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Burt Bacharach, visionary pop composer, has died at 94

Burt Bacharach, pictured here in 1970, wrote music that was accessible — it even sounds simple. But there is nothing simple about them.
Michael Ochs Archives
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Burt Bacharach, pictured here in 1970, wrote music that was accessible — it even sounds simple. But there is nothing simple about them.

American popular music has lost a giant. According to his publicist, Burt Bacharach died Wednesday due to natural causes at his Los Angeles home with family at his side. He was 94.

Bacharach composed an astonishing number of hit songs over the decades: "Say A Little Prayer." "Walk On By." "What The World Needs Now." "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." That's just a handful of his music — and he won Grammys, Emmys and Oscars. Burt Bacharach's melodies are seared in the memories of generations of listeners.

Call it orchestrated pop. Burt Bacharach composed and arranged so many hits, often adding horns and strings to create his signature sound.

In the 1960s, Bacharach and his partner, lyricist Hal David, worked out of New York's famed Brill Building. Their star vehicle was Dionne Warwick.

Bacharach wrote music that was accessible — it even sounds simple. But, as Dionne Warwick and other musicians have pointed out, there is nothing simple about them. Bacharach's pop songs were unconventional for the 1960s in their structure, key changes and time signatures. Take the song "Anyone Who Had A Heart"; it was Warwick who pointed out to Bacharach the song constantly changes time signature.

Bacharach was a classically trained musician who absorbed everything.
He grew up in Queens, New York. His father was a columnist. His mother was a musician. She insisted her son practice cello, drums and piano. As a teenager, the young Bacharach snuck into jazz clubs to see Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.

He studied with renowned classical composer Darius Milhaud. It was Milhaud who encouraged Bacharach to follow the kind of music he felt compelled to write. "His observation was 'Never be ashamed of something that's melodic, that one could whistle,'" Bacharach said of his teacher. "And I thought, 'Wow.'"

Soon, Bacharach was writing melodies that millions of people could whistle. Herb Alpert was not known for his singing. He was a songwriter, bandleader, trumpet player and co-founder of A&M records. But his first No. 1 hit on the singles chart was the vocal number "This Guy's In Love With You" — by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

The 1960s were tumultuous: Vietnam. Civil rights protests. Assassinations. Bacharach's songs must have been a kind of salve from the day's news. But there's also a tinge of melancholy in his music. Even though Bacharach became something of a playboy as an adult, and married four times, he also knew loneliness. He told NPR in 2013 that he didn't have a lot of friends when he was a teenager.

"I do remember going into Times Square every New Year's Eve, taking the subway from Forest Hills by myself, standing amongst hundreds of thousands of people," he recalled. "Never went with a friend — not that I had many friends to go with."

Singer Jackie DeShannon was the first to record Bacharach and Hal David's colossal hit, "What The World Needs Now." In 2010, she told Terry Gross, host of WHYY's Fresh Air, that Burt Bacharach was exacting. "Sometimes, people will take liberties with the melody." She didn't — "Not at all. I learned a lot."

Burt Bacharach has been called a visionary. The Library of Congress wrote that his music "set industry records and creative standards." He won two Oscars, two Grammys and an Emmy. Bacharach continued performing into his 80s. He worked with Elvis Costello, and was sampled by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 9, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story said that Burt Bacharach won "Emmys." He was nominated for two Emmys but only won one.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.