Hal David wrote lyrics for some of the most
enduring songs in American popular music.
enduring songs in American popular music.
Working primarily with composer Burt Bacharach, and dominating the pop-music charts of the Sixties, David and Bacharach crafted dozens of Top 40 hits which are now timeless – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” “Alfie,” “The Look of Love,” “What’s New, Pussycat,” “A House Is Not a Home.” It was the hard-rock era, a time torn by war and protest, but young hearts still yearned for love, and nobody articulated that longing more memorably than Hal David. His unadorned lyric style and Bacharach’s soaring melodies found fertile ground not only with pop records but on Broadway and in dozens of movie songs.
What’s it all about?
For Hal David, it was about dedication to his craft, a tireless commitment to the rights of all songwriters, and a desire to spread the message of love, sweet love throughout the world. In a career spanning eight decades, the lyricist notched dozens of top ten hits as well as an Academy Award, two Grammys including the prestigious Trustees Award, an Ivor Novello Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, and the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize. He explained the secret of his success: “In writing I search for believability, simplicity, and emotional impact.” Yet even as his songs became part of the cultural lexicon, he largely eschewed the spotlight, allowing his beautiful words to speak (volumes) for themselves. What the World Needs Now: Words by Hal David spotlights his most indelible creations, sung by a “Who’s Who” of popular song and co-written with Albert Hammond, and others, including, of course, the composer with whom he would become inextricably linked: Burt Bacharach. These songs, imbued with optimism, elegance, and a deeply-ingrained belief in the power of the human spirit, epitomize the spirit of Hal David.
Brooklyn native Harold Lane David might have taken a different path entirely. With an aim to pursuing journalism, he served as editor of the Thomas Jefferson High School newspaper. Upon graduation, he attended New York University’s School of Journalism and then attained an entry-level position at the New York Post. But another muse called him. Music was a part of his life from a young age; he dutifully learned the violin at his mother’s behest, and led a band which played locally and in the Catskills. Ever the wordsmith, he had considered following in the footsteps of his older brother Mack, a lyricist with such eventual credits as “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” and “Baby It’s You,” the latter with Burt Bacharach. But Mack had discouraged Hal, so his dreams of songwriting went on the back burner.
In 1942, while employed at the Post, Hal was drafted into the U.S. Army. After basic training in San Jose, California - a locale he would crucially evoke, years later – he was shipped out to Hawaii. Fortuitously spotting a sign seeking talents for an army show, he was assigned to the Central Pacific Entertainment Section under Major Maurice Evans, the British-born actor and future Bewitched star who had become an American citizen. Soon, the budding lyricist was writing songs for fellow troops such as Carl Reiner, Allen Ludden, Werner Klemperer, and Howard Morris. “We knew that Hal was very talented. This little guy was turning up wonderfully rhyming things,” Reiner later commented.
Bit by the songwriting bug, Hal returned home in 1945. Tin Pan Alley beckoned, and one year later, his first professional composition was published. “Horizontal,” co-written with Louis Ricca, was recorded on RCA Victor by Pat Flowers and His Rhythm featuring vocalist Bunty Pendleton. The hits kept on coming. “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas,” with music by Don Rodney, charted for five artists including Guy Lombardo and Vic Damone in 1949. The next year, Frank Sinatra recorded Hal, Arthur Altman, and Redd Evans’ “American Beauty Rose” for Columbia Records. The future Chairman of the Board thought so much of the tune that he recut it in 1961 at Capitol. In 1953, Hal earned his first chart-topper with Teresa Brewer’s recording of “Bell Bottom Blues,” co-authored with Leon Carr. In the decade to come, he penned other hits with tunesmiths like Sherman Edwards, Lee Pockriss, and Paul Hampton. But it was a meeting in 1956 with a songwriter seven years his junior that proved fateful.
“Eddie Wolpin [of Paramount Pictures’ Famous Music division] thought it might be a good idea for me to write with Hal David,” remembered Burt Bacharach in his 2013 memoir Anyone Who Had a Heart, “but we were both working with other people at the same time. Hal might write three days a week with Mort Garson in the morning and then with me in the afternoon, and I also wrote with Bob Hilliard and Hal’s older brother Mack.” But Hal stood out to Burt. “Like me, Hal was a perfectionist but he didn’t have a lot of personal eccentricities and he didn’t dress like a guy in the music business. When it came to writing a song, he always had the ability to unleash some extraordinary lyrics. I really believe what you write is what you are, and the deeper core of Hal’s being always came through in his craft.” It was a mutual admiration society. As Hal noted in his 1968 volume of lyrics, “Among songwriters, there are many tune writers but just a handful of composers. He is one of the few.”
