In the 1960s Hal David’s name appeared on every song that Burt Bacharach’s name appeared on. You became acquainted with the songwriter every time you listened to the music that was commonly called a Bacharach tune. In fact, the songs, which were quite popular, or more specifically, timeless, were usually known as Bacharach songs to teenagers and young adults.
But as you began to get more familiar with Bacharach, because he kept pouring out hit after hit after hit, you slowing learned about his partner, Hal David; and how could you not. After all, you were steadily singing the lyrics, and they were Hal David’s lyrics. The music, yes it too was incredible, but you found the lyrics equally incredible. Eventually, you realized the music accompanied the lyrics because it was David’s lyrics that penetrated the soul. David was entrusted with one of the most incredible gifts, he could write perfectly heartfelt timeless lyrics unlike anyone historically before his time and yet they were songs for all times. This Saturday morning, Hal David the Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist who in the 1960s and ’70s gave pop music vernacular the questions “What’s It All About?,” “What’s New, Pussycat?,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?,” died in Los Angeles. He was 91.
The cause was a stroke, according to his wife, Eunice, who said he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
David, whose lyrics could be anguished pleas, wistful yearnings, sexy mash notes or wry musings, and sometimes all four in the same song, was best known for the long strand of hits he and the composer Burt Bacharach wrote for Dionne Warwick.
He was something of a late bloomer: he did not have his first Top 10 hit — “Magic Moments,” recorded by Perry Como — until 1958, when David was in his late 30s. He achieved his greatest successes well after he turned 40, at a time when many of the other successful songwriters were half his age and many young performers were writing their own songs.
David’s words also found fertile ground on Broadway, in the hit musical “Promises, Promises”; in the movies, in the Oscar-winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”; and at weddings via the classic first-dance song “(They Long to Be) Close to You.”
If David and Bacharach’s oeuvre was more cosmopolitan and less hip than that of the Beatles or Bob Dylan, their ruminations on proclamations of youngish love and heartbreak have nonetheless proved as viable and enduring — after all, not everyone went to Woodstock. Their alternate ’60s was populated on one hand by the turtleneck-and-martini set, embodied by the likes of Tom Jones (who had a hit with “What’s New, Pussycat?”) or the debonair Bacharach himself, and on the other hand by the everywoman just breaking in her first pair of workplace shoes, like the protagonist of “I Say a Little Prayer,” who runs “for the bus, dear” and while riding thinks “of us, dear.”
“I Say a Little Prayer,” a No. 4 hit in 1967, was the most successful of the three dozen or so singles David and Bacharach wrote and produced for Dionne Warwick, whom they met in 1961 when they were journeymen on the New York music-publishing scene and she was a 20-year-old backup singer.
After she sang on some demo recordings of their songs, a disgruntled Warwick complained to them, “Don’t make me over, man.” David turned that line into a full lyric, with an unusual (for the time) feminist stance, and Warwick’s recording of the resulting song, “Don’t Make Me Over,” became her first hit, in early 1963. From then until mid-1971, rarely a month went by when the troika were not represented on the Billboard singles chart, with charismatic hits like “Walk On By,” “Message to Michael,” “Alfie” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
With Warwick’s voice in place, David found his own, writing with the intense romanticism of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he grew up admiring but replacing the literary curlicues of, say, Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein II with a conversational emotionalism.
Many years later, David wrote on his Web site that he strove for “believability, simplicity and emotional impact” in his lyrics. His words, combined with the frequent slaloms of Bacharach’s melodies and rhythms, often drew — and required — the most skilled technicians and interpreters of the time. Among them were Dusty Springfield (“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “The Look of Love”), Gene Pitney (“Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa”) and Karen Carpenter (“Close to You”).
The two men’s songs became so popular that they were also recorded by performers not known for their singing, like the actor Richard Chamberlain, who did a recording of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in 1963, and the trumpeter Herb Alpert, who oddly gave David his first No. 1 hit, in June 1968, with “This Guy’s in Love With You.”
Geoffrey O’Brien, reviewing the Bacharach-David body of work in The New York Review of Books in 1999, called David’s lyrics “a peculiar blend” in which “the encroachments of the maudlin are generally kept at bay by the dexterity of the rhymes.” The fecundity and chemistry of the Bacharach-David team were often attributed by both men to their tireless, dedicated work ethic.
“Hal is so intense,” Bacharach said in a documentary on the cable channel A&E in the ’90s, adding that David liked working with people who “torture themselves, just like me.”
While in other ways David and Bacharach could not have been more different — Bacharach was something of a jet-setter and was married to the actress Angie Dickinson; David was a button-down commuter who took the Long Island Rail Road — David said their differences enhanced the eclecticism of their songs. “We didn’t say, ‘We can’t do this because the range is so great,’ or ‘Who is going to sing it?’ or ‘Is this commercial?’ ” David told the music journalist Paul Grein in 1998. “We just wrote.”
