11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Lyricist Hal David wrote enduring classics with partner Burt Bacharach for everyone from Dionne to Dusty and beyond. Bill DeMain pays tribute.
The first time I interviewed Hal David, in 1993, we were scheduled to meet in the lobby of a large Nashville publishing company. I arrived early. After going through my notes for a few minutes, I realized that the older fellow sitting across from me reading a magazine was Hal.
That was the thing about Hal David, who died at 91 on September 1 from complications of a stroke. In person, he was unassuming - a soft-spoken, sport coat-wearing guy with glasses who looked like a favourite uncle. But behind the scenes, he was one of the most gifted lyricists of the past 50 years: a dedicated pro who could translate the turmoil of the human heart into conversational, chart-topping poetry.
Even his longtime writing partner Burt Bacharach acknowledged the contrast. "If you look at Hal," he once told me, "then you listen to the lyrics, you've got to be stunned at the insight he has. Brilliant stuff."
Born May 25, 1921 in Brooklyn, Hal followed in the footsteps of his brother, Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mack David. After collaborating with various composers on minor hits throughout the '50s, Hal met Burt Bacharach in New York City's Brill Building in 1958. Their success wasn't immediate. But when they found a vocal muse in Dionne Warwick, it created a dynamic song-making force to rival Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Eventually lending their Midas touch to an A-Z of artists, including Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Herb Alpert and Barbra Streisand, Bacharach & David helped define a golden age of pop music that has never been surpassed.
While the more glamorous Bacharach grabbed the headlines, David was there every step of the way, consistently turning his partner's complex, dramatic melodies into messages that sang easily and scored emotional bull's-eyes.
In discussing how he married words to Burt's melodies, Hal revealed a truth about great lyric writing: "The first step is to listen to the music very closely. Not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what it's saying to you. You should hear it talking to you."
And he had an unerring ear for what those melodies were saying. Anguished pleas (Anyone Who Had A Heart), silky valentines (The Look Of Love), philosophical musings (Alfie), novelty tunes (What's New Pussycat?), mini-movies (24 Hours From Tulsa), protest songs (The Windows Of The World), Broadway showstoppers (Promises, Promises) - David's lyrical range and depth continue to astonish.
Through it all, he trusted a guiding principle. "In writing, I search for believability, simplicity and emotional impact."
After an acrimonious breakup with Bacharach in the early '70s, David went on to collaborate with several different composers, turning out hits like It Was Almost Like A Song and To All The Girls I've Loved Before. As president of ASCAP for many years, he was also an advocate for songwriters' rights.
Of the legacy of timeless work he created with Bacharach, David was typically modest: "When we were writing, Burt and I always tried to find something that was original. There was no fun in being like everyone else."
By Bill DeMain
Photo: Getty Images
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