Burt Bacharach...

Edmonton Sun - 20 January 2002

After 30 minutes of talking to America's greatest living songwriter - an interview that turned into a music business grump-a-thon, but more on that in a moment - Burt Bacharach adds one last point:

"I always loved the Oilers when they were playing with Gretzky and Messier. It was great," he says, down the line from his home in Los Angeles.

We still have a team, you know.

"I know you do. But those were great moments."

All that Burt Bacharach remembers about the Big Onion are the glory days of the Edmonton Oilers that ended 14 years ago - and all we remember about Burt Bacharach are the great songs he wrote 30 or 40 years ago. Touche.

The 73-year-old songwriting legend performs in Edmonton for the first time on Jan. 25 at the Shaw Conference Centre. He's the headliner for the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce President's Ball. (Don't be put off by the title. For $125 per person, you get the concert plus a three-course dinner and wine; a better deal than $125 front-row seats for Rod Stewart, as long as you don't mind wearing a suit and sitting through speeches.)

Burt comes with a 10-piece band, including his crucial motif-playing trumpeter, let loose on an arsenal of standards whose popularity spans at least three generations. Three singers will do the bulk of the material - all except for Alfie. Burt, who's not much of a singer, reserves that song for himself.

Chances are that in the last 24 hours you have been exposed to Burt Bacharach music.

There are countless television commercials. The ones running internationally at the moment include Calvin Klein and Oscar Meyer Lunchables. Burt and his music appeared in both Austin Powers films and are expected to be in the third. Movie music has been his forte since Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head won the Oscar for best theme song in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bacharach's songs still appear in films and on records by everyone from Diana Krall to Ben Folds. His hits are so popular they've become embedded in American culture.

The Burt Bacharach revival started in the mid-'90s, spurred by unlikely glowing testimonials by bands like Oasis and Massive Attack, and turned into a snowball effect by the time the soundtrack to My Best Friend's Wedding came out in 1997. In the same sort of "grandfather phenomenon" that saw renewed interest in people like Tom Jones and Tony Bennett (and Neil Young and Merle Haggard), Burt suddenly became hip. Songs that were once considered shmaltzy elevator music suitable for a visit with grandma regained their cool cache as the pop standards they deserved to be.

"You can't plan something like this," he says. "Needless to say, I was very happy as things unfolded."

The stars jumped on the Burt bandwagon in a big way with One Amazing Night in 1998, an album featuring the hippest young artists covering Burt's best - Barenaked Ladies on Close To You, Sheryl Crow doing One Less Bell To Answer, Mike Myers hamming his way through What's New, Pussycat? and the Official Voice of Burt, Dionne Warwick, singing a medley of her most popular songs, Walk On By, Say A Little Prayer and Do You Know The Way to San Jose? You know them all. Burt-mania, like the swing movement, may have started with a touch of irony, but before long, no one could stop humming these breezy tunes.

After reading all those titles, chances are you're humming one right now.

Once again, we're talking about the old songs here, many written long ago with lyricist Hal David. When it comes to breaking new material like he used to do with startling regularity, Bacharach seems to have hit a snag. He says he's still as passionate about writing as ever, but aside from a collaboration with Elvis Costello, Painted From Memory, there aren't as many opportunities to score a hit as there used to be in the good old days of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, when writing pop hits was an industry centred in one tiny New York City district. Burt and Elvis's first song, a heartbreaking ballad called God Give Me Strength, was written over the phone for the film Grace of My Heart, a tale of the Brill Building era.

"It's a different market now," Bacharach says. "There are less potential singers out there. The record business has changed so radically. A good song was always a guarantee that someone like Aretha (Franklin) or Gladys (Knight) or Dionne would do it - and these people are now having trouble being played at urban radio, if they even have record deals.

"There's still a gravitation towards my older songs rather than newer songs. You've got an artist up there, I got a block on her name, she just did Look of Love. She's great."

Diana Krall?

"Yeah. She's a great, great artist, very musical, but I guess it's a safer territory to take established songs. I wish I could get into the studio with Diana and do a couple of new things. I'd love it. It's a hard thing. You look at the album with Elvis. It was critically acclaimed but we never got any radio play. We didn't even put a single out. It's not far away from the Steely Dan situation. They won a Grammy and never had a single out. They never even sold a million records."

Odd as it may sound, there seems to be a shortage of suitable divas for Bacharach's new music.

"You write a song, and unless you get Celine to sing it, it's not going anywhere. Whitney, you don't know what's happening with her, and you don't know what's happened with Mariah, you don't know what's happening with their lives."

Bacharach is in a unique position not to know what's happening with Whitney Houston. As musical director of the 2000 Oscars, he reportedly fired the singer after she flubbed rehearsals for a movie song medley that took three months to arrange because it kept changing. He vows he'll never take that gig again.

"It was like a movie script," he recalls. "You just can't envision anything going down like that, the anxiety it caused everybody."

Bacharach tends to ramble a bit, but is sharp for his age. There is little happening in popular music today beyond his grasp or appreciation. New artists regularly call for permission to cover his old tunes.

"I try to never get stuck in the past," he says. "I'm very open to new creative things that people do. Wyclef Jean sent me a disc of something new he did with What's New, Pussycat? He has his own thing and it's great. I love it. It could be a huge hit. I think once a song is established, once people know it, if you want to take a couple of risks on it, go, yeah, change, it's OK."

Still, Bacharach complains bitterly about the state of the record industry - pausing only briefly to complain about the state of radio - especially the commerce-over-art attitude of record executives. Bacharach comes from an era when record label presidents actually cared about the music they sold.

So why not run your own record label?

He laughs, "I don't want any part of it. When you see Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert go out of the record business because it's not so enchanting to them anymore - forget enchanting - they don't like it anymore.

''It's changed so much, and they miss the business the way it was. Clive Davis was still able to care about artists, care about songs. But look what they did to him - they fired him! They forced him out from Arista because he was too old! Give me a f---ing break, you know?"

Burt doesn't need this. He's slowing down his workload anyway, and not because of his age.

"I've got two young kids, a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl," he says. "And a 16-year-old son. It's really important to hang out with these kids, be with them. It's vital, in other words. I can't be working quite so hard."

His music can do the work for him - and will long after we're all gone.



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