It’s not a stretch to presume Burt Bacharach was an old romantic. Certainly, the Missouri-born songwriter, who died yesterday aged 94, wrote some of the greatest love songs of the 20th century, from Walk on By to What The World Needs Now is Love. Over 70 years, he had 52 hits in the UK Top 40, soundtracking countless broken hearts and first dances, unrequited passions and lifelong love affairs.
Yet though his songs were often tender and idyllic, his personal life was anything but. He learnt early on that his prodigious musical talent had other advantages, after forming a band in his teenage years and quickly realising “I got to meet girls who would never have talked to me for any other reasons.”
In his 2013 autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, Bacharach recounts his early dalliances with almost more pride than his story to stardom, remembering the girl he’d “dry-hump” during high school, the older woman he lost his virginity to and the pianist who taught him “how to go down on a girl” within just a few pages. All are passed over irreverently at pace, bit part players on Bacharach’s journey to success and the next nameless woman in line.
Even marriage didn’t turn him starry-eyed. He met his first wife, singer Paula Stewart, when he played piano with her on the club circuit when he was in his mid-20’s and they married in 1953. He later admitted he was unfaithful to her from the start. Bacharach’s own mother – upon hearing of their engagement – warned Stewart “You know, honey, he’s not really marriage material.”
Yet it didn’t put him off. In 1965, he married for a second time to actress Angie Dickinson. By this point, the handsome and charismatic Bacharach was a celebrity in his own right, having co-written some of his biggest hits with David for Dionne Warwick, a collaboration that would become one of Bacharach’s most prolific. His relationship with Dickinson saw him become one half of a fully-fledged Hollywood power couple, with a jet-setting romance that could have been lifted straight from one of his most famous songs. However, Dickinson later claimed the marriage soured before they even walked down the aisle at their late-night wedding in Las Vegas when she delayed the ceremony a few hours to wait for two friends to arrive.
“I think that was the night Burt fell out of love with me, because here we were sitting and waiting in a casino lounge and it just took the boom off of it,” she said later. Within months, he had started cheating on her with a string of women and admitted in his memoir that he had only been married “for about nine months when I started thinking about getting a divorce.”
Though their marriage was over almost as soon as it began, Bacharach tried again to make it work following the birth of their daughter, Nikki, a year after the wedding. “Would our marriage have lasted if not for Nikki?” he asked in his autobiography. “I doubt it. There should be a rule that no one is allowed to get married until they are thirty years old.” Sadly, Nikki was born prematurely and spent the first three months of her life in an incubator. She went on to suffer severe mental health problems throughout childhood and the couple’s relationship quickly broke down as a result. Bacharach later had Nikki committed to a treatment centre at 16 where she stayed for 10 years. Tragically, she went on to take her own life in 2007. “She was so heroic,” Dickinson said of her daughter later, “and still loved the son-of-a-b---h because Burt can charm everybody.”
Bacharach married for a third time in 1982. Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager had written for Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Carly Simon and wrote Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) with Bacharach, which won an Oscar for Best Song in 1981. But even at their wedding, Bacharach suggested he knew their personal relationship was doomed to fail, answering “I’ll try” when asked if he would vow to love, honour and obey his bride for the rest of his life.
Later, Bacharach said working and living together proved too much to endure and he wanted space; Bayer Sager claimed he was more interested in watching porn than spending time with her. Shortly after they separated, 61-year-old Bacharach admitted he had actually been dating 29-year-old Jane Hansen, a ski instructor in Aspen, for several months. “What I now realise is that nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives,” Bayer Sager said long after their split. “The only thing that changes is the wife, but his routine remains the same.”
It's tempting – and certainly more flattering – to assume Bachrach was simply in love with being in love, always searching for his next great romance and inspiration for another song. In truth, his personal life just never mattered to him the way his music did. He loved the adulation, the thrill of being with beautiful women and the knowledge he could attract almost anyone he wanted.
But it was all just a sideshow to his real passion for songwriting. “The very nature of the work and the creating of it is a very selfish act,” he told the Telegraph in one interview. “How many writers do you know who are really selfless people? Very few. It’s nothing to be proud of; it’s just a fact.” He went on to confess his songs weren’t even written with particular women in mind. “I can’t remember who I was in love with at the time. I was in love with my music. And the passion for getting it right is so strong that it’s crazy-making.”
His obsession with making a song perfect was legendary, and almost intolerable for anyone who worked with him. He made Dionne Warwick record her first track 32 times and then ended up using the second take, drove Cilla Black to tears during recording sessions and was known to spend hours getting a single chord right. It seemed a constant source of disappointment that he couldn’t work the same magic on his relationships. “I don’t like splitting up with people,” he once said. “But then the harder part of me will say, ‘I’ve just got this one shot, and I’ll just keep going until I get it right.’ So it’s not so far away from trying to make the perfect record.”
Ultimately, it was music that remained Bacharach’s great love until the very end. He played Glastonbury as recently as 2015 and was still performing live in 2019. He’d also recently announced a forthcoming box set with long-term collaborator Elvis Costello, due to be released in March. Yet he finally found his happy ever after in his private life too. In 1993, he married Hansen and they remained together for three decades until his death this week, with the songwriter crediting the relationship’s longevity to his wife’s independence and the fact “we give each other space.”
Bacharach’s famous charm never waned though. Despite the messy divorces and extra-marital affairs, all three of his ex-wives contributed at length to his autobiography and appear to have forgiven everything. By the end, even the long-suffering Dickinson could reflect on their marriage and understand why Bacharach could never have made it work. “I often wonder,” she wrote, “if I was in love with Burt or his music.”