The death earlier this month of Hal David, the lyricist who with Burt Bacharach, wrote countless hits including “Alfie,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “I Say A Little Prayer” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “The Look of Love,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “This Guy’s in Love with You,” “Walk On By” and many, many others, brings to mind how the job of songwriter changed during our lifetimes.
Songwriting was once the province of professionals who did little else. Though they almost always played an instrument, they were rarely entertainers of equal merit. To see Irving Berlin perform one of his own songs is to understand the wisdom of separating the two functions. George Gershwin performed admirably on piano, as did Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. But a composer required no more than technical competency as an instrumentalist and knowledge of music theory. Or perhaps not: Berlin, for example, was a below-average pianist who couldn’t read nor write music.
Hal David played violin and knew notation and orchestration, but focused his career on words. By the time he met Bacharach in ’57, he’d had modest hits as a lyricist. The two worked at New York’s Brill Building, which was home to professional songwriters like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. (King began performing in earnest in ’70, about a dozen years after her songwriting career began.) By the time Bacharach and David achieved their worldwide success as songwriters, the occupation had changed. While many people attribute it to the arrival of the Beatles and other groups that wrote most of their tunes – music and words – other forces were at work. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and other country singers wrote songs that, however simple in structure, had a mellifluous charm and wise, homespun point of view easily adapted to pop. Folk singers mined traditional songs that reached back decades, if not centuries. Jazz performers, who at one time employed pop standards as a significant part of their repertoire, began to compose their own songs suited to improvisation and their technical wizardry.
For most of our adult lives, songs have been written by performers, in some cases to an excellent result. In some cases, not excellent. Or even good. As we well know, not every pop songwriter of our youth is up to the standard of Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder, all of whom can write compelling words and music. Great standalone lyricists are even more rare these days. Bernie Taupin, who is best known as Elton John’s lyricist, comes to mind, as does Eddie Holland, who wrote the words for Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Are we better off for the advent of the writing performer? Does it matter to you who wrote the song? Who are your favorite songwriters? Do they write for others or only to have songs to perform themselves?