Feature

Hal David, 1921–2012

The lyricist behind the 20th century’s greatest pop songs

Hal David couldn’t have been more different from his songwriting partner, Burt Bacharach. While Bacharach was a suave jet-setter plucked straight from a 1960s martini ad, the mild and bespectacled David rode the Long Island Rail Road to work. But it was David’s simple and poetic lyrics as much as Bacharach’s intricate melodies that made hits out of songs like “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” “Without even being conscious about it, they balanced each other perfectly,” said music historian Paul Grein.

Harold Lane David was born in New York City, the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants. “He learned to play the violin as a child and later had a band that played for weddings and bar mitzvahs,” said the Los Angeles Times. “But from a young age, David said, he saw himself as a writer, and as a teenager began penning songs.” After serving in the Army in World War II, he went to work at New York’s famous song factory, the Brill Building, where he met Bacharach. They scored their first big hit in 1958 with “Magic Moments,” a million seller for crooner Perry Como.

In 1962 the pair started writing for Dionne Warwick, whom David once called “their magical interpreter.” Her “versatile voice conveyed the emotion of David’s lyrics and easily handled the changing patterns of Bacharach’s melodies,” said the Associated Press. Together the trio crafted a succession of chart smashes, including “Walk On By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Warwick wasn’t the only beneficiary of their talent. The pair handed “What’s New, Pussycat?” to Tom Jones, “The Look of Love” to Dusty Springfield, and “Make It Easy on Yourself” to Jerry Butler. The hit-making team broke up in 1973 after their musical remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 movie Lost Horizon flopped at the box office. “Amid a tangle of lawsuits,” said The Guardian (U.K.), “they did not work together for another 20 years.”

Following the split, David largely retired from songwriting, but he was content with the legacy he created over the course of decades. “The important thing is what one does,” he said, “not one’s name. The songs live, the writer doesn’t. You just hope your songs outlast you.”

Recommended

Russians shell civilian convoy in Ukraine, killing 20
The city of Izyum, Ukraine is seen on Oct. 1.
Speed Reads

Russians shell civilian convoy in Ukraine, killing 20

10 things you need to know today: October 1, 2022
A view of Fort Myers Beach, Florida following Hurricane Ian.
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: October 1, 2022

Brazil's election: A clash of presidents
Lula and Bolsonaro.
Briefing

Brazil's election: A clash of presidents

Russia announces illegal annexation of 4 Ukrainian territories
Vladimir Putin
overstepping boundaries

Russia announces illegal annexation of 4 Ukrainian territories

Most Popular

Will Ukraine be Putin's downfall?
Vladimir Putin.
Opinion

Will Ukraine be Putin's downfall?

Returning the Crown Jewels
Queen Elizabeth.
Briefing

Returning the Crown Jewels

Hochul advances plan to require zero-emission cars by 2035
Kathy Hochul.
bestie in a tessie

Hochul advances plan to require zero-emission cars by 2035