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Guestwords: Memories of Burt Bacharach

Thu, 02/23/2023 - 09:40
Burt Bacharach in rehearsal on Long Island in 1975.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Photo by Bernard Gotfryd

The passing of Burt Bacharach on Feb. 8 frees me to reveal that he was my first love, thinly disguised as Nick Rose in my semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, “Water Baby,” which came out in 2017.

In between his marriages (four), we shared many “Magic Moments” (his first hit with Hal David, recorded by Perry Como). I loved every second.

On the Friday 5 o’clock ferry to Fire Island from Bay Shore, mid-June of 1958, I spotted a big wave coming in from the wake of the Point O’ Woods ferry, turned to escape, but no such luck. Soaked, I hoped nobody noticed, and then looked right into a pair of sparkling eyes, sapphires — the most handsome man I’d ever seen. Thick black hair. Awestruck, I turned away. When I looked back, he was gone.

That night, my girlfriend Steigs and I went to check out Bayview, a dive bar in Ocean Beach. The owner asked, “Catch the singer yet?”

The strains of a breathy, husky, seductive voice: “I like New York in June . . .” We were led to the back room on the bay, where they were four deep around the piano. I peeked through the crowd. Oh God, the sapphires.

“Steigs! That’s him. The guy from the boat.”

“Hunka, hunka.”

He slipped away. I positioned myself right in front. After what felt like the longest break in history, he asked, “Does anyone have a request?”

It was now or never. “Do you know ‘My Funny Valentine’?” He cocked his head and smiled. His throaty voice curled around the lyrics. I wanted to kiss him more than anything in the world. Cupid’s arrow had struck, a direct hit. I was smitten.

The next day in the ocean, there he was at the water’s edge, short plaid trunks, 5-foot-8, athletic body. I watched him dive, a jock. I performed my complete Esther Williams repertoire hoping he’d spot me. Suddenly a perfect rider, I turned to take it. He was watching. We both ducked the wave. He surfaced and swam toward me.

“Hey, baby, want me to sing ‘My Funny Valentine’?” He’d remembered.

“Yes. Can you sing in the sea?”

“Sure. A cappella.” He began — that dusty voice — and I was struck dumb while we treaded water.

“What’s your name?”

“Burt Bacharach. How old are you, baby?”

A second to calculate. “Twenty-two.” A terrible liar, I crossed my fingers. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine.” An older man. “I’ve got this gig on weekends to pick up some extra scratch while I break into recording. I’m a composer. Famous Music Corporation. Brill Building.”

“Do I know any of your songs?”

“ ‘Magic Moments.’ ” I’d heard it on the radio and started to sing. “That’s right, baby.” I loved how he called me that. “You have a good ear.” I was thrilled he could tell. “I’ve just released a new single.”

“What’s it called?”

“ ‘The Night That Heaven Fell.’ Tony Bennett.” My body betrayed me, my fingertips were prunes, I shivered. I’d be his funny valentine forever.

Burt and I played spirited singles on the asphalt church tennis court in Ocean Beach, poison ivy peeking through the cracks. I’d been on the Fieldston varsity. He was competitive. Very. Strong strokes. He beat me.

We shot basketball hoops, too. In 1969 Burt wrote “She Likes Basketball,” sung by Jerry Orbach in “Promises, Promises,” Burt’s first and only musical.

“I didn’t have the size to be an athlete. I couldn’t find a girl I was taller than. Music turned out to be a good social thing in school.” He went to Forest Hills High. “I met girls that way.” He got me.

“Here’s where I live,” a gray brownstone near Park Avenue with spiral stairs to the first floor. It was 1959. “Would you like to come up for a drink?”

Three excruciating flights. My high heels were killing me. Burt unlocked a rear door. His boxer Stewba’s tail wagged to beat the band — named for his ex-wife, Paula Stewart, plus Bacharach. A Steinway piano dominated the living room, which was more like a music studio. A stereo contraption with a turntable, speakers, piles of sheet music, white walls, brown suede couch, rubber plant, and silver-framed photographs of Burt with celebrities.

He sat down at the piano. “How’d you like to hear the new song I’m recording? Here. Next to me.” He patted the left side of the bench. “Turn the pages.”

Ten minutes later, the performance over, he kissed me. “Hey, baby.” He cupped my face. “You have the look of love.”

“Really?” Were my feelings that transparent?

“See for yourself. You can always tell.” He led me to the bathroom mirror. “It’s in your eyes.” Since the day I met him.

It would be eight years later, 1967, before Burt wrote the music to go with those words, “The Look of Love,” recorded by Dusty Springfield for the James Bond spoof “Casino Royale.” But I was first.

Burt loved jazz, he idolized Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. We went to Birdland to hear Monk, the man, and to Basin Street East for Erroll Garner, inspired by their cool complexities.

I sat next to him at the piano, the best seat in the house in 1962 in his new digs — a bigger one-bedroom, way east on 54th near Sutton Place, a doorman, an elevator, but the same old brown suede and corduroy, and Stewba still in residence.

He played “Don’t Make Me Over,” nodding his head to keep time, a song for Dionne Warwick, a just-discovered sessions singer with a brand-new sound, sophisticated pop. I got chills. It was the first in a series of mega-hits. The talented trio of Burt, Hal, and Di-onne, as Burt called her, had arrived.

In 1998 I treated my mother to Burt’s concert with Elvis Costello at Radio City Music Hall. A new album, “Painted From Memory,” the title song haunting. I sent a note and we got backstage passes for after the show, and there he was, laughing.

He gave me a huge hug. It had been a while, 1976, his concert at the Westbury Music Fair with Anthony Newley. We caught up. He was triumphant, with a new collaborator and a comeback. His fourth wife, Jane Hansen, his Aspen ski instructor, was in the wings. He focused warm attention on my mother and made us happy — like his nickname, Happy.

I went to his book signing at Barnes & Noble, 86th and Lexington, for “Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music,” his 2013 autobiography. I joined a throng in the basement auditorium, where there was a piano.

“Hi, baby. Been too long.” He was gray, older, shorter. Jane was by his side. He sang and played “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” A diminished voice, quavering. Second in line to get a copy signed, I looked into the sapphires and out sprang, “I’ve loved you all my life.”

“I love you,” I repeated.

“I love you,” whispered a most private man in front of 500 strangers, albeit fans. Burt scrawled his name.

It was the last time I saw him. His music will last forever. “Heavenly,” just like his song for Johnny Mathis.

Susan Israelson lives in East Hampton and Palm Beach, Fla.

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