“Even at the end, Hal always had a song in his head. He was always writing notes, or asking me to take a note down, so he wouldn’t forget a lyric.” – Eunice David
RIP Hal David. In losing the man who put lyrics to Burt Bacharach’s music, the world has lost one of its all-time songwriting greats. Bacharach and David are up there with Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers and Lennon and McCartney as one of the finest duos ever to craft pop music (the Great American Songbook being, of course, the pop music of its day). Their song output in the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t just prolific – it was meaningful, clever, catchy and heartfelt, sometimes heart-wrenching.
As a singer and pianist, many of my favourite songs to perform are those by Hal David. It is virtually impossible to sing his lyrics without feeling or conveying the meaning behind them – and this is precisely what marks him out as a great.
David once said of his favourite lyricist, Irving Berlin: “He had the ability to take the most complex things and turn them into songs. And he made it look so damn simple. His work is like a textbook of great songwriting.”
The same, of course, could be said of David himself. Like Berlin, his skill in matching a lyric with the cadence of your voice – making the sung phrase sound like the spoken one – is exactly what makes it so easy to convey its meaning. Just as you’d be hard pressed to find a better meter and choice of notes for the very first word of Berlin’s Cheek To Cheek – try singing “Heaven” without practically sighing it – so David makes it almost impossible to not sing this lyric from The Look of Love without conveying its yearning, especially on the word ‘many’ (sing along at home!):
“Be mine tonight/Let this be just the start of so many nights like this”
Likewise, it’s impossible to not build up with emotion as the lyrics do in This Guy’s In Love With You:
“My hands are shaking/Don’t let my heart keep breaking, ‘cos/I need your love/I want your love”
Or to not deliver this singsong line in Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head in the rueful, almost shoulder-shrugging, way in which it was intended:
“I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining”
And Bacharach and David songs never packed a bigger punch than when David combined this skill for naturalism with big emotions. Songs like Walk On By, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, A House Is Not A Home and Make It Easy On Yourself are full of heartache and loss, conveying heartbreak with lyrics like:
“And if the way I hold you/Can’t compare to his caress/No words of consolation/Will make me miss you less”
“I’m not meant to live alone/Turn this house into a home/When I climb the stair and turn the key/Oh, please be there, still in love with me”
And the natural was surely never delivered with such an emotional punch than in these five little words:
“I believe in love, Alfie”
As Burt Bacharach said when collecting his and David’s Gershwin Prize For Popular Song earlier this year (watch the moment – and the White House concert – here), Alfie is “one of the best lyrics anybody wrote, in anybody’s lifetime.”
There was optimism in Hal David’s work, of course – even in the sad yearning of those songs above, in What The World Needs Now, and in the happiness of songs like Say A Little Prayer and Close To You. And there was also wonderful wit and humour:
“What do you get when you kiss a guy?/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, he’ll never phone ya”
– goes I’ll Never Fall In Love Again; while Do You Know The Way To San Jose notes about wannabe stars in LA:
“In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star/Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass/And all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas”
David wrote the lyrics to Do You Know The Way To San Jose to the melody that Bacharach had already produced (sometimes it worked this way round, sometimes the lyrics came first, and sometimes they wrote at the same time). Of working this way, David said: “The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music was saying to you. If you’re a lyric writer, you should hear the music talking to you.”
And this is why his songs will live on. Burt Bacharach’s music will survive because, like those I mentioned at the start – the Great American Songbook composers and Lennon and McCartney – his compositions are so musically rich that instrumentalists will always want to reinterpret them (check out this Blue Note Plays Bacharach album, and Eliane Elias’s sublime version of A House Is Not A Home, for example). Hal David’s lyrics are similarly so rich, so seemingly effortless and yet so skillfully crafted, that singers will be performing his work for decades to come.
Thank you for your wonderful words, Mr David. What the world needs now is love – and more lyricists like you.