The newly-minted team first yielded novelties like “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” and “Peggy’s in the Pantry.” But from such inauspicious beginnings came one of the most successful pairings ever, artistically and commercially. In a little over one year, the duo had scored their first hit with Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life.” A second hit followed just two months later with Perry Como’s “Magic Moments.” When the young background singer Dionne Warwick recorded their “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, Bacharach and David’s sophisticated, urbane style of uptown soul-pop had crystallized. As Warwick explains, it was a happy accident for all involved: “Bacharach and David had promised me ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’ as the first thing I would record. Unfortunately, they decided they were going to give it to [Jerry Butler]. And I heard it on the way back from school in Hartford [The Hartt College of Music] to a session I was going to do for them, and I was not too pleased!” The song was to have been Warwick’s debut as a solo artist. When she arrived at the session, she made her frustration evident with a firm exclamation: “It was a heated discussion, and I said it! Then Hal put pen to paper and came up with ‘Don’t Make Me Over.’”
The “triangle marriage” of David, Bacharach, and Warwick catapulted to the top of the R&B chart and the top ten Pop survey in 1964 with the cool invitation to “Walk On By.” “I had the great honor of recording the Bacharach/David classic ‘Walk On By,” Melissa Manchester reflects. “When originally recorded by the great Dionne Warwick, the song was lilting, almost peppy. I wanted to see what would be revealed when I slowed it down. There was deep, dramatic motivation for each line of that beautifully crafted song. It was more like an aria than a pop song.”
An unprecedented string of over twenty top 40 hits followed for the David-Bacharach-Warwick triumvirate including the Grammy-winning “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Bacharach and David’s fame crossed the Atlantic to attract British singers including Dusty Springfield (the sweetly imploring “Wishin’ and Hopin’”), Cilla Black, and Petula Clark. American artists clamored for their songs, too, including Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin (who reinvented “I Say a Little Prayer”) and the versatile Jackie DeShannon, a hitmaking songwriter in her own right. “I remember meeting Hal for the first time when he and Burt came to the Liberty Records offices and studios in Hollywood to review songs for a proposed recording session,” DeShannon recollects. “After Burt finished playing a few compositions at the piano, Hal remembered a song they had tucked away for some time, and insisted that I hear it. The title was ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love.’ I didn't know, at that moment, that it had already been rejected by at least one top-of-the-charts recording artist. I was so happy when I heard the song; I felt it was meant for me. Just to think – our record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame! What a thrill and honor to sing the heart and humanity that came from the pen of Hal David.”
In the tumultuous Vietnam era, Bacharach and David had created a genre unto themselves, with Burt’s sinuous, sleek, and stunningly inventive music matched by Hal’s unadorned, eloquent, and profoundly humanistic lyrics. The twin siren songs of Hollywood and Broadway called, too. They wrote such seminal, Academy Award-nominated film standards as Tom Jones’ swaggering “What’s New, Pussycat?” from the 1965 comedy of the same name; Dusty’s sensual “The Look of Love” from 1967’s Casino Royale; and the tender “Alfie” from 1966’s Michael Caine comedy. Of “Alfie,” Bacharach admiringly observed, “The song had to tell people what the picture was about, and when Hal called me up from Long Island and read me what he had written over the phone, I knew he had come up with the best lyrics he or anybody else had ever written. It’s a great, great lyric.” It’s heard here in Sonny Bono’s production for Cher as originally heard in American prints of the movie. 1969’s laconic “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” introduced in the comic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by B.J. Thomas, earned Bacharach and David an Oscar.
The team brought their groundbreaking sound to Broadway in 1968 with the musical Promises, Promises, based on Billy Wilder’s classic film The Apartment. Hal told Performing Songwriter in 1995 that show songs “are somewhat easier to write because you had a story to deal with…there are characters, there are scenes, there’s a tree on which to hang your songs.” During the production’s out-of-town tryout in Boston, librettist Neil Simon and director Robert Moore needed a new song for a pivotal moment between Chuck Baxter (Jerry Orbach) and Fran Kubelik (Jill O’Hara). There was only one problem: the composer was in the hospital battling pneumonia. Upon Burt’s discharge from Massachusetts General, Hal presented him with a beautiful and clever lyric to set: What do you get when you kiss a guy?/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, he’ll never phone ya…“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” as performed here by Dionne and Glen Campbell, went on to have a great life outside the long-running musical. “The fastest song that Hal and I ever wrote,” Burt recalls, “and simple! So there’s something to say for simplicity, too. I was just glad we wrote it, and I could go back to bed, you know?”
