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What the Old Pueblo Needs Now 

Bacharach closes the Tucson Jazz Festival with a 12-piece band and all those well-loved hits

Burt Bacharach has written so many hit songs that even performing just the biggest ones during a single show is a challenge.

Since 1957, the legendary composer and songwriter has charted 73 top 40 hits in the United States, including some of the most memorable hits of the 1960s for artists like Dusty Springfield ("Wishin' and Hopin'"), B.J. Thomas ("Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"), Tom Jones ("What's New, Pussycat?"), Jackie DeShannon ("What the World Needs Now Is Love") and Dionne Warwick ("Alfie").

Still performing, the 86-year-old will headline the closing night of the inaugural Tucson Jazz Festival, leading a 12-piece band for a Jan. 28 show at the Fox Tucson Theatre. Knowing his fans come for the hits, Bacharach says he stuffs the setlist as full of them as possible.

"We try to do as much music as we can do. That means we do some things in medley form, and that means you win a little and lose a little, but that lets us get to a lot of songs," Bacharach says.

As for the endurance of those hits, over so many decades?

"That's a good question. It's been asked before. One, I don't know the exact answer," Bacharach says. "Maybe because in their original incarnation they were a little unusual, maybe a little different. Certain sounds were urban, sophisticated and that made it more durable.

"I'm grateful for it. You can't predict something like that. You can't sit down and write a song, a piece of music and say 'Well I'm writing this because I want this to be heard in 20 years.' You have no control over that," he says.

"I think now if I wrote some of these songs that have lasted, if I wrote them now, would there be room for them on the spectrum of the way life is in the world of disposable taste? I have some doubt."

Even for a song like "What the World Needs Now Is Love" (which was first released in 1965 and saw renewed popularity in the 2000s via American Idol and Austin Powers), Bacharach says, the conditions had to be right to score a hit.

"I don't know now," he says. "There's no radio to really help you. There used to be a climate out there you could break a song, say in Phoenix. A disc jockey would have license to be able to play something that he liked instead of what was on the top-25 list he got from headquarters with the other 150 stations that had the same owner. Radio play is almost nonexistent. The business is changing by the minute, what's available, what you hear, whether something breaks."

Born in Kansas City, Bacharach grew up in New York, studying classical piano as a teen and later in college. After serving in the Armory during the Korean War, he started playing piano professionally, accompanying singers like Vic Damone and Steve Lawrence and touring with Marlene Dietrich as her musical directory.

"I kind of drifted. I was always into music. I didn't think I was very good or very talented. I had jobs playing piano or conducting. It was a way to make a living," he says.

Soon he found his way into composing, inspired by talented jazz performers and composers­­—Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk—who had upended the sound of their day.

"There were people who opened a window for me," Bacharach says. "They had this great sounding music. That certainly drew me into music, made me care about music, made me really appreciate loving what I was hearing, as opposed to liking what I heard."

Soon, Bacharach was ensconced in what he would call New York City's "music factory," the Brill Building, where he met lyricist Hal David in 1957. Their writing partnership found its way to No. 1 in less than a year when Marty Robbins scored with his version of "The Story of My Life."

The success for Bacharach-David blossomed in the early 1960s. The legendary Dionne Warwick herself charted 38 singles co-written or produced by Bacharach and David, including nine top 10 hits, like "I Say A Little Prayer," "Walk On By" and the all-time classic "Alfie," which Bacharach has called his favorite composition.

Having published his autobiography, "Anyone Who Had A Heart," in 2013, Bacharach has a ready answer for the proudest moment in his remarkable career.

"When you win an Academy Award–I've won three—that's an extraordinary moment, exceptional. The same with Grammys. But when you get the Gershwin award sitting next to the president of the United States, you have to say that was an honor," he says.

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize—created in 2007—had only been given to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney before Bacharach and David were announced as the recipients on Sept. 27, 2011. The presentation ceremony at the White House included performances from a long cast of singers, led by Warwick and Wonder.

"With the Academy, you win for a piece of work, whether a score or a song from a film," Bacharach says. "With the Gershwin Prize, you're being honored for the totality of your work. How do you top that?"

More by Eric Swedlund

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