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The return of Burt Bacharach

The composer is charming the public with the soundtrack to ”My Best Friend’s Wedding” and Broadway?s ”What the World Needs Now”

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It could be a typical apartment on a typical Southern California afternoon on a typical day in 1967. The view from the patio is of clean white beach, the pool-blue sky stretching out above it. Palm trees sway as shirtless kids shoot hoops. Inside the white-shag-carpeted Santa Monica condo, the owner is noodling on a piano. The face and arms are thinner than they were, and a double chin is emerging. But Burt Bacharach’s basic features — the rugged profile, the silver mop curlicuing around his head — are still there, 30 years since the time when he was the king of pop.

The only thing missing is ”I Say a Little Prayer” on the radio — but that’s back too, in a remake by Diana King from the Bacharach-fueled soundtrack of My Best Friend’s Wedding. The movie and album are just one example of how easy it is to bump back into the standards Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote for the Carpenters (”Close to You”), Jackie DeShannon (”What the World Needs Now Is Love”), and especially Dionne Warwick. Bacharach’s songs, and the man himself, pop up in Austin Powers. There are two tribute albums — one by jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, another by avant-jazz musicians like John Zorn and Bill Frisell. Oasis put his mug on the cover of their first album, and alternative bands like Yo La Tengo and Hooverphonic have sampled his songs, as rappers have done for years (Isaac Hayes’ version of ”Walk On By” is a common sample). Coming next summer is a new Broadway musical, What the World Needs Now, incorporating nearly two dozen Bacharach-David standards. After a period in which they were half forgotten, Bacharach’s suave melodies have crawled into the consciousness in the same seductive way they first did.

”Because of the hipster cocktail-lounge scene, a lot of people are picking up on it for its kitschy appeal,” says Patrick Milligan, executive producer of an upcoming boxed set. ”But then they realize how great the songs are.” The revival may also signal a generational change. Could it be that the accepted canon — Porter, the Gershwins — no longer speaks to boomers, who want their own postwar standards? And could the person at the forefront of the new movement be Burt Bacharach?

Bacharach, 69, won’t say — ”your theory, not mine” — but he will say the revival is ”terrific.” Wearing a white T-shirt and black sweatpants, he has curled up on his couch, and he speaks quietly, with a beatific rasp deepened by years of Jack Daniel’s on the road. ”I know it represents older work. Maybe the newer work isn’t as good. And the truth is, maybe I wrote better then.

”Any time you write a song, you see 15 to 20 years later if it still has a life,” he continues. ”It’s much harder to make songs like that now. The new song from Evita. Pretty good song. Or the Celine Dion song from Up Close & Personal. Great song. That will last. But if you look at what’s been out the last year, like Tony Harvey — is that his name? Tony Rich. Are those songs going to be played in bars? I’m not so sure.”