Burt Bacharach at the Davies Symphony Hall, by Ria Burman
Burt Bacharach (photo: Ria Burman)

With the first piano key he struck, legendary composer Burt Bacharach brought his San Francisco audience to a sweeter time through his musical message – what the world needs now is love.

He played a resounding retrospective showcasing his boundless catalog of classics from a golden era of music that he revolutionized.

Right up to the last chord, Bacharach had the crowd swaying, singing, and smiling as attendees recognized hit after hit from his parade of songs that never went out of style. He made sure everyone left smiling by inviting all to join an irresistible singalong to his beloved “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”

“Let’s sing one song together,” Bacharach said. “The audience and me and the band.”

Considered one of the most renowned and accomplished living composers, Bacharach’s career spans six decades that are marked by 66 US Top 40 hits, six No. 1 songs, eight Grammy awards, and three Academy Awards.

Bacharach’s impact on music history is undeniable. A pioneer of creative standards, his compositions are credited as helping define popular music dating back to the late 1950’s. He claims hits in a breadth of styles, from rock and soul to Broadway shows and Hollywood films. He has influenced artists across genres, with his works recorded by hundreds of singers from Perry Como and Gene Pitney to Barbra Streisand and Diana Krall. Over the years, he maintained global appeal to generations of fans.

The 89-year-old songwriter, conductor, arranger, producer frequently broke from playing the piano during his June 7 show at Davies Symphony Hall, and stood center stage in front of his grand instrument. He leaned casually against it while chatting with the audience.

“I love this hall,” he said. “It is one of the greatest halls I’ve ever played in so I am glad to be back.”

Between songs, he spoke of memories including his mother’s influence, getting a divorce in Las Vegas, appearing on the Tonight Show with James Brown, and touring with actress/singer Marlene Dietrich. He was her music director from 1958 to 1961. Prior to that he worked as piano accompanist for many singers including Paula Stewart. They were married from 1953 to 1958.

“I guess you guys wonder why I am still doing this,” Bacharach said. “I don’t play golf. …What grounds me is to make music, to continue to write music, to continue to play music, and to continue to perform for people like you. If I could make you feel a bit better, lift a bit of the heaviness off you, then I feel very happy.”

Bacharach performed with a seven-member band and three singers. Still, he played piano the entire show, sang some of his own hits, and through sharp conducting displayed how he earned his reputation as a perfectionist.

At the end of every piece, he stood from his piano bench. He spoke or sang the last few words of each song, guiding the singers to end on the note he wanted, at the tempo he wanted. With a flick of his hand, he likewise guided the musicians to end on point.

Bacharach is considered a visionary whose music is often described as having unconventional time signatures, unusual chord progressions, atypical instruments, catchy melodies, and combinations of jazz, pop, Brazilian.

He told the crowd he loved jazz and sited his major influences as bebop legends Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. “Dizzy Gillespie was my hero,” he said.

By some accounts, Bacharach wrote about 500 compositions. His charting songs are too many to name and too many to play in a two-hour show. He tried though, by including two jam-packed medleys. “We are going to do a lot of music for you,” he said. “Some old, some not so old.”

The first medley was a group of hit songs and a nod to two of Bacharach’s longtime collaborators.

“Many of these songs have lyrics written by the brilliant Hal David,” he said. Bacharach and David met when both worked at New York’s famed Brill Building, known as the site where some of the greatest American songs were crafted. The two men first collaborated in 1957, writing “The Story of My Life” which was recorded by Marty Robbins.

“This is the very first record we did with Dionne Warwick,” he said, to start off the medley. The band then played “Don’t Make Me Over.” The song reached No. 21 in 1962. It was the first of 20 Top 40 hits that Bacharach and David would write and produce for Warwick over the next 10 years.

The medley continued with “Walk On By,” “This Guy’s In Love With You,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “Do You Know the Way To San Jose,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me.”

