Released in 1965, ‘Hit Maker!’ found Burt Bacharach performing, alongside a crack team of session players, on a collection of the hits he had written for other musicians over the previous decade. Nearly sixty years later, in February 2023, Bacharach passed away aged 94 having become one of the most prolific hit single writers of all time. That he was able to release a “hits” collection nearly sixty years ago was perhaps foreshadowing for the six Grammys he would earn, alongside the 73 US and 52 UK Top 40 hits he would pen. Thus we take a look back to those early hits, and Bacharach’s own interpretation of them, as we take a closer look at ‘Hit Maker!’ in all its glory.
Recorded in London at the famed Pye Recording Studio, Bacharach worked with a collection of highly respected session players to flesh out his musical compositions. Among these hired hands were John Paul Jones on bass and Jimmy Page on guitar, both of whom would reappear three years later in very different form as members of Led Zeppelin. Also on guitar was Big Jim Sulliven, who had given Page his first big gigs, and the Breakaways performing uncredited vocals. The result was a team who could perform with precision and feeling, taking Bacharach’s compositions and weaving a richness to them that at times was lacking in the original artist recordings due to the speed that Pop hits were produced.
The classically trained, Jazz-aficionado Bacharach had gotten his own break back in the mid-1950s when he had been contracted as arranger and conductor for Malene Dietrich, with whom he toured through the ’50s into the early ‘60s. During that time he met lyricist Hal David in the famed Brill building, a hit-factory filled to the gunnels with talent including Neil Diamond and Carole King. Bacharach and David would soon become a songwriting powerhouse, though for a time Bacharach continued to write with Bob Hilliard. That would change when Bacharach met singer Dionne Warwick in 1961 and, along with David, the trio would go on to dominate the charts in the US and internationally for a decade.
Those early Warwick hits dominate ‘Hit Maker!’ with Warwick having performed well over half the dozen tracks present. Opener ‘Don’t Make Me Over’ was the lead single of Warwick’s own debut and it serves as a fitting beginning to Bacharach’s own first release as a performer. Bolder than the Warwick cut, on Bacharach’s version grand strings act as introduction before horns take over the lead melody. From there, we’re led into ‘Walk On By’, a hit for Warwick just one year earlier. Featuring a surprisingly groovy outro, the Bacharach version dispenses with frills and focuses just on the chorus refrain allowing the horns and strings to provide melodic depth while piano provides added texture. A showcase in the elements of great songwriting, Bacharach creates space suggestive of simplicity by separating out the complexities by use of varied instrumentation. That the song has gone on to become a modern standard, covered by diverse artists such as Isaac Hayes, Gloria Gaynor, Gabrielle, and The Stranglers, is evidence of Bacharach's (and David’s) songwriting prowess.
Lush with strings and rippling brass, Bacharach translates the Gene Pitney hit ‘Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa’ into an expansive performance that doesn’t shirk on details like the subtle electric guitar stabs that add extra dimension to the piece. One of the few hits here not originally recorded by another artist prior to release, ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ was released as a single by Bacharach after Pitney turned the song down. Bacharach’s version reached number four in the UK singles charts and a year later Warwick recorded a version that charted in the US.
Every track on ‘Hit Maker!’ has subsequently been recorded time and again, with several being covered by Stan Getz on an album worth of Bacharach and David hits, a noted triumph for the Jazz loving Bacharach. While Bacharach and David have been rightly lauded as supreme songwriters, what ‘Hit Maker!’ showcases, so strongly, is Bacharach’s tremendous skill as an arranger. From his early years touring with Marlene Dietrich through to his more recent work with Elvis Costello, who he was again working with in the months prior to his death, Bacharach was sought out for his ability to carefully craft rich works that accentuate melody without compromising dynamism, nuance or depth. A little over ten years into what would blossom into an unparalleled career, Bacharach demonstrated his skill by reinterpreting his own song; packaging broadly instrumental tunes into a collection as emotively fulfilling and catchy as the vocal heavy Pop tunes they were originally penned as. ‘Hit Maker!’ is that rarest of Greatest Hits collections; an early career snapshot that foreshadowed the greatness that was to come.