By Stephen Smith
Burt Bacharach recalls making Cilla Black do 31 takes of Alfie
The lore of Tin Pan Alley has it that legendary song-writer Burt Bacharach reduced a young Cilla Black to tears in the sanctified studios of Abbey Road.
He was insisting on take after take in the sessions which eventually yielded Cilla's classic version of Alfie.
It's also said that the title of one of the hits he penned for Dionne Warwick, Don't Make Me Over, was lifted word for word from her bitter reproach after he gave another singer a tune she thought was rightfully hers.
They say you should never meet your heroes because they'll only disappoint you. What nobody warns you against is the danger that you'll disappoint them. All in all, it was with some trepidation that your correspondent awaited the ruthless tunesmith on the terrace of a luxurious hotel suite.
Barely an hour overdue, a blink of an eye by the standards of showbiz royalty, the whip-thin figure of Bacharach emerged onto the patio in a pristine tracksuit - he finesses sportswear as if it were Armani - and I discovered that my apprehensions had been right. Or at least half-right.
Bacharach ("Call me Burt") is geniality itself in person, happy to chat about soccer and generous about a new generation of performers who idolise him and crave his approval.
But the veteran composer did own up to tormenting the nation's Scouse sweetheart. "I think I made Cilla do 31 takes," he recalled matter-of-factly. "We had Sir George Martin sitting in the booth and I think we wound up with take number one... I was just looking for 100%. From everybody, the orchestra and Cilla... All that mattered was the record came out the way I wanted it to come out."
Bacharach is comfortable with the label of "perfectionist", though this scarcely does justice to his steely micro-management, and it's clear that shelves groaning with Oscars and Emmys have come at considerable cost.
His muse has been a minx.
"It's like this jukebox in my head at night. It's taken me a while to accept it, that this is the price you pay. I remember working on Alfie and trying to finish it. I went to see a play. And I'm watching this play, but I'm still working on Alfie, so I'm not watching the play. So I lose on both. I don't enjoy the play and I don't finish what I'm working on with Alfie.
"The fastest song I ever wrote was I'll Never Fall In Love Again because we were out on the road on a Broadway show called Promises Promises and it had to go in the show as quickly as possible. I'd been in a hospital for five days with pneumonia. And that's where that line came from - 'What do you do when you kiss a girl - get enough germs to catch pneumonia - after you do - she'll never phone you.' Wrote that in one afternoon flat."
Charts come first
But coughs and sneezes, and even distracted evenings in the stalls, have been the least of it. Bacharach, now 78, has had more marriages than most stars his age have had plastic surgery. Even now, those charts come first. "It can lead to pretty self-centred behaviour. I don't get up in the morning with the kids. I should."
His new album, released at the end of next month, sees Bacharach reunited with sometime co-worker Elvis Costello, for an uncharacteristically "political" song entitled Who Are These People? It reflects a disillusion with world leaders.
Bacharach says he's not afraid of a possible backlash against him in the United States - "I'm not afraid of anything" - and is excited that the CD sees him in the unlikely company of Dr Dre, Eminem's producer and purveyor of beats to the quality.
"With me, it's a whole sponge-like absorption of all these influences and a chance to express them," he explains.
End on a song?
Finally, just how tough is he - as tough as James Brown, perhaps, who famously fines his musicians if they play bum notes?
"You know what, I had a great message on my Ansaphone from James Brown! It was shortly after Elvis and I had been presented at the Grammy presentation, at New York, Madison Square Garden. James Brown called me up and said 'Burt, we got to work, we gotta do something, we gotta make a record. And just remember this - don't make me over!' I wish I still had that message."
At This Time by Burt Bacharach is released in October.
Stephen Smith's interview with Burt Bacharach will be shown on Newsnight on Thursday, 8 September at 10.30pm.