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Music for the Soul: Houston Native Bill Bartlett Plays Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David

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By Donalevan Maines

To quote a lyric by Hal David, “There is always something there to remind” Bill Bartlett of the time Burt Bacharach walked into a room where the out Houston pianist was tickling the ivories. “I was playing one of his songs!” says Bartlett, who accompanies crooning bar patrons on the piano each Sunday night at Michael’s Outpost.

“They sing; I play,” explains the Houston native, who’s also the music director for Bayou City Concert Musicals’ (BCCM) cabaret series Always Something There to Remind Me: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Some 35 years ago, Bartlett was serenading a regular Sunday-brunch audience at a luxury Houston hotel, and then hung around to fill in for a friend during cocktail hour when who should step into Bartlett’s sight but Bacharach and his then-wife Carole Bayer Sager. (He had already divorced actress Angie Dickinson.) Bacharach and Sager won 1982 Oscars for co-writing “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” with Peter Allen and Christopher Cross, but on this day, says Bartlett, “They were in tennis drag. When I finished playing, they banged their tennis racquets with their hands. I stood, with great aplomb, and mouthed to them, ‘I will see you tonight.’”

Which he did, from his seat at the Tower Theater, when he attended a Bacharach and Sager concert. “I almost went to the stage door to meet them, but I didn’t,” says Bartlett. However, he thoroughly enjoyed hearing Bacharach “in his element,” conducting a full orchestra with three backup singers, while playing the piano. “It was fabulous! It was a stunning experience.”

Bartlett, who graduated from Bellaire High School in 1967, says he’s been a Bacharach fan since the albums Presenting Dionne Warwick (1963) and 1964’s Anyone Who Had a Heart and Make Way for Dionne Warwick.

Bartlett bought the vinyl “at Foley’s or at Don’s Record Shop” after hearing Warwick’s singles on KNUZ at 1230 on the AM dial. “My ears opened up: ‘Oh my, that is really something,’” he recalls.

In all, BCCM producer Sharon Williams figures that Warwick scored 38 hit singles with Bacharach/David tunes, including the early favorite “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”

However, Bartlett (who admits, “I am a sucker for a beautiful ballad—and fabulous backup singers”) narrows down his best-loved compositions to these: “The Look of Love,” which British songbird Dusty Springfield crooned for the 1967 film Casino Royale, and the medley “One Less Bell to Answer/A House is Not a Home,” which appeared on the 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand.

The songwriting team of Bacharach and David first hit pay dirt when Marty Robbins recorded the duo’s tune “The Story of My Life” in 1957, and Perry Como sang “Magic Moments.” Hits followed by male singers Gene Pitney, Tom Jones, and Houston’s own B.J. Thomas, who became a star when he purred, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

“Oh, it’ll be there,” says Bartlett, promising that BCCM’s cabaret wouldn’t dare cut the 1969 Oscar-winning Best Song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

“We’re pushing through 30 Burt Bacharach songs,” says Bartlett, who recalls seeing or reading an interview in which the handsome composer revealed that the female voice was his muse. Indeed, distaff singers as disparate as Cher, Jackie DeShannon, Bobbie Gentry, and Karen Carpenter collaborated with him and David on some monster hits.

Williams says the cast of BCCM’s cabaret will include Susan Shofner, Grace Givens, Danica Dawn Johnston, Gary Bankston, and Sellers Thomas in solos, duets, and groups.

“I am having a ball,” says Bartlett, who still recalls what attracted him to the music in the first place.

“Burt Bacharach was the first person in pop music to alter the time signature,” he explains. “He went from 4/4 to 3/4 to 6/8 to 3/8 and back to 4/4 again, in a matter of just a few measures. Leonard Bernstein had done that, and other early 20th-century composers in the classical world, but to hear this in pop music was new, and catchier. ‘This is different. I like it!’”

The rhythmic changes, says Bartlett, “were a function of the music. They serviced the lyric.”

Finally, he adds, “I salute the lyrics of Hal David. I’m not sure which came first, the music or the lyric, the chicken or the egg, but the lyrics are so beautiful. I always see everybody moving their mouths to the lyrics, and I think, ‘Yep, it’s Burt Bacharach and Hal David.’ It is music for the soul.”

What: Always Something There to Remind Me: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David
When: February 18–20
Where: The Performance Centre at the Ensemble Theatre,
3535 Main (entrance on Fannin at Berry St.)
Details: bayoucityconcertmusicals.org

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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