Though Bacharach had the higher profile, Warwick has said that David was “the more stabilizing force” of the team and the one “who really got things done for us.” Like practically all pop songwriters, David treaded most successfully on breakup-and-makeup terrain, but sometimes he would veer gently into political or social themes. “What the World Needs Now (Is Love),” which took David almost two years to write, reached the Top 10 in 1965 as sung by Jackie DeShannon and went on to be recorded by more than 150 performers. In “Paper Maché” (1970), recorded by Warwick, David skewered middle-class materialism with a sharpened Popsicle stick (“There’s a sale on happiness; you buy two, and it costs less”). And “The Windows of the World” reflected the country’s growing anxiety with the Vietnam War. Though it was only a modest hit (again for Warwick), it was one of David’s favorites, perhaps because of a personal connection: when he wrote the lyrics in 1967, he had a son, Jim, nearing draft age.
He and David’s other son, Craig, survive him, as does Eunice, his second wife, and three grandchildren. His first wife, Anne, died in 1987.
Harold Lane David was born in Manhattan on May 25, 1921, a son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants who owned a delicatessen in Brooklyn. One of his brothers, Mack, nine years older, became a successful songwriter first, writing “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine” for Patti Page and the lyrics for “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” which was recorded by Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. When David wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps, he discouraged him, and David became an advertising copywriter for The New York Post. After wartime service in the Army, during which he wrote songs, skits and plays, David was determined to make songwriting his career.
With pop music on uncertain footing in the early ’50s, between the show tune era and the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, David wrote in an old-school style for big bands and singers like Vic Damone and Teresa Brewer, with only scattered success.
By the end of the ’50s, though, he was writing more popular and memorable songs, like Sarah Vaughan’s Top 10 hit “Broken Hearted Melody,” and once Bacharach and Warwick were added to his mix in the early ’60s the hits, as they say, kept on coming.
The sophistication of David and Bacharach’s songs was a ticket beyond the Top 40 for them. They often wrote for the movies, and four of their songs were nominated for Academy Awards: “What’s New, Pussycat?,” “Alfie,” “The Look of Love” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” the last of which brought them their only Oscar, in 1970.
Their Broadway musical, “Promises, Promises,” an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s film “The Apartment,” opened on Broadway on Dec. 1, 1968, and ran through 1971. It was nominated for a Tony for best musical and won a Grammy for best score from an original cast album. Clive Barnes, reviewing the show in The New York Times, wrote that the score “excitingly reflects today rather than the day before yesterday” and called David’s lyrics “happily colloquial.”
“Promises, Promises” was revived successfully on Broadway in 2010, with Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes. At the time of the revival, David told NPR that working on the original show was “the most fun time I’ve had on any project.”
But David and Bacharach had a disastrous failure with their score of “Lost Horizon,” a musical version of the 1937 Frank Capra film that was released in 1973 and became a notorious flop. Though the score has aged better than the film, at the time it was dismissed as overcooked and inane, and its reception coincided with profound shifts in musical tastes (disco was emerging) as well as legal disputes for David and Bacharach. Warwick sued them, and they did not write together again for almost 20 years.
While David did collaborate with other composers, most notably Albert Hammond on Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson’s 1984 hit, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” he spent much of his later years as a kind of songwriting éminence grise and became involved in charitable and foundation work. He was president of Ascap, the songwriters and publishers’ organization, from 1980 to 1986 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984. Warwick’s recordings of “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk On By” and the Carpenters’ recording of “Close to You” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, David and Bacharach received the fourth Gershwin Prize from the Library of Congress.
David and his wife became avid art collectors and donated part of their collection of drawings to the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum in 2003.
Though David lived to see his songs re-immortalized in movies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “There’s Something About Mary” and the Austin Powers series, and in a Broadway revue, “The Look of Love,” he came to think of his art as a lost one. “Pop songs are not as graceful as they used to be,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1999. “Performers today haven’t gone through the regimen of learning how to write. And of course, everyone wants to own copyrights,” he said. “Rap culture is interesting and different and has purpose, but it has a nonromantic view of life and of social feelings. There may be a void in that.”
Yet with the advent of neo-romantics in pop music, including Alicia Keys and John Mayer, both winners of the Hal David Starlight Award, given by the Songwriters Hall of Fame to young songwriters, his outlook became more upbeat: “The talent is always there,” he told The Oregonian in 2004, “and art is cyclical. I’m optimistic.”
In the end, it was Hal David’s God given gift that he left as legacy for us and our children to enjoy. The lyricist left an enormous body of work for us to listen to and share subtle moments of love in a song. That is why the songwriter will always be remembered perhaps throughout eternity.
Contributor D. Chandler