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Burt Bacharach's honest autobiography has the look of love

The new autobiography of the prolific American composer whose hits include Alfie and Baby It's You is admirably honest, writes James McNair. Burt Bacharach leaves space in the story to his three ex-wives and to his quieter partner, the lyricist Hal David, with whom he created Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head

Burt Bacharach, left, plays the piano in his California home while his then-wife Angie Dickinson, right, and their daughter Nikki look on in this 1974 photo. In his recent autobiography, Bacharach and his co-writer give voice to Dickinson and his other ex-wives. John Olson / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Burt Bacharach, left, plays the piano in his California home while his then-wife Angie Dickinson, right, and their daughter Nikki look on in this 1974 photo. In his recent autobiography, Bacharach and his co-writer give voice to Dickinson and his other ex-wives. John Olson / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Burt Bacharach's first wife Paula Stewart describes him as a "neat nut" and a "germ freak", but in the prologue of his new autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart, it's moving to read how Bacharach's obsessive compulsive disorder manifests itself in emotionally testing circumstances.

It's July 1966 and his second wife, the actress Angie Dickinson, has just given birth to their daughter Nikki. Sadly, the baby is premature and only weighs one pound, ten ounces. "Day after day I would stand looking at my tiny little doll of a daughter in her incubator," writes Bacharach. Fearing she will die if he skips the ritual, he sings the McCoys' Hang on Sloopy to her during every single visit.

As readers, we immediately feel we've grasped the tenor of the book, but this memoir transpires to be much more than a sentimental journey lathering the life of a man synonymous with easy-listening music. A classic "warts and all" autobiography, it is in fact admirably honest. It's also surprising just how much quote space Bacharach grants his three ex-wives, women who knock pretty much everything about him bar his good looks and musical gift - though not, we learn, without some justification.

Songwriter and sometime Bacharach foil Elvis Costello notes that, even in 2001, when Burt was already 73, the Kansas City-born, New York City-raised composer's attractiveness still rendered other males in the room "invisible" when he was presented with the Polar Music Prize in Sweden. It's Liverpudlian star Cilla Black, though, who best captures the love-hate feelings that Burt sometimes invoked in women. Recalling the arduous Abbey Road recording session for Alfie, during which the perfectionist Bacharach pushed her to sing 29 takes, Black says: "I wanted to [expletive deleted] kill him but he was so [expletive deleted] gorgeous."

Burt and his co-author Robert Greenfield deal with the pre-fame years quickly but effectively: Bacharach was a lonely child despite his mother nicknaming him "Happy"; he once met Leonard Bernstein on a bus; the insomnia that has continued to plague him began in childhood, and he disliked piano lessons as much as most eight-year-olds.

Undaunted, his parents bought him a Steinway anyway, and Bacharach says it was Jewish guilt that propelled him beyond dry music theory, and on to a precociously sophisticated appreciation for the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Debussy and Ravel.

One of the book's most vivid chapters concerns his time in the employ of Marlene Dietrich. Prior to fully cementing his name as a composer, Bacharach was her musical director and toured the world with the German-American actress and singer in the late 1950s. Dietrich was some 25 years his senior, and their relationship remained platonic. She could be jealously possessive of him, however. Indeed, Bacharach maintains that, in 1965, when he was about to marry Angie Dickinson, Dietrich stuck pins in voodoo doll effigies of his fiancee.

Naturally, there's also plenty here about Hal David, the deft but un-showy lyricist that Bacharach first met at the Brill Building in 1957, and with whom he wrote Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, I Say a Little Prayer, and sundry other pop standards. For Angie Dickinson and others, the pair were chalk and cheese, hence she paints David as an old-fashioned, slightly dowdy character who was ill at ease in showbiz, and Bacharach as a hip and dynamic "forever young" type.

That the music of Bacharach, partly the inspiration for Mike Myers' fictional swinger Austin Powers, outshone that of the quietly capable Hal was inevitable, and so too, perhaps, were the ructions that ensued over royalty splits and their respective media profiles. To his credit, Burt takes the blame for the 10-year fall-out with Hal that was kick-started by Burt reneging on his commitment to produce another Bacharach and David-penned album with their most celebrated mouthpiece, Dionne Warwick, but elsewhere, when Burt says "Hey, nobody whistles lyrics, you know?", it seems a dig at David.

Towards the end of the book, Bacharach gives his partner his due, though, and he writes movingly about how the stroke Hal David suffered six weeks before they won the 2012 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song prevents the lyricist from attending the ceremony. When David later dies on September 1, 2012 at the age of 91, Bacharach writes a tribute for the Los Angeles Times.

Throughout the book, we gain insights into Bacharach's music. It was one of his composition teachers, Darius Milhaud, who told Burt: "Never be ashamed to write a tune you can whistle", but though pop was his chosen idiom, Bacharach grew to be a highly sophisticated composer of some harmonic and rhythmic complexity.

"The plain C major chord just seemed so vanilla to me," he says at one point, while Frank Sinatra - mindful of the irregular, three, then four-bar Bacharach phrases that A&R men would routinely baulk at - has a joke for a Vegas crowd that includes Burt: "There's a man in the audience who's a good composer", says Ol' Blue Eyes. "He writes in hat sizes. Seven and three-fourths."

That "good" should have been "great", of course, and if Sinatra was damning Bacharach with faint praise, Anyone Who Had a Heart reveals why. Sometime rivals for the affections of the fabulously named dancer Slim Brandy, the two men had history, but Sinatra undoubtedly rated Bacharach, and in the late 1960s he even telephoned him to request they make an album together. By Bacharach's account, things soured when he didn't bite Sinatra's hand off: "I said, 'Right now I'm in rehearsal for [Broadway musical] Promises, Promises …' I didn't even get to finish the sentence before Frank said, 'Forget it, man. Just forget it.'"

And so a life less ordinary rolls on. We read that This Guy's in Love With You, described by Oasis's Noel Gallagher as "the best love song ever", only came out of mothballs when Herb Alpert inquired what Bacharach and David had in their bottom drawer. We learn of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair singing Burt's songs to him at a charity bash in Dallas, and of the party that Bacharach's third wife, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, throws for Elizabeth Taylor (Burt ends up jamming with Bob Dylan).

These titbits help flag up Bacharach and David's enduring impact as popular songwriters, but Burt's personal life is certainly not without its shadows. When his mother Irma dies in 1987 and he spends days finishing a song he's writing for the movie Baby Boom instead of immediately flying to New York, we're reminded that nothing comes between Burt and his music.

It's sad, too, to read that his daughter Nikki grew up to be a deeply troubled young women whose Asperger's syndrome wasn't diagnosed until she was 34, and who took her own life in 2007, at the age of 40. Somewhat estranged from her for many years, Bacharach responds by writing a tribute instrumental, Nikki, and Hal David, who else, later writes some touching lyrics.

Bacharach seems grateful for Noel Gallagher's props and his own cameo in 1997's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, both of which helped reboot his career, but much more precious to him, you sense, is the sheet music for George and Ira Gershwin's 1927 song Strike Up the Band that was gifted to him by Ira Gershwin himself. Part of the inscription reads: "For Burt - The Fifth B - (in no particular order) - Beethoven, Brahms, Berlin, Bach & Bacharach." High praise indeed, and something for Burt to brandish when fools dismiss his work as muzak.


James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.