The latter was sung masterfully by John Pagano and accompanied by big horns. This Bacharach/David song was recorded by three different artists in the ‘60s alone and was made popular again in 1983 by the British synth pop band Naked Eyes with a cover version that reached No. 8.

The second medley featured a slew of hits and award-winning songs that Bacharach wrote for movies. He reportedly began scoring films after meeting his second wife, actress Angie Dickinson. They were married from 1965 to 1980.

“Motion pictures, film, cinema has been good fortune for me. Here’s some of the music I’ve done for them,” he said.

He returned to his piano and sang “The Look of Love” which he wrote for the soundtrack of the 1967 film Casino Royale. It was originally performed by Dusty Springfield.

The medley continued with snippets of “The April Fools,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Making Love” (a hit for Roberta Flack in 1982), “Wives and Lovers” (a hit for Jack Jones in 1963), and “Alfie” which won a Grammy award for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 1967.

There was only time for a verse or two, but people jumped to their feet for “What’s New Pussycat?,” the No. 3 title track hit for Tom Jones in 1965. Then came a small taste of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” written for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The No. 1 hit and film score earned Bacharach two Oscars and a Grammy award.

The audience grew sentimental as Bacharach played “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” from the 1981 film Arthur, which he also scored. Sung by Christopher Cross, the song was yet another No. 1 hit and won an Oscar for Best Song.

“Arthur’s Theme” is also notable as the start of Bacharach’s relationship with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, who became his third wife from 1982 to 1991. The pair collaborated on many hits played that evening including “That’s What Friends Are For,” the 1985 No.1 Grammy-winning hit sung by Dionne Warwick and Friends, and the 1986 No. 1 R&B duet “On My Own” sung by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald.

“Some I like better. Some I like less, but they are mine,” Bacharach said of his songs.

Other highlights of the show included singer Josie James’ rendition of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (originally sung by Warwick in 1963) which Bacharach called spectacular. And singer Donna Taylor’s striking version of “(They Long To Be) Close To You” with sparse accompaniment by Bacharach on the piano. The Carpenters’ version of this track hit No. 1 in 1970. Also notable, Pagano’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” which earned a hug from the composer.

“This is a very, very old song I wrote years ago with Bob Hilliard, ‘Mexican Divorce,’” Bacharach said, when introducing the 1961 track. “It was recorded by the Drifters.”

“There were three ways to get a divorce that I knew of. The standard way was to go to court with expensive lawyers. Another way was to go to Las Vegas and establish residency for six weeks. That’s how I got my first divorce. Then there was a Mexican divorce. It was long before anyone had an idea to build a … wall.”

He continued, “We thought it was going to be a hit but we lost the South. They didn’t want to play anything that had divorce in it.”

Oliver Bacharach came out to play keyboard on a few songs including “Make It Easy On Yourself.” Bacharach praised his son as a gifted keyboardist who took to the instrument naturally.

“I got a push from my mother and look where it got me,” Bacharach said. He recalled that his mother forced him to take piano lessons. Though he fiercely hated the lessons, he continued playing. “I did not want to disappoint my mother.”

Bacharach married his fourth wife Jane Hansen in 1993. He has seen countless tributes, accolades, and compilations, as well as a resurgence throughout the ’90s and beyond. Some noteworthy examples include a 1996 appearance with Noel Gallagher of Oasis; cameo appearances in three Austin Powers movies; several appearances on American Idol; and a 1998 collaboration with Elvis Costello on the Grammy-winning single “I Still Have That Other Girl.” In 2005 he released the Grammy-winning album At This Time, which had contributions by Dr. Dre, Chris Botti, Rufus Wainwright, and Costello and was the first record to feature lyrics written by Bacharach.

The San Francisco show started to wrap up with “Any Day Now,” then the encore “That’s What Friends Are For.” Bacharach asked the audience to join him in singing “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” As the song played, he blew a kiss, signed a fan’s album, fist bumped his three singers, hugged his son, and waved goodnight. He walked off as the memorable melody concluded. Another precise ending, conducted Bacharach style.