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Legendary Pop Composer, Songwriter Burt Bacharach Dies at 94

The Oscar winner’s hits include ‘Walk on By’ and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’

spinner image Composer Burt Bacharach in a white suit jacket posing for a portrait in 1987 in Los Angeles
Harry Langdon/Getty Images

As a kid growing up in New York, he blew a rendering of “Claire de Lune” at his piano recital. His mother, a songwriter and painter, was so frustrated with his progress that she finally offered to let him quit his lessons. But then she guilted him into practicing: That new Steinway had really set the family back.

“I’m grateful for my mother being insistent and pushing,” he told the Charleston Free Times in 2019. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today if she weren’t.”

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Bacharach, who died Wednesday of natural causes at 94 at his home in Los Angeles, turned that inauspicious beginning into a legendary career, writing some of pop music’s most enduring hits, including “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (1965), “This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968), “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (1969), “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (1963), and “That’s What Friends Are For” (1982).

Irrepressibly romantic, Bacharach’s music fused jazzy harmonies and syncopation with symphonic melody structure, which he polished into glossy, sophisticated, and often elegant pop — the antithesis of the hard rock and singer-songwriter movements of the late ’60s. Sometimes dismissed as easy-listening, his work, much of it in tandem with lyricist Hal David, nonetheless earned him 8 Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award and a Trustees Award, three Academy Awards and a place at the upper strata of successful songwriters. The two also enjoyed a Broadway hit, Promises, Promises, an early pop musical, in 1968.

spinner image Burt Bacharach performing on his piano in Los Angeles in 1968
Bacharach performs on his piano circa 1968 in Los Angeles, California.
Martin Mills/Getty Images

While thousands of artists — from B.J. Thomas to Dusty Springfield to the duo Naked Eyes — recorded their songs, their most iconic collaboration was with Dionne Warwick, a young, gospel-oriented singer backup whom Bacharach met in the early ’60s on a session for the song “Mexican Divorce,” which he had written with another songwriter, Bob Hilliard, for the Drifters.

After the session, Bacharach approached Warwick and asked if she would be interested in doing demonstration records of songs he was writing with a new songwriting partner. “That was the beginning of the BDW syndrome,” Warwick told AARP The Magazine in 2014.

Their urbane work together, “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” blended pop, gospel, and light R & B, and rose above the lines drawn between race and culture and made Warwick an international star.

“Everything happened for Bacharach, David, [and] Warwick kind of as a surprise, basically because we were doing something so very different than anybody else in the recording industry, lyrically and musically,” she told AARP. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

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The composer, who also worked as musical director for Marlene Dietrich and toured with her in the late ’50s, was married four times, to actresses Paula Stewart and Angie Dickinson, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, and to Jane Hansen, who survives him. He is also survived by three of his children, sons Cristopher and Oliver and daughter Raleigh. His older daughter, Nikki, died at age 40.

Bacharach, who often performed with orchestras, relying more on his legacy and charm than on his singing voice, wrote a 2013 autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, with Robert Greenfield. In it, he said he loved the energy and attention of live performing.

“Most composers sit in a room by themselves and nobody knows what they look like,” he wrote. “I get to make a direct connection with people. Whether it’s just a handshake or being stopped on the street and asked for an autograph or having someone comment on a song I’ve written,” he summed up, “that connection is really meaningful and powerful for me.”

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