220: Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

Posted by jeff on Aug 7, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week
Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording 'Alfie'

Cilla Black, Burt Bacharach recording ‘Alfie’

Cilla Black – ‘Alfie’

Starting in the eighth grade, peaking in my sophomore year in college, and schlepping into dodderdom, the eternal question: “How can you judge music? How can you say one song is better than another?”

I’ll tell you how. Listen to Cilla Black’s ‘Alfie’ Listen to a thousand other ladies singing it. Listen to 10,000 other pop hits from the same era. You’ll cease asking the question. It’s engraved in the sky. This is fine, fine music.

The story is as long and twisted as a bolt of Mexican spaghetti after a weekend in the Ankara bus station.

In 1966, Michael Caine was already a star (“The Ipcress File”), a new breed of sex symbol –bespectacled. My mother said I resembled him; but, alas, she was the only female to see that. He was cast as a serial womanizer in a British comedy-drama which presaged the current plague of Generation Y’ers: urban, disengaged, self-serving, sharp and witty, acutely cute.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

The producers wanted a song as a tie-in to the movie. They convinced Brill Building masters Burt Bacharach and Hal David to try their hand at it, despite the pedestrian name (“Alfie’s a dog’s name.”) For a change, Hal wrote the lyrics first, working from a line in the script: “What’s it all about?” Here’s Burt describing the process and singing it (“my favorite song of ours.”)

B&D wanted their default chanteuse, Dionne Warwick, to sing the song, but the producers wanted a Britte, so when Sandy Shaw turned it down they turned to Liverpudlian Cilla Black, stablemate and childhood friend of Les Beatles under Brian Epstein’s management.

In SoTW 034 I expounded and expanded about Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Dionne Warwick, and their masterpiece ‘Walk On By’.

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, 'Alfie' sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Burt Bacharach & orchestra, ‘Alfie’ sessions at Abbey Road Studio One, 1965

Cilla had already had a Bacharach/David hit in the UK, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, a pale imitation of the stunning original Bacharach arrangement for Dionne. She was hesitant, insisting that Bacharach come to England to conduct and play piano, trying to quash the deal. He agreed, and a legendary session of 31 takes with a 48-piece orchestra took place in Studio One at Abbey Road under the direction of Bacharach and George Martin. This clip tells the fascinating story, and is well worth watching.

The single was released in January 1966, eight months prior to the opening of the film, essentially intended to promote interest in the upcoming film. It went nowhere in the US, but became a Top Ten hit in the UK.

The director objected to the B&D song being used in the film, feeling it would interfere with the Sonny Rollins jazz score. A compromise was reached in which the song would appear over the closing credits. But!—

Cher singing 'Alfie' on The Smothers Brothers Show

Cher singing ‘Alfie’ on The Smothers Brothers Show

The Suits decided to commission a new version–by young hottie Cher (here in a memorable shocking yellow mini-dress on The Smothers Brothers’ TV show), produced by hubby Sonny (Bono, not Rollins; and not that Bono, but the mayor of Palm Springs—oh, forget it!) which was released as a single in June, and made it up to #32.  Bacharach said laconically that Cher’s version was “different than how I had envisioned it.”

To coplimcate the matter even further—there were at least eight other versions recorded by the time of the movie’s release (August, 1966). I won’t even go into which version was included on which version of the movie soundtrack record.

But little Alfie (the shaggy dog—see the final scene from the movie) keeps going. B&D recorded Dionne singing the song as an afterthought at the end of a session in 1967, hitting #15.

Despite its messy release history, ‘Alfie’ has become one of the most iconic pop hits of the past half century, a song that can stand proudly with the best of the Great American Songbook. It’s been covered by everyone and the kitchen sink, including Stevie Wonder’s knockout harmonica hit version from 1968 (here live with Burt), a lovely version by Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston.

Paul and Cilla

Paul and Cilla

Somewhat more in my comfort zone, it gives us a rare chance to compare versions by my two favorite pianists: Bill Evans (here from an incredible film of a home performance in Finland, 1969 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell, including a chat on the creative process) and Brad Mehldau (here from an outstanding 2003 bootleg, Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier).

