My Choice of the Ten Best Burt Bacharach Songs
by Cory Franklin
March 5, 2023
The songwriter Burt Bacharach died recently and while he was not strictly a rock and roll composer, he and his main lyricist, Hal David, were among the greatest songwriting duos of the rich musical period from 1955-1975. There is Lennon and McCartney, and right behind them, in no particular order, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Bacharach and David (this doesn’t include solo songwriters or Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown). The songs of Bacharach and David remain well loved and ubiquitous today.
Burt Bacharach’s first real hit was the theme he cowrote with Hal David’s brother for the 1958 sci-fi classic The Blob (starring Steve McQueen before he became the world’s #1 box office attraction by riding a motorcycle and driving a 1968 Ford Mustang, and Aneta Corsaut before she became Sheriff Andy Taylor’s paramour in Mayberry.) The Blob wasn’t a great tune, but it was the beginning of an amazing career.
This article is not to convince you Burt Bacharach was suddenly hip again, but merely to introduce you, or reintroduce you, to what I consider his ten best songs. The list is notable because it doesn’t contain his most familiar and popular songs so you won’t find Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head; What the World Needs Now; Do You Know the Way to San Jose; The Look of Love; I Say A Little Prayer; Walk on By; or (They Long to be) Close to You. That’s not to say those are not good songs – they are. Some of them and others unmentioned are great. But some are a little cloying and on occasion even annoying. So here are ten I think are better, with the preferred artists.
1. Anyone Who Had a Heart (Wynonna Judd)
For my money, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s best song. It says a lot that, out of all the songs he wrote, Bacharach used this one for the title of his autobiography. It is a complex work, complete with a number of time changes and jazz overtones. He wrote it for Dionne Warwick, his special singer, whose voice he employed like another instrument, and it became a top ten hit for her.George Martin, of Beatles fame, heard it and thought it would be perfect for Cilla Black, a new singer out of Liverpool, who was a hatcheck girl at the Cavern Club, before she was asked to perform there by John Lennon. As usual, Martin’s ear was perfect and her version became a #1 hit in Great Britain. In 2010 BBC Radio 2 proclaimed it the biggest female chart hit of the 1960’s. Listen to both and decide which of the two versions you like better
But the best version – bar none – is by country music star, Wynonna Judd. She completely captures the song’s essence – what the songwriters were aiming for. In my opinion, her breathtaking version is the apotheosis of the songwriting of Bacharach and David.
2. Always Something There to Remind Me (Sandi Shaw)
An indication of how good Bachrach/David were is a song that reached the top ten in two different decades nearly 20 years apart and in two completely different styles. The song, written for Dionne Warwick, reached the top 50, albeit by a different singer, and in 1983, the English New Wave band Naked Eyes did a new wave version that went top ten.The definitive version of this song was done by English teenager Sandie Shaw, known for her gamine looks, bangs and her barefoot appearances onstage. Her sparse, plaintive version became a worldwide #1- deservedly so. Wonderful song.
3. Alfie(Cilla Black)
The best of all the Bachrach/David movie songs, written for the film that made Michael Caine an international star (with a great performance by Shelley Winters.) The lyrics might be the best Hal David ever wrote. Cher sang it, Dionne sang it as well, but the version used in the movie was by Cilla Black. On a desert isle, that is the one I would want.
4. I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself (Dusty Springfield/ Cissy Houston)
Dionne Warwick may be the definitive interpreter of Burt Bacharach, but Dusty Springfield is next in line, and on this song, Dusty’s version far outshines Dionne’s. Another version commands attention, that by Cissy Houston. Cissy was the mother of Whitney Houston and aunt of Dionne Warwick (must be something in the blood for singing Bacharach tunes), and she does an amazing soul version of this song. The best soul version of Burt Bacharach is supposed to be Aretha’s I Say a Little Prayer For You, and I don’t mean to disrespect Aretha, but listen to Cissy Houston sing this – I think it tops Aretha. See if you agree.
5. Baby, It’s You(Shirelles/ Beatles/Smith)
Baby, It’s You is not the Shirelles’ signature tune. (It would have been if they did not also sing the legendary Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.) Still, Baby, It’s You was so good The Beatles heard it in their early Liverpool years and covered it – the only Beatles cover of Bacharach and David. There is a great late-1960s West Coast version, by a short-lived LA group named Smith, produced by legendary rocker, Del Shannon. Smith’s lead singer, Gayle McCormick, gave it a great Janis Joplin-type treatment, uncharacteristic for Bacharach songs. She should have been a bigger star.
6. Little Red Book(Arthur Lee/Love or Paul Jones/Manfred Mann)
Written for the movie What’s New Pussycat? (the title song is another Bachrach/David composition), this is another complex song with jazz elements. It was done originally by Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones. Jones, best known for singing Do Wah Diddy Diddy, was an accomplished blues/jazz singer, who declined the lead spot in the Rolling Stones before Mick Jagger took it. The song never took off but an LA group popular on the Sunset Strip – Love, fronted by Arthur Lee – took it, changed the timing and made it a hard rocker. Love was signed to a record contract the same time as The Doors. The Doors became superstars, Love did not. Bachrach and David hated Arthur Lee’s version but it has become the ur song of garage rock. Arthur Lee also should have been a bigger star.
7. Wishin’ and Hopin’(Dusty Spriingfield)
This song belongs to Dusty. No one else.
8. Paper Mache(Dionne Warwick)
This almost-forgotten song sounds like another feel-good Bachrach and David composition of the late 1960s. It is anything but when you hear the lyrics, which is what makes it so compelling. If Hal David’s best lyrics aren’t from Alfie, then they are from this one.
9. 24 Hours From Tulsa(Gene Pitney)
Bacharach and David wrote the song for Gene Pitney. (They also wrote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence for him, which was never used in the movie.) There has never been a better musical two and a half minute tale of lust and regret than 24 Hours From Tulsa. Be sure to listen to the very end of the song: two lonely piano notes, often dropped, that reinforce the singer’s regret. An example of Bacharach’s close attention to musical detail.
10. God Give Me Strength(Kristen Vigard/ Elvis Costello)
The bookends for Bacharach’s musical movie writing career were The Blob in 1958 and this song he wrote with Elvis Costello in 1986 for the movie Grace of My Heart. The underrated movie is a loose semi-fictional biography of Carole King with fine performances by Illeana Douglas, John Turturro and Matt Dillon. This song is the highlight of the movie with Kristen Vigard singing while Ms. Douglas lipsynchs. Elvis Costello has also done a version of the song that reminds you of how good a performer he could be.
That’s it. Have at it, tell me why I don’t know what I’m talking about, or why you don’t like this song or that version, or why (They Long to be) Close to You is better than any of these. That’s what lists like this are for
(which reminds me – Bacharach also wrote the pretty fair That’s What Friends Are For).
Do yourself a favor: listen to these songs, especially the recommended versions. They won’t change your life, but they will guarantee enjoyment and a renewed appreciation for Burt Bacharach. It will call to mind the quote by Noel Coward about how extraordinary the potency of cheap music can be.
Cory Franklin, physician and writer is a frequent contributor to johnkassnews.com.
He was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for more than 25 years. An editorial ng the pathologists who studied it intently but had no idea what body part it could be. This was before it was known as trolling.)
There is a lesson here. The next time someone tells you, with unmistakable conviction, that he believes in “the science,” gladly offer to discuss science with him over a sandwich. Give him a choice, chorizo or perhaps kosher salami. board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast “Rememberingthepassed” has received 900,000 hits to date. He published “Chicago Flashbulbs” in 2013, “Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases” in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.