Burt Bacharach – Dream Big: The First Decade Of Songs

❉ This is a rather lovely, if eccentric, mix of Bacharach inspirations, reinforcing his genius, writes Chris Browning.

“Because these aren’t all well known songs, you’re getting a sense of how musical tastes were shifting through the decade through the songs of a clearly talented musician who’s still trying out different styles in the hope something will stick.”

Here’s a way to fall out with friends and family – try and find the one artist or piece of art everyone agrees is great. Go on, give it a go. It’ll take a while because there’s always someone who dislikes something – some people don’t like the Beatles, I can’t stand Queen. But can I suggest someone that everyone can agree on? Burt Bacharach. Upon his death everybody seemed to mourn him. But Bacharach’s genius did not arrive fully formed. as with most great artists there is juvenilia, early attempts to reach greatness where Bacharach seemed to make everything effortless. Cherry Red’s recent box set Dream Big – The First Decade Of Songs sets out to bring together all those early efforts in an attempt to see the Bacharach we know and love slowly take shape. 

To be honest, it is a slow process at times. The first disc takes us through seven years of songs, the second two years and the third one year, which suggests something of the process of musical growth Bacharach was undertaking. A lot of this box set feels like listening to Radio 2 on a Sunday back in the nineties: at best it’s the thoughtful musical conversations of Benny Green and at worst it’s like listening to Sing Something Simple. I have fond memories of both so everything here has a certain charm, but it’s the great songs – or almost great songs – that really stand out.

The disconcerting thing about a lot of the first disc is you get a lot of very talented singers and musicians struggling to make much of some quite average pop songs. A lot of the problem with the earliest songs here is that Bacharach is clearly not settled on a lyricist partner yet. It takes a few songs for Hal David to turn up, and while the songs aren’t bad, they’re still pretty forgettable. They sound pretty much like what you expect they must have been – Bacharach trying to find a place for himself in the Brill Building system and find the right collaborator for his songs. 

By the time Johnny Mathis turns up, I began to also see this collection as a sideways history of popular music of the fifties. Because these aren’t all well known songs, you’re getting a sense of how musical tastes were shifting through the decade through the songs of a clearly talented musician who’s still trying out different styles in the hope something will stick. It takes a rotating series of biggish names and a lot of forgotten – but frequently excellent – singers trying out the songs until a bona fide hit turns up in the form of The Story Of My Life.

They use two versions of that song here – the American hit by Marty Robbins (the one I know best) and the British version by Michael Holliday – which gives us a handy contrast in how pop songs were developing on two sides of the world. Robbins turns the song into a very catchy and very poppy song, while Holliday just can’t quite find his way into delivering it properly (but the Mike Sammes singers on backing vocals do some heavy lifting). Clearly a hit means Bacharach can now get some songs in films, but don’t get too excited because the first of these is Jerry Lewis who is about as musically talented as he is comedically talented.

Once the hit dies down we’re back at some sluggish songs, with even Peggy Lee struggling to do much with the material. I found myself tremendously endeared by Bob Manning’s audible enjoyment about how daft Love Bank is, but we have to wait for Perry Como and Magic Moments for the next hit. I honestly had forgotten this was a Bacharach song, but it’s a sprightly bit of MOR but once that’s gone it’s back to more struggling to find another song that connects.

We get harmony groups like the Four Preps, country singers like the horribly named Bernie Nee – even Tony Bennett struggles to make much of the treacly song he’s given. It’s not until the camp joy of the infamous The Blob by the Five Blobs that we get something memorable. But it’s all a bit falling apart for hopes of another hit by the end of the first disc. It’s all fun to listen to but I was glad of the final two songs being Bacharach’s surprising take on Les Baxter style easy listening instrumentals.

The second disc starts shakily: Jane Morgan makes a decent stab at With Open Arms and Johnny Mathis manages to give an otherwise soppy song called Heavenly a bit of class. The Eligibles – a fantastically daft name – are another vocal group and show Bacharach and David looking to Lieber and Stoller for inspiration. Gene McDaniel’s In Times Like These is very slight, but the title and some of the melody show that already other musicians might have been paying attention because it has a striking amount in common with a certain Matt Monro song from the soundtrack to the Italian Job.

I was quite taken by the eccentric voice of Larry Hall on A Girl Like You, but if we’re talking about eccentricity, then here comes Paul Hampton. Totally new to me, the discovery of this disc is the fantastically melodramatic masterpiece Two Hour Honeymoon. Appropriately for a song about a bride’s sudden death by car crash on her honeymoon, it utterly derails the compilation’s treacly schmaltz. It’s a hoot, but Creams is possibly even better. If, like me, Bruce McCulloch’s songs for The Kids in the Hall are among your favourite things ever then you might detect a certain inspiration from this.

