The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Talking with the late Hal David

Barney Hoskyns

In the spring of 2000, the late Hal David had just become the first non-Brit to be honored with a prestigious Ivor Novello Award when Terry Staunton spoke to him about his work and his sublime lyrics for Burt Bacharach--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Hal David was recently asked to write out the lyrics to 'We Have All The Time In The World', his 1969 James Bond theme, as a gift for a friend's wedding. But before putting pen to paper, the 78-year-old songwriter had to rush out and buy the sheet music — just to make sure he got it right.

He can be forgiven the odd lapse in memory, the occasional forgotten couplet here and there, because the sheer volume of classic popular songs that bear his name in brackets under the title is breathtaking. In tandem with Burt Bacharach, the perennial figurehead of the easy listening set, David has been responsible for some of the most enduring musical moments of the century. 'Walk On By', 'Make It Easy On Yourself', 'I Say A Little Prayer', 'This Guy's In Love With You'; arguably, there isn't a record collection in the world that doesn't feature at least one Bacharach & David opus.

Artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys, Manic Street Preachers, Prince and Elvis Costello cite the pair as a major influence, and songs like 'What The World Needs Now', 'The Look Of Love' and 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' are all but anthems, unassailable landmarks in the history of pop.

Yet lyricist David's contribution is often overlooked, with Bacharach afforded the lion's share of attention, the user-friendly face of the cocktails and turtlenecks crowd. The balance was redressed in London on May 27, with a special presentation to the wordsmith at the annual Ivor Novello Awards, making him the first non-Briton to be honoured in the awards' 44-year history. It was a rare foray into the limelight for an unassuming man who seems to like it best in the background.

"Burt is better known than me for a number of reasons," he says. "Composers tend to be better known than lyricists — just look at Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Bernie is a brilliant lyric writer, but Elton is the showman. And like Elton, Burt is a performer, he's good out in the open. That's never been my thing."

The Bacharach & David partnership held strong for close to 20 years, the pair going their separate ways in the early '70s. They've been working together again lately, penning songs the forthcoming Bette Midler film, Isn't She Great?, and for their original '60s muse, Dionne Warwick. David is enthusiastic about the results, but is well aware the new songs have a lot to live up to, considering the duo's formidable back catalog.


Do you have a personal favourite from the golden era?
"Without a doubt, it's 'Alfie'. I think that lyric comes closest to expressing my own particular philosophy of love and how to live your life. Every writer sets out to achieve something with their lyrics but various things can conspire against you during the writing process to make you lose sight of the initial emotional intent. But with 'Alfie', more than any other song, it just fell into place beautifully. I also really like 'A House Is Not A Home', especially the opening couplet, 'A chair is still a chair/Even when there's no one sitting there'. I like the simplicity of it. Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve."

You seem to have a talent for writing from a woman's perspective.
"I've heard that said, but I think it has more to do with people being familiar with women singing the songs. If you actually sit down and listen, most of them could apply to either sex. A song like 'I Say A Little Prayer' is specifically female, and a lot of other songs were written with women in mind, especially when Burt and I were working with Dionne. It's flattering that people think I can articulate female emotions, but the majority could be sung by a girl or a guy."

You won an Oscar for 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head' from Butch Cassidy, which features in one of the most classic scenes in cinema history.
"Yeah, that one stuck around. The filmmakers just showed us the scene, Paul Newman on a bicycle showing off in front of Katharine Ross, and it was such a beautiful moment in the film that I didn't want to write anything about outlaws or bank robbers. It's a kinda happy-go-lucky melody, but there is a darker side. Butch is this fun guy, but everything he does gets screwed up along the way. I think the song hints at that without forcing the point. Burt and I were well in sync for that one."

Is there a form of telepathy between you?
"Oh yeah, definitely, and I think it's still there after all these years. There have been times in the past when I've heard one of Burt's melodies and the words just fell out in a matter of seconds. 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose?' is a perfect example of that, I heard the whole lyric in a flash, I just instinctively knew what Burt was looking for. The ones that come out of the blue are usually the best ones."

Can you think of one song that you wish you had written?
"Oh, there are so many. Lots of Johnny Mercer things, some Gershwins, but if I had to pick one it would be 'White Christmas', it's the ultimate song of love and yearning. Irving Berlin was an absolute genius, he could say the most wonderful, thoughtful and honest things in the shortest number of lines. And that, I think, is the key to great songwriting."

© Terry Staunton, 2000

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