This article is published on the occasion of the passing of Burt Bacharach on February 8th, 2023.

Marlene Dietrich once said, when introducing composer Burt Bacharach to the audience, that he was not her composer, but everyone’s composer: Bacharach’s legacy includes countless works of pop music and is unique in the music world. The name Bacharach comes from Bacharach on the Rhine in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, where part of his family originally came from before emigrating to the USA.
Burt Bacharach found his musical inspiration in composers of classical music: for the composer Bacharach, Maurice Ravel, among others, served as inspiration.
His mother could play the piano by ear: In his memoirs, Bacharach writes that when he was very young, he met the then unknown Leonard Bernstein on a double-decker bus in New York. Bacharach grew up in New York and was thus on the musical pulse of the times: it didn’t take long for his family to get the idea that Burt Bacharach could one day earn his living with music: Although his mother always told him that she wished he only perceived music as a hobby, she was soon convinced otherwise. 

A voice that spanned a little more than an octave…

Marlene Dietrich played a decisive role in Burt Bacharach’s career: When Marlene engaged the young Bacharach for her concerts, Bacharach was still a blank slate. He had completed a musical education during which he studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974), served in the US armed forces and made his first connections in show business.
At first, Bacharach was intimidated by the presence of Marlene Dietrich: as a trained musician, however, Bacharach found himself in the position of coaching Marlene and giving her tips on how to refine her singing and have the best possible effect on the audience.
In his memoirs, Burt Bacharach describes that Marlene Dietrich’s voice spanned a little more than an octave: the composer was faced with the challenge of putting together arrangements and orchestrations that would best suit Dietrich’s voice. 

A Hollywood star from the heyday of the world capital of film started swinging in front of the audience.

Marlene Dietrich swings

The actress brought a great musical heritage to her collaboration with the composer Bacharach: Her repertoire included numerous songs from her time with director Josef von Sternberg in the 1930s, such as The Naughty Lola or Falling In Love Again, for which Bacharach wrote new arrangements and adapted them to the zeitgeist of the Fifties and Sixties.
It was not uncommon for Bacharach to take over the part of the pianist during Dietrich concerts: he did this in the spirit of bringing a swing touch to the music, which was much appreciated by the audience at the time. A Hollywood star from the heyday of the world capital of film, who always seemed inaccessible on screen, now stood in front of the audience and started swinging: Such contrasts were, among other things, the secret of Burt Bacharach’s stage music. 
Bacharach also added some American classics to Marlene Dietrich’s stage repertoire, including You’re The Cream in my Coffee or Makin’ Whoopee

On Tour

In his memoirs, Burt Bacharach describes a special incident when he went to Israel with Marlene Dietrich for a concert: There, at the beginning of the sixties, the iron rule still applied that no German-language songs could be played on stage.
Marlene nevertheless decided to sing nine songs in German that evening – she had the status of being able to do so without provoking a public outcry. A few weeks earlier, at a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the choral passages had been sung in English instead of German to avoid a scandal.
 Bacharach describes this concert as one of the most emotional events of his career – the dam between two peoples was busted that evening, as Burt Bacharach put it. 

Burt Bacharach achieved in terms of music what Sternberg achieved in terms of performance. 

Bacharach’s arrangement of Where Have All The Flowers Gone is particularly impressive: The composer went to the limits of what was musically possible to accompany the Pete Seeger classic.
The German translation of the song, written by Max Colpet, sounds even more captivating than the English version. At a certain point in the song, for example, one hears violin sounds reminiscent of artillery fire. 
The director Josef von Sternberg succeeded in dramatising the unique phenomenon of Marlene Dietrich in the best possible way: Burt Bacharach achieved in terms of music what Sternberg achieved in terms of performance. 

Dionne Warwick 

Without question, Burt Bacharach only became a well-known composer through his collaboration with Marlene Dietrich: at the beginning of his collaboration with the actress, he was an unknown artist; by the end of the collaboration in the mid-sixties, he was a renowned entertainment composer.
Marlene Dietrich never wanted her collaboration with Bacharach to end: But the more famous Bacharach became, the clearer it became that one day he would move on to new paths – without Marlene.
From 1962, Burt Bacharach began writing songs for the R&B singer Dionne Warwick together with the songwriter Hal David: The highlight of Bacharach’s work for Warwick was without question the hit Anyone Who Had a Heart, for which Bacharach wrote the music and Hal David the lyrics. 

It was the secret of Bacharach’s music that the music was listened to by practically all generations, old and young. 

Film music

Burt Bacharach began writing film music in the mid-sixties: On a trip to Los Angeles, he wanted to learn how to write film music and there he met the actress Angie Dickinson again, whom he had already met in New York.
Dickinson supported Bacharach from then on in his intention to write film music: Burt Bacharach wrote one of his first film scores for the film What’s New Pussycat (1965) starring Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole.
Bacharach also wrote soundtracks for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), which starred David Niven among others.
Bacharach formulated in his memoirs that he celebrated the peak of his career at a time when no one under the age of 25 liked to listen to the music their parents liked: It was the secret of Bacharach’s music that the music was listened to by practically all generations, old and young. 

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head

Bacharach’s composition Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head (lyrics: Hal David), which he composed for the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, fitted little into the musical zeitgeist of the time, but all the more into the historical context of the film’s plot, which takes place in the 1890s: The president of Twentieth Century Fox had to convince the executives at the studios to keep the song Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head in the film: They were afraid the song was too unconventional and would not be understood by the audience. But Bacharach’s instinct for what people wanted to hear was right: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head became a big hit that was listened to even without the context of the film plot. The secret of that song is that it does not fulfil the criteria of typical pop music of the time, and can instead be placed in the music history of the end of the 19th century. This in no way diminished the fascination of music listeners at the time: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On my Head is still one of Bacharach’s greatest successes today. 

World composer

Burt Bacharach influenced pop music like hardly any other composer of his generation: during his artistic heyday, when he mainly worked with the songwriter Hal David, he wrote the music for world hits such as I Say a Little Prayer, which was made world-famous by Aretha Franklin’s voice.
Other performers of his music include Rod Stewart (That’s What Friends Are For, 1985) and The Carpenters with (They Long to Be) Close To You (1970).
Without Marlene Dietrich, Burt Bacharach’s career would hardly have taken the same course: Marlene recognised the composer’s potential early on and showed him the world during their joint tours, from Rio de Janeiro to Warsaw: Although he always played the same programme on stage with Dietrich, he encountered the most diverse musical cultures. This trained Bacharach’s musical instinct, for which he later became so famous. 

Simon von Ludwig


Main source: Bacharach, Burt: Anyone Who Had a Heart, 2013 HarperCollins

Cover picture: A street scene in Bacharach on the Rhine, © Simon von Ludwig


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