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Monday, April 16, 2012

Golden Legacy: Dionne, Burt & Hal

Once Upon A Time in pop there were singers and there were songwriters. While these professions were not mutually exclusive, for most of the twentieth century the business model of pop centred around a necessary symbiosis of singers and the composers and lyricists who crafted the songs that would make or break their career. Often a special relationship would develop between a particular singer and songwriter and their careers and fortunes would become intertwined. The most remarkable example of this occurred when a young session singer called Dionne Warwick came to the attention of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a songwriting partnership who were looking for a singer to record demos of their new compositions. Bacharach and David soon discovered that in Dionne they had found their perfect muse. She was able to sing anything they wrote, not just with technical perfection, but with emotion and meaning that was fresh and authentic.

For a ten-year period beginning in 1962, Dionne, Burt and Hal would chart 33 songs and record many, many more. My introduction to the magic they created came when I was 13 and bought a Dionne Warwick EP, which had six of their 1960s recordings. I fell in love with the intricate and complex melodies of the songs, the clever lyrics and Dionne's astonishing voice. I already knew Dionne from her huge 1982 hit album Heartbreaker, but I was only vaguely aware of Burt and Hal. This one little EP led me to search out as many recordings of Bacharach and David songs that I could find, and they are legion. I always love finding a new interpretation of one of their songs, but indisputably the definitive interpreter of Bacharach & David is Dionne Warwick. Here is the story of their remarkable run of success told through five of their biggest and most memorable hits.

Don't Make Me Over (1962)

The first song Dionne recorded for Bacharach & David was the emotional Make It Easy On Yourself. Dionne adored this love triangle tale and thought she had an agreement with Burt and Hal that it would be her debut solo single. However, the song ended up being released first by the cool crooner Jerry Butler, after his A&R man nabbed it for him. Dionne was furious and accused Burt and Hal of reneging on their agreement. They disagreed with Dionne's view that the song was hers, which led her to storm out shouting "don't make me over, man", sixties slang for "don't lie to me".

Dionne's passion sparked inspiration in Burt and Hal and they wrote her a song that was undeniably hers alone, Don't Make Me Over. Despite the misgivings of her label, who felt it was too downbeat, the song became Dionne's first hit single. Like many of Bacharach's melodies, Don't Make Me Over may appear to flow easily to the listener, but it is full of complexity. It has changing time signatures and challenging intervals that would defeat lesser singers. The majestic ease with which Dionne sings this classic tale of heartbreak announced her arrival as a formidable vocal talent and underlined what a singular talent Bacharach & David now had at their disposal.

Anyone Who Had A Heart (1963)

In the fifties and sixties it was not unusual to find competing versions of a song fighting it out for supremacy on the charts. The relationship between artist and material was much more fluid than it is now, harking back to the days when popular music was disseminated by sheet music rather than recordings. Dionne had already suffered frustration at losing "her" song to Jerry Butler, but that would pale into insignificance when compared with her fury when her next hit was hijacked from under her.

Burt, Hal and Dionne were meeting up regularly during 1963 to develop material for Dionne's second album. Burt was beginning to write melodies specifically for Dionne, claiming he heard her voice in his head as he composed. During one session Dionne heard a part-finished song and was so taken with it she demanded Burt and Hal finish it immediately. The song, Anyone Who Had A Heart, boasted another intricate Bacharach melody, with meter shifts from 3/8 to 6/8 to 5/4. Hal's poetic and direct lyric was delivered by Dionne with plaintive honesty. The song became her first top ten hit in the US and even picked up buzz overseas. She was convinced this was the track to launch her internationally.

Unfortunately for Dionne, Brian Epstein heard her version on a trip to the US and on his return to the UK he gave a copy of her single to George Martin. While George thought it would make a great song for Shirley Bassey, Brian was adamant that it should go to his own artist, Cilla Black. Their version was released before Dionne's label could get organised and it went to number one in the UK. Dionne was livid and even today remains bitter about this alleged theft. UK listeners were definitely robbed of the superior version; Cilla possesses little of Dionne's technical skills and her harsh crescendos are a poor substitute for Dionne's subtle tones. This travesty lit a fire under Dionne and she wanted to make certain it would not happen to her again.

