Those words from the 1960s standard “What the World Needs Now Is Love” came from the pen and imagination of lyricist Hal David. If that had been the only song he’d ever written, his place in contemporary music history would’ve probably been assured. But along with composer Burt Bacharach, David wrote what amounts to a pop music encyclopedia of classic hits: “Walk On By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “A House is Not a Home,” “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “The Look of Love,” “Promises, Promises,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “One Less Bell to Answer” and many others.
When those songs – most of them made famous by Dionne Warwick – first hit the charts in the 1960s, they captured the experimental spirit of the times with their urgent, often complex rhythms, daring melodic leaps and unusual, rule-defying forms. Yet Bacharach and David crafted their songs so expertly that listeners weren’t distracted, but instead enchanted by this bold new sound. At the heart of each one of the team’s songs was a heartfelt lyric, graceful, elegant and always memorable. In time, Bacharach and David’s work, like that of Lennon and McCartney, became a permanent part of the American collective memory. Consider these beloved opening lines: “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head/and just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed;” or these: “Why do birds suddenly appear everytime you are near/just like me they long to be close to you.” They’re so firmly etched in our minds it’s as if they’ve always been there.
And almost 50 years later, it’s amazing how fresh those songs still sound. It makes sense when you consider that David’s major influences are the great American composers like Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin, whose work also remains vital despite changing fashions and trends. David once said of his favorite, Berlin, “He had the ability to take the most complex things and turn them into songs. And he made it look so damn simple. His work is like a textbook of great songwriting.”
Hal David was born on May 25, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY. Inspired by his older brother, renowned Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mack David (“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, “I’m Just a Lucky So and So”), Hal began his lifelong passion for writing as a teenager. While serving in the army during WWII, he wrote lyrics for entertainment shows. After he got out, he wrote special material for nightclub acts. This was his apprenticeship that led finally to his first hit in 1949, a Guy Lombardo record of “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas.”
Through the 1950s, he collaborated with a number of different composers and made the hit parade with songs such as “American Beauty Rose” and “Bell Bottom Blues.” Then in the late 50s, while writing for Famous Music in New York City’s Brill Building, he met Burt Bacharach. Working together on recordings, movie soundtracks and an acclaimed Broadway show, they became one of the most respected and covered songwriting teams in pop music history. After the team split in the early 70s, David went on to collaborate with several different composers, turning out hits such as “Almost Like a Song” and the Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Over his long illustrious career, he has collected almost every major award, including a Grammy and an Oscar, as well as being elected into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. David sums up his successful approach to lyric writing this way: “In writing, I search for believability, simplicity and emotional impact.”
Hal David passed away on the morning of Saturday September 1, 2012 after complications from a stroke. What follows are excerpts from an interview with Hal David in 1995 that was published in Issue 10 of Performing Songwriter. Farewell, Hal, and thank you for a lifetime of timeless songs you’ve left us to sing along to. You will be forever missed.
When you were first starting out, what kinds of things did you do to get your foot in the door?
I did what was the usual and normal thing in those days. Music publishing and writing took place, for the most part, in New York City, except if you were doing films, then it was Los Angeles. The publishers were, to a large extent, in the Brill Building on Broadway and 49th Street. So you wrote your songs with various collaborators. Most of the publishers had piano rooms, and you usually had some kind of relationship with a publisher where you’d be able to work in one of their rooms. Then you’d go and play your songs around from publisher to publisher. There were 11 floors in the Brill Building. You’d start at the top and work your way down, playing your songs as if you were selling your wares.
How did you meet Burt Bacharach?
We were both working up at Famous Music in the Brill Building, and in those days everyone in the music business seemed to know everybody else. There was always a great mixture of people writing together. You’d write with one composer in the morning and another in the afternoon. Pretty much a lyric writer wrote with a lot of composers over a period of time. So I met Burt and we liked each other, and we liked the songs we wrote, and that’s how it happened. We had a room at Famous Music and we’d meet around eleven, twelve o’ clock everyday. I was very hardworking, as he was. I was always writing lyrics; he was always writing melodies. The question asked repeatedly was ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ Either my lyric would set him off to write a melody or vice versa.
