'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Burt Bacharach ('Po')

The legendary songwriter/composer behind 48 Top 10 hits, including nine that topped the charts, opens up about the inspirations for his most beloved music, what caused his breakup with longtime collaborator Hal David and how his late daughter, who was afflicted with Asperger Syndrome, inspired him to write his first film score and song in years.
Michael Kovac/FilmMagic

"It's sort of what I'm supposed to do," says the legendary songwriter/composer Burt Bacharach — a man who has written the music for 48 Top 10 hits, including nine that reached the top of the charts, and who has won eight Grammys, three Oscars and the Library of Congress' 2011 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — as we sit down in his Pacific Palisades piano room to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, and I ask him what keeps him working at the age of 88. "Sometimes I have to force it," he admits. "But it's what I've done. Even if I don't write anything any good, just let me keep my fingers wet."

Bacharach certainly has kept his fingers wet, of late: in 2016, for John Asher’s Po, an indie drama about a father with a child who is afflicted with autism — a dynamic Bacharach personally has experienced — he wrote "Dancing with Your Shadow," his first original song for a film since “Walking Tall” for 1999’s Stuart Little, and his first original score for a film since 2000’s Isn’t She Lovely. Either or both could end up extending his already incredible Oscar resume: between the song and score categories, he has been nominated six times, and won three.

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Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri but raised in New York. He "hated" the piano lessons he was compelled to take, but eventually formed a little "bad band" with the hope that it would make him popular. He ultimately fell in love with music when, as a high school-age kid, he began using a fake ID to sneak into Manhattan jazz clubs. He went off to McGill University, and then several post-graduate programs, where he began studying with masters, simply "caught in the drift of things," he says. "Things just happened for me. I was very fortunate."

His professional career began as an accompanist for various high-profile singers, most notably, starting in 1956, the much older Marlene Dietrich. He simultaneously was trying to make his name at the iconic Brill Building on Broadway, where, in 1957, he began working with the more experienced lyricist Hal David, among others; he and David worked exclusively together from 1963 through their breakup a decade later. After "a lot of rejection," they enjoyed their first success with the songs "The Story of Your Life" and "Magic Moments." Then they happened to be asked to rehearse a group of singers that included Dionne Warwick, who soon became their muse, collaborating with them on eight top-10 hits. "Something about Dionne — maybe the way she carried herself, almost like a star-quality — kinda shone through," Bacharach recalls.

Over the ensuing years, he and David proved a hit machine, churning our songs that are popular to this day, such as “Close to You,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk on By,” “What the World Needs Now” (which, he reveals, Warwick turned down), “What’s New, Pussycat,” “Alfie,” “Casino Royale,” “The Look of Love,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Promises, Promises” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” (They broke up following a dispute over royalties related to "something we shouldn't have done," the 1973 movie musical version of Lost Horizon. "I basically said, 'Screw you, man,'" he acknowledges, and now says he was "wrong" to do so and regrets doing so. "Don't try to make a deal on something there's no deal to be made on.")

After he and David split, Bacharach teamed with his third wife, Carole Bayer Sager, on several other hits, including “Arthur’s Theme,” “Making Love” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” It has been noted by others that throughout his career, no matter who his collaborator, he has gravitated toward songs that aren't about youthful things (longing, infatuation), but grownup stuff (disappointment, desperation, sadness), which might have something to do with their enduring appeal. (Two of his 1967 songs, "The Look of Love" and "I Say a Little Prayer," both surged back to popularity in the 1990s thanks to their inclusion in the films Austin Powers and My Best Friend's Wedding, respectively.)

He wrote his first music for the movies 52 years ago when, thanks to the advocacy of his girlfriend (and soon-to-be second wife) Angie Dickinson, he was hired to write the score for What's New, Pussycat? (1965). Among the many other films he subsequently worked on are 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (for which he won the best original score and best original song Oscars, the latter shared with David for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head") and Arthur (for which he and Bayer Sager won the best original song Oscar for "Arthur's Theme"). He decided to tackle the score and song of Po, as well, after meeting its director by happenstance and realizing that he shares the same goal as the film: to "raise awareness, through any means," about autism and children growing up with it.

Bacharach's own daughter with Dickinson, Nikki, was born with a form of autism, Asperger Syndrome, at a time when no one knew what either thing was. As a result, they sought to find her treatment for something that, in fact, could not be treated, even sending her away for an extended period of time to get help elsewhere, something for which she struggled to forgive her father later in life. Just over 10 years ago, on Jan. 4, 2007, at the age of 40, Nikki took her own life. Bacharach wrote and "very lovingly" recorded the music for Po — including and especially "Dancing with Your Shadow," which Sheryl Crow sings on the film's soundtrack — as a tribute to her.