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Burt Bacharach, in a suit and tie, holds a microphone while speaking on stage. A red screen in the background announces his acceptance as Gershwin Prize honoree.
Burt Bacharach at the 2012 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, when he and lyricist Hal David were inducted.

Burt Bacharach, Gershwin Prize Winner: A Fond Farewell

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The Library’s Mark Hartsell, in the Communications Office, and Mark Horowitz, in the Music Division, contributed to this post.

Burt Bacharach, the elegant songwriter and composer whose lifetime of work the Library honored with the 2012 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 94.

Bacharach’s iconic career stretched for more than half a century, co-writing hits with lyricist Hal David (the pair shared the Gershwin Prize) that seemed to defy age or pop trends. His first big break in the 1950s was touring with show biz legend Marlene Dietrich; in the 21st century, he was working with rap impresario Dr. Dre and English singer/songwriter Elvis Costello. In between, he won eight Grammys, three Oscars and an Emmy.

“His songs were a uniquely American imprint on popular music and a testament to the power the creative spirit has to unify and uplift people all over the world,” said Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

Hits came for decades, most particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, with easy-on-the-ear melodies found in “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Walk on By” and the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

He was a noted perfectionist and often said that he and David wrote only one song in a single day (“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”) The rest of his arrangements were crafted and then chiseled. “Songs that sound simple are deceptive,” he told The Guardian, the British Daily, in 2015. “It’s a very complicated process.”

The results were admired by musicians and adored by audiences. His songs were recorded by hundreds of artists, from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra. His favorite interpreter was Dionne Warwick. Over time, his and David’s work became, much like the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, part of the American songbook.

The Gershwin Prize in 2012 was so meaningful to him that in his memoir, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” published the following year, the final chapter was “The Gershwin Prize.” During his two-day visit to the Library, he spent nearly an hour discussing his work with the Music Division’s Mark Horowitz. (David, who had a stroke a few weeks before the concert, was unable to attend. He died in September of that year.)

The show, performed in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium, began with host comedian and Bacharach fan Mike Myers in tuxedo, crooning Bacharach and David’s “What’s New Pussycat?” He first channeled the song through his Austin Powers character, a natural fit since Myers had gotten Bacharach to make cameos in the Austin Powers films. Myers then crossed to performing the song as the soulful Tom Jones. Stagehands ran out to rip off his tear-away tuxedo, revealing a blue Elvis-style jumpsuit secured by a giant buckle bearing a name: Burt.

The artists who performed his songs as tributes that night showed off his range — jazz singer Diana Krall; pop star Sheryl Crow; the hard-to-define Lyle Lovett; and previous Gershwin Prize winner Stevie Wonder.

“I have followed you since I was a little boy,” Wonder said as he sat at the piano, playing and musing. “I’ve loved your music. I loved the chord structures. They inspired me so much — the words, the lyrics.”

Bacharach ended the evening by leaning against the piano on stage, talking about his carer.

It was clearly a touching moment for a man who’d been in the spotlight before the dawn of the rock era. He recounted that when a journalist had asked him to put the Gershwin Prize in context of all his many awards, he listed it at the top.

“The Academy Award is just for one song or one score,” he said, recounting the conversation. “This award was for all of my work, and so for me, it was the best of all awards possible, and I meant that with all my heart.”

Warwick closed the show with “What the World Needs Now is Love.” It was a fitting end to the night, and a fitting epitaph to his lifetime of work.

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Comments (4)

  1. Where can this complete concert from 2012 be viewed? Other Gershwin Prize tribute concerts are available on PBS Passport but this one isn’t. It was a magnificent show I saw when it aired initially; I would like to share with younger members of my family.

    • Hi,

      I’ll check into this for you, but in 2012 the Gershwin Prize concert was in a very different format, with a show in the Coolidge Auditorium and then a more intimate appearance at the White House. Today, the concert is in the much larger Constitution Hall, and is specifically taped for television with PBS. The 2012 shows (and earlier) may therefore not be in the PBS archives.

      Cheers,
      Neely

  2. Wouldn’t they be in LC’s archives? The concerts were surely recorded!

    • They are in the archives, but not necessarily digitized and available online. (Digitization in an ongoing, massive project across the Library, as you can imagine.)

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