I originally meant to write this as a dedication to Burt Bacharach, having recently prepped a mix for the Burt Bacharach Tribute night at Devil’s Pie. I was running behind (as I often do these days) but today, Hal David died.
I’m sure someone far more learned in the great American songbook can explain why, between the two partners, Burt Bacharach has seemed to draw more praise than David. It’s extraordinarily difficult to find a song that one man worked on that the other did not as well; as far as writing teams go, they constitute one of the greatest in pop music history. I don’t care who you put them against: Porter, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Wonder, it doesn’t matter. Bacharach/David are in any conversation. Always.
It is nearly unfathomable, how many incredible songs the two men touched. There’s so much to comb through. So much.
No way can I do David proper justice here but I can at least highlight a few of my favorite discoveries made while putting the mix together.1 This was a total education for me because while I may have heard the songs in one form or another, the layers upon layers of covers were astonishing, if not a little overwhelming at times. None of what I’m putting forward here is what I’d claim to be the “definitive” versions. There’s always more. And most of them are great. That’s the mark of good songwriting.
Bacharach has said on many occasions that “Alfie” is his personal favorite of the many songs he and David wrote together. The title track to the movie of the same name, “Alfie” first hit with Cilla Black’s version (which mostly came into being because Dionne Warwick didn’t get it initially and Sandie Shaw passed). Jerry Butler actually does a pretty great version of this but I narrowly gave the slot to the Sweet Inspirations because I adore the multi-part harmony that opens the song.
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: Anyone Who Had a Heart
From Black Magic (Gordy, 1972)
Originally recorded in ’63, Warwick actually did get this first but it was Cilla Black (whose rep in the UK was always far far greater than the impression she made in the US) who made this into a hit. She absolutely murders it on the big notes. That said, I went with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ version from nearly 10 years later because I find this era of Reeves’s career to be fascinating. Like a lot of Motown stars of the 1960s, Reeves and the Vandellas were trying to find new footing in the ’70s, amidst a changing R&B scene. This album and Natural Resources are, in my opinion, slept-on despite their qualities and Black Magic is worth copping just for this song alone. The way this version’s arrangement opens, especially with the background vocals, is just great.2
Let’s make this clear: when it comes to “interpreters of David/Bacharach songs” Isaac Hayes owns this category. No one comes close. It’s not up for debate. Whether you’re talking about “The Look of Love,” or (of course), “Walk On By,” Hayes completely reinvented these songs to the point where, on the one level, they were unrecognizable from the versions that preceded them. But on the other, he still pays due respect to the brilliance of the songwriting. I don’t know how Hayes managed to pull off that balance but I suppose that’s why he was Isaac f—-ing Hayes.
This version of “I Just Don’t KNow What To Do With Myself” is no different. Take a moment to marvel at the first minute of what Hayes switches up here with the arrangement. The strings, the horns, the piano, the background vocals, the way it weaves in the basic melodic theme but in these layered, sophisticated ways. Then compare that with the original Tommy Hunt version, which is glorious in its own, stripped down way. Same song but not the same song. Hayes completely turns it into something new and glorious and lush and giant andâ€¦you get the idea. No one did it better.
Sybil: Don’t Make Me Over
From 12″ (Next Plateau, 1989)
I could explain why this version and not others like, say, Nancy Holloway singing it in French or Brenda and the Tabulations taking a whack at it. But really, isn’t the fact that it’s a hip-housey late ’80s recording of the song good enough? It is for me.
Gladys Knight and the Pips: One Less Bell To Answer
From If I Were Your Woman (Soul, 1971)
As with all of these tunes, I had a tough time deciding to go with this version over others. For real: the Barbra Streisand medley version, combining this with “A House Is Not a Home” is incredible and for someone who grew up thinking of Barbara as an actress, it was a revelation to hear her sing this and kill it.
But hey, this is Soul Sides, not Strei-Sides and I’m not going to stand in the way of sharing a superlative Gladys Knight and the Pips version of this tune. Now if only I could find a way to meld this with the Glass House’s version of “A House Is Not a Home”â€¦
- If you’re interested in other examples, be sure to check out Covered With Soul’s excellent Bacharach/David post. ↩
- Yes, I’m really into how a song opens. First impressions and all that. ↩