As the 1970s dawned, Bacharach and David enjoyed further successes. The brother-and-sister duo Carpenters reinvented the all-but-forgotten “(They Long to Be) Close to You” (introduced by television’s Richard Chamberlain in 1963) as a dreamy, era-defining Pop # 1 in 1970. One year later, Barbra Streisand fused a pair of songs first recorded by Keely Smith and Brook Benton, respectively – “One Less Bell to Answer” and “A House Is Not a Home” – as a tour de force duet for one. But all good things must come to an end. Personal and creative tensions boiled over between Burt and Hal in the aftermath of the 1973 movie musical Lost Horizon, for which they wrote the score. Their “triangle marriage” with Dionne Warwick was collateral damage. Burt took responsibility for the split. He acknowledged in 2013, “I can’t imagine how many great songs I could have written with Hal in the years we were apart. So I now know on every level, it was a very bad mistake.”
Hal rebounded by forging fertile creative relationships with Archie Jordan (with Ronnie Milsap’s 1977 Country # 1 “It Was Almost Like a Song”) and Albert Hammond, a British singer-songwriter. Hammond had endured a similar split with his longtime songwriting partner. “That was the time when Mike [Hazlewood] decided he didn’t want to write anymore,” Hammond told the Sodajerker podcast in 2012. “So, I had an opportunity to talk to Hal David on the phone, and as I was speaking to him trying to explain who I was, he said, ‘I already know who you are, and I would love to write with you,’ and I didn’t know what to say! He said, ‘Can we start tomorrow at ten in the morning?’” Hammond was tongue-tied. “He said, ‘come over at ten and bring your guitar, and we’ll start writing!’” Their very first collaboration yielded the evocative “99 Miles from L.A.,” later recorded by Art Garfunkel, Johnny Mathis, Nancy Sinatra, and Dionne Warwick. Their romantic “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” followed just a couple of days later. It was introduced by Hammond in 1975 but gained widespread fame when the unlikely pair of Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson cut a chart-topping duet version in 1984.
The lyrics of Hal David also graced melodies by John Barry, Joe Raposo, Henry Mancini, Ken Hirsch, Barry Manilow, Carole King, John Cacavas, Paul Anka, and even Phil Spector. He wrote new musicals with Michel Legrand, Charles Strouse, and Charles Fox. Between 1980 and 1986, the tireless lyricist served as President of songwriters’ rights organization ASCAP, and in 2000, he began a decade-long tenure as Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1992, Hal reunited with Burt to write a song for Dionne’s Friends Can Be Lovers album, and the duo would subsequently collaborate on new material for stage (the 1997 New York revival of Promises, Promises; the 2003 Broadway tribute The Look of Love) and screen (the 2000 Jacqueline Susann biopic Isn’t She Great). 2009 saw Hal’s words sung by Rosanne Cash and Bruce Springsteen when their duet on “Sea of Heartbreak,” written with Paul Hampton in 1961, was included on Cash’s acclaimed album The List.
On September 1, 2012, Hal David passed away at the age of 91, survived by his wife Eunice, children, and grandchildren. A posthumous surprise appeared in 2015. “I had the unique privilege of setting Hal David's final lyric to music,” Melissa Manchester reveals. “‘On the Other End of the Phone" is a lyric of intimacy, celebrating an enduring relationship. While I could have sung it with a guy, I felt that making it come alive between two women - Dionne Warwick in particular - made this recording unique. One final note about this recording - it was one of the last recordings of the late, great jazz composer-pianists, Joe Sample.”
Dionne ruminates of Hal’s work, “They were not only lyrics – they were poems. Hal wrote to your heart, not at it. They were words that everyone would have loved to have access to in certain situations, and he found the way to have me portray that situation so that you had the ability to now say these words to whomever you had to say them to. He was a master at that.” B.J. Thomas reminisces, “Hal was one of the best lyricists ever. He was a mentor to me and other artists through the years. He could really help an artist see the vision of a song. I really enjoyed our time together and I miss him dearly. I loved Hal David.”
Burt Bacharach cherishes the memory of his lyrical partner. “We were writing for a lot of pop artists at the same time. It’s all music, and it’s all got to be quite solvent, quite good, and reachable for an audience. Look at Hal’s lyrics now. ‘A House Is Not a Home.’ ‘Alfie.’ These are brilliant. The guy was brilliant. So, it’s what we got from each other. What he gave back to me, what I gave to him.”
There will always be something there to remind us of Hal David – those resplendent and inspiring songs which still touch us today. “What the World Needs Now Is Love” has, in particular, become an anthem for our times. It’s recently been reinterpreted by performers as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Jim James, Andra Day, and the all-star collective Broadway for Orlando to raise money and heal hearts in the wake of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Hal looked back modestly at his remarkable accomplishments: “Reliving my career, I realize how lucky I am. To do well at something you would do for nothing is every man’s dream. It came true for me. I’m glad I’m a songwriter.” We’re so glad, too.
- JOE MARCHESE