Sunday, September 09, 2012

HAL DAVID, the Conversational Lyricist


Lyricists. They tend to look ordinary, talk ordinary, and sing ordinary. So in death, as in life, they get little attention. Anybody know what Hal David looked like before the obits arrived? Anyone write him a fan letter and ask for an autograph? Maybe it was just as well. Being able to walk around without being recognized allowed Hal David to observe ordinary people…and write extraordinary "ordinary" lyrics.

Most of Hal David's work simply captured the emotions of every day people. His genius was in giving singers very conversational words to work with. There's not much symbolism, metaphor or other wordplay in the man's lyrics…it's just straightforward feelings expressed almost as simply as what you'd find on a greeting card.

"What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love." Very simple message. How about a song that opens with intimacy and not pretense, asking a question: "What's it all about, Alfie?" Or "Do you know the way to San Jose?" What's simpler than: "The look of love is in your eyes," or ""This guy's in love with you," or wanting to get "Close to you"?

Though these songs seemed simple, there was always something special about them, enough to make people keep on listening and cherishing them. There was "always something there to remind" you that what he wrote about involved basic truths.

Hal David made it seem so easy. That's one reason he became a millionaire, but wasn't exactly respected by the rock world. It didn't help his cache with the hip, that The Carpenters, Herb Alpert and Dionne Warwick were among the middle-of-the-roaders having hits with his material. But Hal David was so good, so natural, that you may have figured B.J. Thomas himself wrote that laconic classic, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," the white man's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay."

Here's the start of a song, which instantly has the listener picturing a credible human, and not a superstar diva: "The moment I wake up, before I put on my make-up, I say a little prayer for you…" Hal wrote easily from the female point of view, from "Wishin' and Hopin'" to what became a feminist anthem, "Don't Make Me Over."

Dark songs such as the latter were kind of rare for Hal David, especially since Burt Bacharach's music was usually romantic and bouncy, but the team did come up with a few dramatic numbers. "Anyone Who Had a Heart" is one of them, and another is "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," which got the attention of punk and new wave fans when it was covered by Elvis Costello on the "Stiffs Live" tour.

[The Photoshop pun-line about shelving refers to the fact that CDs and Records are now obsolete. So WTF will the brats of the future collect? Nothing. Even external hard drives will be obsolete, replaced by "clouds." Total ephemera for a planet not long for this world anyway...ready to be destroyed by a mushroom cloud or global warming. Maybe you noticed that in "future" movies, or Billy Joel's "Pressure" video, a person's room is barren of everything but a giant screen? Yes, that's why there won't be shelving very long. First off, Ikea's stuff doesn't last and ain't worth buying. Second, all anyone needs is a computer and a flat screen TV covering the whole wall.] Now back to the obit...

For a download of songs Hal wrote before he teamed with Burt, submitted for your approval, an invite to Lee Hartsfeld blog:

Burt and Hal teamed circa 1962, another Brill Building pair churning out song after song and hoping somebody, anybody would put it on wax. Perry Como was one of the first to chart for them via "Magic Moment." Then came the Warwick hits, and additionally, the call to Hollywood for film soundtracks and theme songs.

They came to Broadway with "Promises, Promises," which ironically was low on hits…to the point where the recent revival with Kristin Chenoweth, which I saw, imported "I Say A Little Prayer" to bolster it. The crowd roared with delight over the opening notes. They cheered equally for "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," another gentle, vanilla-tinged examination of love-sad emotions.

To get vanilla, you gotta grind up a lotta beans, and Hal David put in some grinding hours to get what he wanted. "What the World Needs Now" seems like it could've been written after a cheeseburger and a Valium, but, no. It took two years before he had something to show Bacharach: ""I was stuck. I kept thinking of lines like, 'Lord, we don't need planes that fly higher or faster ...' and they all seemed wrong. Why, I didn't know. But the idea stayed with me.Then, one day, I thought of, 'Lord, we don't need another mountain,' and all at once I knew how the lyric should be written. Things like planes and trains and cars are manmade, and things like mountains and rivers and valleys are created by someone or something we call God. There was now a oneness of idea and language instead of a conflict. It had taken me two years to put my finger on it."

To "try to say things as simply as possible, " David remarked, "is probably the most difficult thing to do."

The team broke up over the long, tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make a musical out of "Lost Horizon." Both men worked with other partners (Elvis Costello put words to an entire album of Burt's music) but for both guys, the golden era of their best work was the 60's. Hal David (looking quite healthy in June 2011, as you see in the Costello photoshop job) suffered a major stroke in March of 2012. His death several weeks ago came from complications from another stroke. President Obama eulogized:

""Above all, they stayed true to themselves," Obama said. "And with an unmistakable authenticity, they captured the emotions of our daily lives — the good times, the bad times, and everything in between.

I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself... Except to download Costello's version from the "Stiffs Live" tour


Lee Hartsfeld said...

Excellent. Very nicely written. Thank you!

Rich said...

Are you talking about Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me"? If so, that's not by Hal David; it's by David White and John Madara.

Ill Folks said...

Thanks, Rich...I made the change. I was thinking of "Don't Make me Over," but got a mental double-exposure with "You Don't Own Me." Might be time for Gingko Biloba.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ill Folks,

I chanced into your blog today while looking for a Kukla Fran and Ollie episode (that I didn't find). I hope to put together a video about them, and I remember a lovely moment in their show when Kukla (Burr) sang the song "If" to Fran. It was 1950 or 51, just before I went into the Air Force, never to see their show again.

I'm aware that there are two recent DVDs available, but I can't find a description of their contents, so I don't know if it's on either of them. I'd certainly buy it if it is, and I hoped you might be able to tell me. Actually it's mainly the audio I'm interested in, I'm not sure if I could work in an image.

Maybe "If" isn't on the new DVDs, but on the other hand, it may be somewhere. Can you help me find it?

Bob Arr

Ill Folks said...

Hi Bob,

The official website for the Kukla Fran & Ollie DVDs shows the titles or dates of the episodes...but not any songs that might be on them:

You can probably reach the producer, Mark Milano via a link on the site, or writing to the site's webmaster.

"IF" doesn't seem to have been recorded by KF&O when they were on Decca or RCA.

Robert Pingel said...

It's ironic that Kukla, Fran & Ollie should show up in comments about the passing of Hall of Fame songwriter Hal David. He wrote at least 100 songs that were recorded prior to ever meeting Burt Bacharach. Perhaps your readers will find it interesting that Hal and Sid Lippman wrote a children's song recorded by Fran Allison in 1950 titled "Rickety Rockety." (RCA 20-3887)

Ill Folks said...

Thanks, Robert!

Some comment-leavers rightly figure that a blogger is only going to notice the latest remarks left on the latest postings. Blogger's fixed this, but it's up to the blogger to go to the dashboard and see all the updates.

Anyway.."Rickety Rockety" has turned up as a bonus track on the "Kukla Fran & Ollie" CD that features the flip side "Punky Punkin" as well as "At The Fair" and "The Wishing Well" and other RCA tracks.

Glad there was enough demand for someone to do a re-issue and add obscure tracks from the original masters.

Anonymous said...

As usual, you fashion a thorough and insightful tribute. I appreciate the arrangements of David/Bacharach more now than when they came out. How lucky to be the singers associated with their music! It's great to be old(er).

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