Cilla Black died this week. Her small reputation in the US was as a cohort of The Beatles et al in the early days of The Cavern. There’s a quite charming, unpretentious British mini-series bio-pic “Cilla” from 2014 documenting those days quite realistically, recommended for fans of the era. But in the UK, she had 11 Top Ten hits from 1964-1971, including three written for her by Lennon and McCartney (‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Step Inside Love’, and ‘It’s For You’, three very evocative clips).

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick

From the late 1960s, Cilla began a long career as a hostess of a variety of television shows, making her a major household face and name in the UK.

I’ve watched this clip about her recording ‘Alfie’ with Burt Bacharach and George Martin several times, enjoyed every time. (Here are Burt and Cilla, some years on, reminiscing about the session.) Treat yourselves. I don’t think you or anyone on this earth will disagree—‘Alfie’ is one heck of a good song.


What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?

And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel;
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.



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034: Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’ (Burt Bacharach)

Posted by jeff on Apr 15, 2010 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

If the choice of our Song of The Week seems a bit obvious, pedestrian, or overdone, don’t blame me. I didn’t choose it – it chose itself.

First of all, I had occasion to touch on it with a 30-year old soprano, M.H. “Oh, I know that song,” she said. “Gabrielle sings it.”
Well, folks, I listened to Gabrielle’s version of it. At first, I thought my stereo system was having a panic attack. Then I thought perhaps it was being invaded by alien lizards. Then I thought the Merry Pranksters had spiked my decaf tea. But no, it was just this new century creeping up on me. Gabrielle wears a sequined eye patch; the father of her son murdered his stepfather with a machete; and for a living she electronically samples songs like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” beyond recognition.

I gave M.H. the original version of “Walk On By“. M.H. heard it and said, “Wow, Jeff, that’s so much better than Gabrielle’s version. Who sings it?”

That was the self-same day that another reader of SoTW, one David Axelrod (whom I don’t know personally, but I understand has some real fiery issues himself), referred to “the slightly crazy pedantic tone of the writer.” Crazy I knew, but pedantic? But, yes, I admit to a certain pedantic compulsion to explain to 30-year old sopranos why they might do better listening to Dionne than Gabrielle. So this week’s song is for you, M.H. And pedestrian though the choice may be, the song certainly isn’t.

“Walk On By” was originally sung of course by Dionne Warwick, lyrics by Hal David, music and arrangement by Burt Bacharach. It was born in December, 1963, 7 years before Gabrielle, 16 years before M.H.
It’s listed as #70 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.It’s been covered hundreds of times, by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Vanilla Fudge. Here’s a YouTube playlist of 57 varieties of the song! But as M.H. knows, none of them can touch the original.

Burt Bacharach: “‘Walk On By’ was the first time that I tried putting two grand pianos on a record in the studio. I can’t remember if I played and Artie Butler played or if Paul Griffin and Artie Butler played but here were two grand pianos going on. I knew the song had something. It was a great date. I walked out of that studio and we had done two tunes in a three-hour session, ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart.’ I felt very good leaving knowing that I had two monster hits on my hands. You never know for sure but you feel a great satisfaction.”

For the sharpies out there, quick, what’s the one Bacharach-David song The Beatles recorded? C’mon, quick!

The song itself talks about the public face of private heartbreak. The dark, incisive production employs a mixture of disparate elements, if we really need to dissect it. There’s an R&B chicken-scratch guitar riff giving a funky edginess throughout; a rich, intelligent piano base; flavors of vibraphone, woodblocks and Bacharach’s signature flugelhorn; MOR strings and vocal harmony filler; at the end of the verse, gospel-inspired backing singers (‘Don’t! Stop!’) over the rhythmically sprung piano roll. And that vocal, that vocal.

