As the tail end of the Dionne Warwick era came closer, Burt Bacharach signed a record deal with A&M Records. With the label, he would not only get to record his own instrumental albums, he would strike gold with three recordings, each propelling an A&M single to the top of the Billboard singles chart.
Bacharach’s recordings for A&M spanned 12 years, with the release of his first album for the label, Reach Out, appearing in 1967, and concluding with the Woman concept album in 1979. Apart from the final two albums, Bacharach’s albums were primarily reimagined arrangements of tunes that were hits for other artists. While they could pass for easy listening, Bacharach’s meticulous arrangements and demanding conducting gave them a timeless appeal. He had recorded a set of tunes for the Kapp label a couple of years prior in the UK, but it did not have the same appeal.
While the A&M albums are primarily instrumental recordings, occasional refrains of verses or choruses are sung by a female singer or group of singers. In addition, Bacharach was not afraid to take the spotlight on a track on each album and sing the lead part himself. On the first album, Reach Out, his roughshod voice does a remarkable job on the tune “A House is Not a Home.”
His third A&M album, Make It Easy on Yourself, was very similar to Reach Out, this time featuring Bacharach’s vocals on the title track. Bacharach’s self-titled fourth album would expand his horizons with more lengthy arrangements on a couple of tracks. His new arrangement for “Wives and Lovers” (devoid of its dated lyrics) totally upends the original with multiple sections and occasionally-shifting time signatures. Opening side two of the LP, “And The People Were With Her (Suite for Orchestra)” is a similar workout for the large ensemble.
His fifth album, Living Together, represents a turning point. Recall that in 1972, his partnership with Hal David had fallen apart after the Lost Horizon soundtrack failure, and Dionne Warwick had sued both partners for breach of contract with her new label, Warner Brothers. Living Together tied up the remnants of that era and the Lost Horizon soundtrack. A good example of his sophisticated instrumental pop was evident in one of the album’s instrumentals, “Monterey Peninsula.”
Futures, his sixth A&M album, is perhaps Bacharach’s most difficult. Long past the Hal David/Dionne Warwick era, Bacharach collaborates with other lyricists, and includes a handful of vocalists including Joshie Armstead, Jamie Anders, Sally Stevens and Peter Yarrow. David Sanborn makes an appearance as well. This is perhaps Bacharach’s most interesting album up to this point – complex orchestrations, many guest vocalists, and lyrics that touch on emotions past Hal David’s work require a lot of keen listening. There are many highlights on the album, and this is just one of my favorites.
Bacharach has called his seventh and final A&M album, Woman, an “expensive failure.” Yet it is a formidable exercise in instrumental pop. The concept of the album is loosely foreshadowed by its title. It’s an album of mostly instrumental tunes, but three of the songs feature guest vocalists Libby Titus, Sally Stevens, and Carly Simon. The other aspect of this concept album is that it was recorded in its entirety with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, unlike past albums which were products of the studio. It was difficult to choose a favorite here, but I went with “Summer of ’77” due to its dynamic nature. And the recording itself is demo quality.
A&M Records is also home to three Bacharach Number One singles…sort of.
In 1962, a vocalist/trumpet player recorded a single in his garage, and after bringing a business partner on board, parlayed the success of that Number 6 Hot 100 single, “The Lonely Bull,” into the world’s largest independent record label. Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass organization would go on to dominate the album charts in the mid-1960s, at one point placing as many as five albums in the Top 20 of the Billboard Top 100 Albums chart. He had also scored many Number One albums, but a Number One single proved to be elusive.
It would take a segment of a television special, The Beat of the Brass, to light up the phones at the CBS Television Network’s offices, asking where to buy a single release of a tune Alpert had sung to his then-wife Sharon called “This Guy’s In Love With You.” It was quickly pressed as a single and rose up the charts, accomplishing the hat trick of becoming the first Number One single for A&M Records, for Herb Alpert (billed without the Tijuana Brass), and for the Bacharach/David songwriting duo. Here is the segment from the TV special.
This next track appears on A&M only on a technicality. Bacharach’s second A&M album was the soundtrack to the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While B.J. Thomas was contracted to Scepter Records (on which the re-recorded 45 RPM hit single version was released and rose to Number One), “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” appeared on the A&M soundtrack album. Two B.J. Thomas versions are on the soundtrack. Thomas had a cold when he first tracked the song, and that version with his rough voice was used on the montage tune, “On A Bicycle Built for Joy,” which is the musical segment with the tune that appears in the film. (Both A&M versions are unavailable on YouTube, although the film clip can be seen here.)
Finally, A&M would get its second Number One single courtesy of a brother/sister duo from Downey, California. “They Long to Be Close to You” was recorded earlier by other artists – Richard Chamberlain, Dusty Springfield and even Dionne Warwick took a shot at it but failed to make it a hit. Bacharach even gave the tune to Herb Alpert as a follow-up to the smash single “This Guy’s In Love With You” but, not happy with the result, Alpert shelved his recording. (It eventually surfaced on Alpert’s Lost Treasures rarities collection.) Alpert then passed the tune along to the recently-signed Carpenters, who were recording their second album. After working out the arrangement with Richard Carpenter, Richard commented that it would either be an enormous hit, or a complete dud. This Bacharach/David song caught on fire, becoming A&M’s next Number One single, complete with a slight parenthetical change to the original song title: “(They Long To Be) Close To You.” It set the Carpenters off on their own remarkably successful run of charting hits.
In addition to these hits, many of Bacharach’s A&M labelmates covered his songs. The groups and artists included Herb Alpert (with and without the Tijuana Brass), Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet, The Baja Marimba Band and others. I won’t pursue these here, other than leaving you with this gem, from an album that has become a cult favorite among “sunshine pop” collectors. Here is Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends with their version of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” (Roger Nichols is also a well-known composer, having co-written another Carpenters Number One hit, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” with collaborator Paul Williams, and numerous others that have charted for other artists.)
Aside from Dionne Warwick’s tunes in the 1960s and early 1970s, many other artists performed Bacharach/David songs. We will look at those in the next installment.