You were both very prolific.
Even as we worked together on one song, he’d give me another melody or I’d give him another lyric, and very often we were writing three songs at a time—a song together, a song to his tune, a song to my lyric. So we had a number of things going.
I’ve read that you didn’t have one set way of writing with Burt. But say it was a song where you were given a complete melody first. Can you describe your first steps in approaching a lyric?
The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music was saying to you. If you’re a lyric writer, you should hear the music talking to you. That’s what I’d be doing initially.
While you were doing that would you be taking notes or scribbling ideas?
I’d often write dummy lyrics, and I still do that. It helps me retain the melody, and particularly if the melody is a little complex.
How about finding the placement of the title?
Well, I think a title is where you ordinarily go. But very often I’d start off with lines that would take me to a title. The placement of it very often was obvious, and sometimes, with Burt’s melodies, not so obvious. I think “I Say a Little Prayer” was like that. The chorus section goes (sings) “Forever, forever you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you.” That’s ordinarily where the title would fall in that song, but for whatever reason at the time, it seemed to me that the title should come in the less obvious place of the verse after “The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup.” That’s where I decided to put the title.
How did you hook up with Dionne Warwick?
There was a Drifters session she was working on, and we were there – we had a song on the date – and she came over and said, ‘Could I do some demos for you?’ We fell in love with her right away, and she started to do all our demos. Then she did one entitled “Make it Easy on Yourself.” And that led to her deal on Scepter Records, and her first hit with “Don’t Make Me Over.”
How were writing show songs for Promises, Promises different from writing pop songs?
Show songs to a certain extent, for me anyway, are somewhat easier to write because you had a story to deal with. When you’re writing a pop song, you’ve got air to deal with, blank paper to deal with (laughs). You have to create out of nothingness. When you do a show, there’s a story, there are characters, there are scenes, there’s a tree on which to hang your songs. Writing a show of course in some respects it may be easier, is also more challenging with subjects that you wouldn’t deal with very often in a pop song.
There’s a song from Promises, Promises called “Whoever You Are” that I think is one of the most beautiful ballads I’ve ever heard. I really admire all the inner rhyming. How much do you labor over a lyric like that?
Well, I do labor over my lyrics. That’s one of my favorite songs, to begin with. I think it’s a great melody and I like the lyric a lot. But I work very hard. I work on every word. I spend inordinate amounts of time deciding whether “and” or “but” is the right word (laughs). I work very, very hard. To a certain extent, lyrics flow easily, but no matter how much they flow at a given time, by the time you really get it put together and finished and refined to the best of your ability, it’s a lot of work? It’ll probably go through two or three drafts. You may even go back—that’s close to the very first draft you had, but you’re trying the others just to see whether it can be improved or not.
What’s the story on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
I wrote that to the melody. People have asked me, and I’m not really sure. Most times I’m not sure (laughs). I think your work is obviously influenced by your life experience, but I did spend time in San Jose during World War II. I was at Fort Ort, California, and possibly because I had spent time in San Jose in those days, that may have been the natural outgrowth of that.
What’ “One Less Bell to Answer?”
There’s no question about that one. Burt and I were in London working on a project, and I was invited to a dinner party. The hostess said to me, when you arrive, don’t ring the bell, just come in. It’ll make one less bell for me to answer. And at least I was wise enough to know it was a good title (laughs).
What advice would you give to a songwriter?
Firstly, make sure it’s what you really want to do, because there’s an awful lot of rejection that takes place, particularly early in your career, and that you want it enough to live with rejection and get past that rejection. And secondly, what you’ve got to do is get yourself to the places where music is written and published like Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, depending on what you write. Meet the people there, start writing and I think you learn by writing and you succeed by being where things are happening.
—By Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 10, January/February 1995