Walk On By (1964)

Recorded at the same session as Anyone Who Had A Heart, Dionne's next single would finally launch her as an international star. Walk On By is simply sublime and, in my opinion, one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. Dionne delivers a breezy vocal on the choppy, syncopated verses, which belies the tragedy of the lost love she is trying to conceal. The song effortlessly shifts into a smooth, stretched-out chorus and here Dionne employs a sorrowful control in an effort to contain her heartache. Rarely has a melody, a lyric and a voice combined so flawlessly, it is a masterclass in creating a pop song.

The single gave her back-to-back top ten hits in the US and this time Dionne forced her UK label to rush-release her version. It was just as well as Helen Shapiro was already getting ready to release yet another cheeky cover. Finally UK listeners got to hear the original Dionne magic and Walk On By became her first UK hit, reaching number nine. This piece of perfection is my favourite Bacharach & David song and comfortably in my all-time top ten. Sadly Dionne's UK record label Pye were famed for their inept organisation and their poor distribution and promotion meant she failed to fully capitalise on her breakthrough and the copycats continued to plague her.

I Say A Little Prayer (1967)

You'd be forgiven if you were not aware that the original hit version of this classic song was Dionne's; in fact it was her biggest Bacharach & David single in the US. The version that captured public consciousness was released by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. However, Aretha's version is substantially different to Dionne's, being a looser, more soulful take on the song, repeatedly straying from the complex composition that Burt and Hal had created. Some unkind commentators have suggested that some of these changes were prompted because Aretha couldn't technically sing the song the way it was written; I find that a little far fetched. It is probably more likely that Aretha didn't "feel" the song in its original arrangement and wanted a less structured sound.

Whatever the reason for Aretha's musical liberties, Dionne's version for me is the authentic Bacharach & David recording. Burt famously disliked the original, even trying to block its release, believing the tempo was too fast. Far be it from me to disagree with the legend, but I love the pop feel of Dionne's version and the "Forever, Forever" line in the chorus lends itself well to a more frantic delivery, matching the slight desperation in the rest of the lyric. Once again Dionne sounds effortless as she leaps octaves and chases time signatures, I love the way she playfully echoes the horn part in the break. A very fine performance of a very fine song.

Do You Know The Way To San Jose (1968)

Despite its bright melody and jaunty delivery, Do You Know The Way To San Jose tells the forlorn tale of someone who came to LA with dreams of stardom, but who is returning home a failure. This was part of Hal David's genius, subverting the expected and cleverly constructing whole life stories in under three minutes. Dionne was initially dismissive of the song, thinking it trite, but she soon changed her tune when it gave her only her second UK top ten hit of the sixties. It also gave Dionne her third consecutive top ten hit in the US, her longest run of success, and became her first Grammy win. This has always been one of my favourite Bacharach & David songs and, of course, Dionne's version is definitive.

This recording was the last the team made at Bell Studios in New York, where Dionne, Burt and Hal had started out together in 1962. It also marked the highpoint in the success of the trio; as the decade turned, Burt found his inspiration drying up and his songwriting partnership with Hal began to disintegrate. A legal tussle over royalty irregularities found the three parting company with Scepter in 1971. Dionne signed to Warners for a reported $5 million, the biggest advance a female artist had yet achieved. However, part of that deal was the understanding that Bacharach & David would continue to write and produce for her. Unfortunately Burt and Hal's partnership folded after an ill-fated movie musical, Lost Horizon, stretched their relationship to breaking point. Left in breach of contract, Dionne had no choice but to sue her musical mentors and partners or risk being sued herself. This acrimony was a sad end to such a brilliant and successful musical team. Happily the three would reconcile in later years and Dionne would even record new Bacharach compositions.

Very few catalogues in popuar music can rival  Bacharach & David and Dionne remains the definitive interpreter of their work. The ten years of collaboration between Dionne, Burt and Hal has left us one of the most golden legacies in pop.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Golden Legacy

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