partnership had ended, seemingly at random. British singer Sandie Shaw took the duo’s “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” to the top of the pops in the U.K. in 1964, but it was all but unknown in America until pop duo Naked Eyes — who ironically had little success in their native England — took a bombastic electronic version to the Top 10.
Dionne & Friends, “That’s What Friends Are For” (1985)
One of Bacharach and Bayer Sager’s most enduring compositions was seemingly doomed to languish on the soundtrack to the 1982 Ron Howard comedy Night Shift (recorded by, of all people, Rod Stewart). Then, a reconciliation between Bacharach and Warwick — who’d done everything from hit-making to psychic hotlines by this time — led to her recording this song with Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John. She released it as a charity single to raise money and awareness about the AIDS crisis. As a result, it became the biggest hit of 1986, raising millions for the cause.
Elvis Costello, “God Give Me Strength” (1998)
By the end of the 20th century, Bacharach seemingly had nothing to prove: the music of his generation was seen as kitschy but brilliant, and he was invited to cameo in all three Austin Powers films as a symbol of the swinging ‘60s. But he wasn’t content to rest on his laurels, taking on longtime fan Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner. That collaboration began with “God Give Me Strength,” a song written for the film Grace of My Heart, and continued through several albums and beyond. (A box set chronicling their partnership is out next month.)