In the 21st century, pop music is nothing if not disposable—tunes are created by committee, recorded by computers, churned out by YouTube stars and forgotten by the end of the summer. But the songs written by Burt Bacharach last. Since the 1950s, he’s had more than 70 Top 40 hits, won multiple Grammys and Oscars and his songs have been recorded by countless artists, from Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield to Elvis Costello and the White Stripes. Bacharach brings his band and songbook full of classics—like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By,” “The Look of Love” and dozens more—to The Smith Center this month. He spoke to Vegas Seven about getting his start, recording hits and how technology changes music.
So, what can we expect from your show at The Smith Center?
Well, we’ve been doing it with a small configuration and we’re doing the songs they way I feel them—closer to the way I orchestrated them, in their original form. And I’ve got three terrific singers and great musicians, so all is well there.
But I think it’s amazing that The [Smith] Center exists. It is a beautiful hall. It’s so different than what you might find in Las Vegas. I think it’s a real plus, you know? That you could have this great hall for symphony orchestras in Las Vegas, and for music in general.
It’s very different than the venues you used to play in Las Vegas.
I was just playing piano in bar or having a “real” job of playing piano and conducting. I worked in Las Vegas a lot … early in my career. First with Vic Damone. Then the Ames Brothers, and Imogene Coca. And the last person that I worked with in Las Vegas was Marlene Dietrich. … [The city] is very different now.
Many people have done versions of your songs. Do you ever hear someone else’s and think “I should have done it that way”?
I’ve made so many of the original records with different artists, so it was the way I heard the song, the way I orchestrated the song. And then if somebody else records it, they bring something into that song. It may not be as good, but it may be better, so you have to be open. A prime example would be when we recorded “I Say a Little Prayer” with Dionne [Warwick]. I thought maybe that I overorchestrated it a little bit—took the tempo too fast. And when I heard Aretha Franklin’s record of “I Say a Little Prayer,” it was so much better than the record that I had made. So, that’s a nice thing, when it happens like that.
Your songs have become classics. Did you ever think you’d be writing songs that people would play and record for decades?
These are things that you could not want to plan, or to program or to even intend ahead of time. A question I’m often asked is “How do these songs last and are still durable?” And I’ve never really been able to give a precise answer. [My songs] came out 40 years ago. But whether it’s Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, a month later, you’ll never hear [their] songs again.
But why do these songs have something people still want to hear? … Maybe it’s an urban thing about the music, it’s citified in a way. So it’s also about time and place that some of this music was created, was born … so I’m grateful for that.
The music industry has changed a lot.
I think it’s harder to, right now as a young composer starting out… to get something even recorded. Or have a hit or have any durability. I’m sad about it for other gifted writers, to be out there trying. Making something substantial that’ll have a little bit of lasting value. Years ago, you had maybe a better chance.
Technology is really good, particularly in the studio, where you can cut and paste. You like the second eight bars of the song, they way they were recorded, you let the guitarist play it, what the drum fill was, and you say, “Wow, wish we had done that, in the first eight bars.” You just take it and paste it back there, so it’s cool tools, and you can get that. … So it does defeat the spontaneity, but it makes it a more perfect record.
An Evening with Burt Bacharach
August 4, 7:30 p.m., tickets start at $29, The Smith Center, thesmithcenter.com