By late 1969, Burt Bacharach and Hal David were kings of the pop songwriting game. With over 20 Top 40 singles by their vocal muse Dionne Warwick, cover versions of their songs by an A-Z of artists including Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and Ella Fitzgerald, movie soundtracks, TV specials and a Broadway musical, they’d done it all. But their biggest hit was just around the corner.
In the summer of that year, Bacharach was writing the score for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as 1890s train robbers. Director George Roy Hill wanted something evocative of the period for a particular scene where Newman takes a romantic bike ride with Katherine Ross. Though Hill was initially opposed to the idea of a pop song with a lyric, Bacharach talked him into it.
“Raindrops” began in an uncharacteristic way. In the Bacharach and David songwriting partnership, roles were clearly defined. Burt wrote music, Hal wrote words. But this was an instance when Bacharach came up with the title.
“I kept singing that opening phrase,” he says. “Even though Hal tried to change it, we never came up with a thing that felt as good. It must have been born the same time from the movie, and it made sense in my head. Hal made it make sense overall, though he tried some other ways first because it’s not the most natural way maybe one would think to write that lyric. But that worked almost like a glove fitting. It sang great, fit great.”
Hill agreed, so Bacharach and David set about finding the right singer. B.J. Thomas, who ended up making it his signature song, says he was not the first in line for the vocal. “Burt had originally composed the melody to fit Bob Dylan. In subsequent years Burt has denied it, but this is what I understood at the time. Burt really admired Bob Dylan and the way he phrased. When Bob, for whatever reason, didn’t do it, I was his second choice.”
Actually, he wasn’t. According to singer Steve Tyrell, who was then an A&R exec at Scepter Records, “They offered the song to Ray Stevens. And you’d think Ray Stevens would have jumped on a Burt Bacharach song. But he passed on it. They had nobody to sing it. So we suggested B.J. Burt said okay, really out of necessity.”
The day before he was to record the song, a road-weary Thomas was warned by his doctor not to sing. “I had come off a two-week tour and had laryngitis and was barely able to eke out the thing for the soundtrack,” Thomas recalls.
He struggled through five takes before Bacharach was satisfied. An exec from 20th Century Fox at the recording session congratulated Thomas on how much his raspy voice sounded like Paul Newman’s.
Laryngitic performance aside, Thomas says, “There’s maybe only two or three times in my career when I felt like I’d recorded a hit record, no doubt, and that was one of them.”
Two weeks later a single version of song for radio was recut at A&R Studios in New York, this one with a more full-throated performance from Thomas. The ukulele intro and tack piano arrangement from the soundtrack version remained. A song that conjured up turn-of-the-century quaintness seemed like a longshot for the charts, especially alongside heavy fare like “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin and “Come Together” by the Beatles. Released in October 1969 to coincide with the movie, “Raindrops” climbed to No. 1 on January 3, 1970, and stayed there for four weeks straight.
But the single version of “Raindrops” almost didn’t get released. “I actually did stop it from coming out,” Bacharach recalls. “It was set for release, but I turned down the pressing. I had been torn between two takes—one that sounded comfortable, one that had a lot of energy. I went with the comfortable one. But what I wound up doing was making an edit right in the middle of the song and picking up the fast one in the break. That’s how it was finally released.”
The song went on to win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song, and in years since has been heard in many television programs, commercials and movies, including a prominent scene in the 2004 blockbuster Spider-Man 2.
As Tyrell says, “Mainly everything else [in 1969] was flower power, the protest songs, people were taking acid, and we were like, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,’ right? But the song was a monster.”
—by Bill DeMain
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS
From Performing Songwriter Issue 96, September/October 2006
Category: Behind The Song