Hal David: Lyricist whose work with Burt Bacharach produced a succession of hit records
'Sometimes it flows smoothly. At others it's like rowing a boat upstream,' he said of working
The prolific songwriting partnership formed by the composer Burt Bacharach and the lyricist Hal David soundtracked the Sixties as much as Lennon and McCartney or Holland-Dozier-Holland. The run of hits they penned, most famously for Dionne Warwick, the backing vocalist and session singer they plucked from obscurity, included her signature tunes "Walk On By", "You'll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)" and "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", as well as several songs she originated but other female artists rerecorded to even greater success.
Dusty Springfield reinterpreted the wistful "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", Aretha Franklin revisited the yearning "I Say A Little Prayer" and Cilla Black covered the dramatic "Anyone Who Had A Heart" and eclipsed Warwick's original to score her first British No 1 in February 1964. David and Bacharach also wrote the Oscar-nominated title songs for the films What's New Pussycat? – recorded by Tom Jones in 1965 – and Alfie – sung by Black in 1966 – as well as "The Look Of Love", another of Springfield's definitive performances – for the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale and eventually Best Song with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" – interpreted by BJ Thomas in 1969 – from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
From their inception, with their occasional nods to the American Songbook tradition of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, Bacharah-David compositions were a cut above their younger contemporaries at New York's Brill Building writing factory and sounded like standards. Indeed, over five decades they provided a rich source of repertoire and inspiration for acts as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Sacha Distel, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers, Luther Vandross, the Manic Street Preachers and Rumer as well as Jerry Butler and The Walker Brothers (the ultimate break-up ballad "Make It Easy On Yourself" in 1962 and 1965 respectively); Gene Pitney –(the sublime "24 Hours From Tulsa" in 1963); – Sandie Shaw (her first UK-chart-topper "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" in 1964); Herb Alpert (the US No 1 "This Guy's In Love With You" in 1968); and The Carpenters – their breakthrough hit "(They Long To Be) Close To You" in 1970.
Even during their Sixties heyday, David didn't work exclusively with Bacharah. In 1969, he collaborated with the Bond soundtrack composer John Barry to create the lachrymose We Have All The Time In The World recorded by Louis Armstrong for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, though, despite another bravado performance by Shirley Bassey, the title theme they concocted for Moonraker a decade later failed to catch the public's imagination. His lyric set to Albert Hammond's melody for "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" also gave the unlikely pairing of Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson their biggest international success in 1984.
Born in 1921 to Austrian-Jewish immigrants who ran a New York delicatessen, he showed little musical ability and didn't persevere with the violin lessons he was given as a child. Yet he seemed to have a way with words and intended to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother Mack, who wrote songs for Disney, adapted chansons into English and collaborated with Bacharah, on "Baby It's You", the 1961 Shirelles hit later covered by the Beatles. However, Mack dissuaded him and, after studying journalism at New York University, Hal David was drafted into the Armed Forces during the Second World War. Posted to Hawaii, he made the most of his attachment to an entertainment unit, and began devising sketches and composing lyrics.
He subsequently wrote advertising copy and worked with the bandleaders Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo before becoming a jobbing wordsmith and meeting Bacharah in 1957. The pair clicked and came up with "The Story of My Life", which was recorded by the country singer Marty Robbins in the US, and the British crooner Michael Holliday, who took it to the top of the UK hit parade in February 1958, where it was eventually replaced by Perry Como singing 'Magic Moments', another Bacharad-David composition. This unprecedented achievement gave them an entrée into the emerging international markets, an avenue they began to explore between Bacharah's touring commitments with Marlene Dietrich.
In 1962, when Warwick, the signature voice of their early demos, heard "Make It Easy On Yourself" had been given to Butler, she lost her temper. "Don't make me over, man... take me for what I am," she told David, who instantly transformed her rant into her debut US hit. "Burt, I think we just heard the title of a new song," he remarked.
This approach was typical of a wordsmith who could draw inspiration from the unlikeliest of situations or take years to complete a lyric. "I have no formula, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it is like rowing a boat upstream. Most often a lyric starts with a title. A line in a book I am reading may set me off. Other times, some dialogue in a play or a movie becomes the catalyst. More often than not the idea just pops into my head. Where it comes from I hardly ever know," he said. "In writing, I search for believability, simplicity, and emotional impact. There have been times in the past when I've heard one of Burt's melodies and the words just fell out in a matter of seconds. 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose?' is a perfect example of that, I heard the whole lyric in a flash, I just instinctively knew what Burt was looking for. The ones that come out of the blue are usually the best ones."
He mostly wrote about matters of the heart, and was never as hip as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but occasionally took stock of the world around him, chastising the consumer society in "Paper Maché" and examining the impact of the Vietnam War in "The Windows Of The World'"
Promises, Promises, Bacharah and David's 1968 musical adaptation of the Billy Wilder film The Apartment, ran on Broadway for three years, but their partnership floundered after the box-office failure of another musical project, the 1973 movie reimagining of Lost Horizon, the James Hilton novel previously adapted by Frank Capra in 1937. In 1993, they reunited to write "Sunny Weather Love" for Warwick's Friends Can Be Lovers album. The easy listening revival of the late Nineties seemed to benefit Bacharah more but David remained philosophical about his place in musical history. "Composers tend to be better known than lyricists, and Burt is a performer. That's never been my thing,"he said. "The important thing is what one does, not one's name. The songs live, the writer doesn't. You just hope your songs outlast you."
Harold Lane David, lyricist and producer: born New York 25 May 1921; married 1947 Anne Rauchman (marriage dissolved; two sons); married 1988 Eunice Forester; died Los Angeles 1 September 2012.
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