The Avons are next with the sort of song that people who enjoy Hayley Mills bashing out the theme to the Parent Trap will enjoy. Keely Smith is one of my favourite singers ever, and she manages to get some charm into the otherwise slight Close. There’s some comedy named singers in Everit Herter and Rusty Draper, who thankfully turn their slight songs into sprightly pop numbers. Dick Van Dyke is one of those singers who manage to bring their personality to even the dullest material and make some fun of it, which is more than can be said for Frankie Avalon and Connie Stevens.

We then get three groups having a go at the songs – The Turbans (the vocal group lifts the song considerably), a fun instrumental by the Rangoons and finally the Drifters (as produced by Lieber and Stoller). The song isn’t particularly notable, but among the backing singers are Dee Dee Warwick and Doris Troy which makes a fascinating footnote for an otherwise forgettable song. By the time we get to Chuck Jackson, there’s a marked improvement in song writing and arrangement. For the rest of the second disc you get a succession of either songs that get close to what we think of as classic Bacharach or arrangements. The Del Shannon, Shepherd Sisters, Gloria Lynne, Four Coins and Shirrelles songs here all feel like things slowly clicking together.

And then by the start of disc three we get the first recognisable classic – Make It Easy On Yourself. But disconcertingly it’s sung in a completely unrecognisable way. Jerry Butler is a fine singer but not quite right for the song, but the arrangement is almost completely the one we recognise. Sophia Loren is a bit of an anomaly, but her brassy performance does feel like a clear example of the swagger that Bacharach is feeling at this point. Gene McDaniel’s version of Another Tear Falls sounds like hearing an early Beatles song sung by, say, Freddie and the Dreamers: the song is modern but the delivery old hat. 

But thankfully the Drifters completely sell Mexican Divorce which is one of the most sophisticated songs yet. And next up is Etta James, who gives a slight song her all and does suggest that some big hitters are paying attention to the songwriters at last. Gene Pitney’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is fantastic, like the Pete Hampton comedy song done straight – it zips along, is very funny and has a genuine sense of melodrama to it. That it’s followed by the Fairmount Singers version is particularly fascinating because they have no sense of the natural drama of the song and make the dramatic sound somewhat inappropriately breezy instead.

The Exotics are fine, but they do demonstrate a frequent frustration of this disc – everything seems to be coming together but Bacharach keeps swapping lyricists. And Bob Hilliard is no Hal David. In fact Manpower sounds for all the world like one of the infamous Song Poems in how clunky it is. Even dependable Andy Williams struggles with some of Hilliard’s lyrics. Pitney comes back and mangles one good Bachrach and David song, and then tries to oversell a slight bit of Hilliard lyrics. Thankfully, Chuck Jackson comes back for a lovely Any Day Now (My Beautiful Bird) and Tommy Hunt is SO CLOSE to getting to the peak Bacharach and David sound but just can’t quite get there.

In the end it’s Jimmy Radcliffe’s (There Goes) The Forgotten Man which feels like one of the big revelations here, a gorgeous song performed beautifully. Radcliffe is known mostly for his Northern Soul classic Long After Tonight Is All Over (another Bacharach and David song) and he brings the same level of beauty to this song. We get one final detour via Helen Shapiro, who’s always fun, and then the main attraction is here. Almost immediately Dionne Warwick manages to interpret the songs in a way no other singer has so far managed to. It feels revelatory to the extent that almost everything after this is a bit pointless. It’s not that Joey Powers, Bobby Vee or Paul Evans are bad, but they do feel like a step backwards. But not to worry, because the disc ends splendidly with a couple of Bacharach’s arrangements for Marlene Dietrich which show how far the songwriter had come. Kleine Treue Nachtigal is fascinating because we all know it as Message to Michael, but Dietrich just inhabits the song and finds a new way to hear the famous melody. Intriguingly we end on a version of Where Have All The Flowers Gone, which again shows Bacharach’s maturity as an arranger. And oddly prefigures the strange final disc.

This is a rather lovely, if eccentric, mix of Bacharach inspirations, balancing the romantic (Debussy and Ravel), the experimental (Milhaud – with who Bacharach studied – and Schoenberg) to the popular (Gil Evans and Count Basie). It’s an odd way to end things but does kind of feel like another way of telling the box set’s story of Bacharach’s blooming as a songwriter. It’s a strange set at times, but when it takes flight it just reinforces the genius of the man – even more so when they take flight among the otherwise forgettable pop experiments. He truly was a genius.

❉ Burt Bacharach – Dream Big – The First Decade Of Songs (ACME369CDX) was released 30 June 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £26.99. Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

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