June 5, 2015—On Thursday, June 4, University of Oregon music students were treated to a full day of events featuring a legendary composer and performer. Burt Bacharach, six-time Grammy Award-winner and three-time Academy Award-winner, spent the day at the UO School of Music and Dance, engaging with students and faculty.
Bacharach’s assembled songbook represents a major cultural force in American popular music, beginning in the late 1950s and extending to the present day.
Bacharach visited campus in the company of his wife Jane and son Oliver, who is enrolled as a UO journalism major. As part of the day’s activities, Bacharach first appeared as a guest in an intimate, one-hour question-and-answer session with around seventy attendees in Aasen-Hull Hall in the Frohnmayer Music Building. The session was a class meeting of “Popular Songwriting,” a large-lecture class taught by Toby Koenigsberg, associate professor of jazz piano.
A faculty panel moderated by School of Music and Dance Assistant Dean Robert Ponto kicked things off with a series of questions about Bacharach’s songwriting process.
“It is work,” Bacharach said of his songwriting routine. “You go into a room, and you go to work. And sometimes you get absolutely nothing.”
“It only comes with spending the time,” Bacharach added. “You don’t get medals for writing quickly.”
Bacharach also urged students to find their own unique voices in perfecting their artistry, stating, “You can’t listen to the radio and say, ‘Well, I’ll write like that.’”
The panel event was punctuated by Bacharach’s anecdotes of working in the 1950s and 60s in New York City’s fabled Brill Building, where the studios of Tin Pan Alley songwriters shared space with publishers and other music industry professionals.
Fine-Tuning Student Compositions
After lunch with UO students, faculty, and staff, Bacharach worked more closely with a small group of handpicked music students and alumni in a breakout songwriting workshop. Bacharach listened to and commented on a diverse array of original compositions by UO students, including recordings of a jazz funk band, a classical string quartet, and an electronic dance music track.
Arielle Ward, a local composer who attends South Eugene High School, was invited to share an original pop selection, a piece she performed live for the legendary composer, singing and accompanying herself on ukulele.
Throughout the session, Bacharach displayed his knowledge of numerous forms of music, responding to the nuance and style of each genre, and offering the composers helpful pointers and feedback.
Summing up the day’s events, Ponto commented, “The landscape of American music would be very different without the work of Burt Bacharach, and this visit offered our students a rare glimpse into the mind of a successful songwriter.”
“Mr. Bacharach has been generous in sharing both his time and his knowledge with our students,” Ponto added.
Throughout his prolific career, Bacharach’s impact on popular American music can hardly be overstated. His Top-40 hits include 73 songs on the US charts and 52 in UK rankings, many created with his writing partner, the late lyricist Hal David.
Bacharach’s and David’s collaboration with soul-pop diva Dionne Warwick resulted in numerous American radio standards, including “I Say a Little Prayer,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “Walk on By.”
The list of performers who have also recorded Bacharach-penned songs is impressively lengthy, and includes such luminaries as The Beatles (“Baby, It’s You”), Kanye West (“Slow Jamz”), Aretha Franklin (“I Say a Little Prayer”), Stevie Wonder (“That’s What Friends Are For”), Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now is Love”), Elvis Costello (“Toledo”), Tom Jones (“What’s New Pussycat?”), Roberta Flack (“Making Love”), Neil Diamond (“Heartlight”), Dusty Springfield, Patti Labelle, Perry Como, Dick Van Dyke, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney, Engelbert Humperdink, The Drifters, The Shirelles, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, to name just a handful.
Bacharach is also a three-time Academy Award-winner for his musical contributions to the films Arthur and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The 1997 Julia Roberts romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding featured a number of Bacharach/David songs in tribute to the songwriting duo.
Bacharach has appeared in several television programs and Hollywood films, including cameos in all three of the Austin Powers comedies. In 2006 he served as a guest vocal coach on the FOX television singing competition program American Idol.