Burt Bacharach (b. 1928) and Hal David (b. 1921) were among the many Jewish kids churning out hits in the Brill Building in the late 50s (with Lieber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Goffin & King, Barry & Greenwich, Mann & Weil–the last three being married couples).

Prior to “Walk On By” (April, 1964), the Bacharach/David had already put almost 30 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, including ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, ‘Only Love Can Break a Heart’, ’24 Hours from Tulsa’ (Gene Pitney), ‘Any Day Now’ (Chuck Jackson), ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ (Dionne Warwick), ‘Blue On Blue’ (Bobby Vinton), and ‘Baby, It’s You’ (The Shirelles—bingo!).

Subsequent classics of Bacharach include ‘Close To You’ (the Carpenters), ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ (B.J. Thomas) and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (Aretha Franklin), ‘The Look of Love’ (Dusty Springfield), ‘Alfie’ (Cilla Black), ‘What the World Needs Now’ (Jackie DeShannon) and ‘Arthur’s Theme’ (Christopher Cross). According to one account, Bacharach has had 66 Top Forty hits.

Tall, elegant, stately Dionne Warwick (b. 1940) was doing backup vocals in NYC while still in high school, and then during her conservatory studies at Hartt College of Music (where she earned her doctorate in 1973).

While singing background on Bacharach’s production of The Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce”, she caught his eye. In this clip he waxes nostalgic about their meeting, his appreciation of her talent, his feelings for her and their relationship, and sings a medley with her beginning with ‘Walk On By’.

Over the next 20 years, Warwick charted 38 singles co-written or produced by Bacharach, including 22 Top-40, 12 Top-20, and nine Top-10 hits on the American Billboard Hot 100 charts. Some of my favorite Bacharach/Warwick collaborations (beyond of course the great early triad of ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘Walk On By’) are ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’, ‘Promises, Promises’, ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’, and the original ‘I Say a Little Prayer’. They all carry the stamp of a real partnership, music and lyrics and arrangement and vocals. Bacharach stated, “She has a tremendous strong side and a delicacy when singing softly—like miniature ships in bottles.” Musically, she was “no play-safe girl. What emotion I could get away with!”

In itself, that’s a very impressive body of auteur pop – complex rhythmically and harmonically, inventive in the sound palette, highly charged emotionally, witty and urbane. Many historians of the field consider Bacharach to be virtually the only legitimate post-rock-and-roll member of the Great American Songbook pantheon, that which stretches from Tin Pan Alley through the Broadway and Hollywood musicals, 1920-1960. Bacharach and David have a lot in common with Arlen, Bernstein, Berlin, Dietz, the Gershwins, Hammerstein, Hart, Kern, Loesser, Rodgers, Schwartz, and Styne. They all wrote wonderful, memorable songs that continue today to transcend the very common denominator of the pop medium.

They’re also all Jewish men writing stellar songs best rendered by black women. That’s a subject that I’d love to delve into, but I assume that my lack of sensitivity to what is politically acceptable today (a consequence of my expatriatism) would cause such faux pas that I’d be dragged in front of HUAC for a public flogging.

Explaining what he tries to put into his songwriting, Bacharach said, “So it’s not, you listen four or five times and you love it, and then you say, ‘OK, enough with that.’ If I get tired of it quicker than I should, I have to rethink it.” How many times have I heard the song? I couldn’t count. Many hundreds, probably. Maybe thousands. Well, good job, Burt. And, yes, M.H., there is a Dionne Warwick.

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by

Make believe
that you don’t see the tears
Just let me grieve
in private ’cause each time I see you
I break down and cry
And walk on by (don’t stop)
And walk on by (don’t stop)
And walk on by

I just can’t get over losing you
And so if I seem broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by

Foolish pride
Is all that I have left
So let me hide
The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Walk on by
and walk on by
and walk by (don’t stop)

Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride
Is all that I have left
So let me hide
The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Walk on by (don’t stop)
and walk on by (don’t stop)
and walk by (don’t stop)


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’

062: Martha and The Vandellas, ‘Heat Wave’

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)



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