There are album releases…and then there are musical events. As 2003 draws to a close, it seems fitting that we should focus on one of the undeniable ‘events’ of the year: the exquisite coupling – however unlikely on paper – of one of soul music’s premier vocalists, Ronald Isley and Burt Bacharach, the incomparable composer, producer and arranger. Entitled, “Here I Am,” the Dreamworks album has been the subject of rave reviews and critical acclaim: the pair have done some special performances together and having attended one such event at The Wilshire in Los Angeles, I can testify that this team creates true musical magic both in and out of the recording studios.
There are some who would say that the original versions of the classic Bacharach-David compositions that comprise most of “Here I Am” – mostly recorded by the legendary Dionne Warwick – can never be equaled and having grown up on those amazing ‘60s recordings, I must confess that I did have some trepidation regarding any ‘new’ treatment of the material. Thanks to the innovative arrangements that Burt crafted to match Ron’s distinctive, velvet smooth vocals, songs like “The Look Of Love,” “Alfie,” the ever-brilliant “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “A House Is Not A Home” sound captivatingly fresh. Even tried-and-true contemporary pop standards like “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” “This Guy’s In Love With You” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” are rejuvenated via Ron’s heartfelt vocal workouts.
Perhaps of even more interest, some of the true hidden gems in the Bacharach-David songbook are given new life: ”Here I Am,” originally used in the movie “What’s New Pussycat” and the title track of a 1965 Warwick album, “In Between The Heartaches” (one of the key cuts on that LP) and the more timely than ever, “Windows Of The World,” the anti-war song which Dionne herself considers her all-time favorite recording of her own ‘60s recordings, are certainly major highlights of the Isley-Bacharach project.
While time-honored tunes make up the bulk of the album – which was produced, arranged and conducted by Burt, there are two fine new compositions which are noteworthy, “Love’s (Still) The Answer” (co-produced by Ted Perlman) and “Count On Me,” strong songs with positive lyrics (penned by Tonio K) that add another flavor to a record that I personally consider one of the top three CDs of 2003.
To mark the occasion of the album’s release in November, we spoke with a few folks associated with the project including Ron, Burt, Ted Perlman, singer Josie James (who tours with Burt and was on the albums) and two of the musicians who were on hand for the sessions as well as the Los Angeles showcase. First off, Ronald Isley, who explained how the whole idea for the project came about: “I was talked with (A&R executive) John McClain and Mo Ostin at Dreamworks about doing an album of classics and I named a couple of songs I had in mind – which happened to be Burt Bacharach-Hal David tunes,” he notes. “I mentioned that it would be a dream come true if I could get Burt or Thom Bell to produce an album on me. Next thing, I knew John had set up a meeting for me with Burt who has always been my favorite songwriter!”
Bacharach himself was of course familiar with Ron going back to the days in the early ‘60s at Scepter Records when he was working with Dionne and Ron and his brothers were signed to the famed New York company sister label, Wand Records. Says Burt, “I was excited but not as excited as I would get once I heard him sing at my house the first time we got together.” Ron recalls that he suggested certain songs – like “Alfie,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “Here I Am” – and Burt’s initial response was “he didn’t hear me doing them,” says Ron. “He was like ‘what could you do with “Close To You”?’ I sang a few bars of some of them and he got it: I showed him how I wanted to do “Close To You” and that’s when the juices started flowing!”
The two worked together in choosing what would go on the album: “We chose the songs together,” Burt confirms. “Ronny remembered two songs that I had long forgotten about that he wanted to do – “In Between The Heartaches” and “Here I Am.” I was glad he remembered “Here I Am” because it is one of the better songs that Hal and I wrote.” For Ron, the opportunity to do so many of the songs he’d heard when they were first recorded was very special: “I’ve always been close with Dionne and I dated her for a while so I was at some of those early sessions for songs like “A House Is Not A Home” and I knew songs like “In Between The Heartaches” when they were first recorded. I felt that I should have been the one recording songs like “Reach Out For Me”!”
There’s a great story that Ron recounts about one song in particular: “Well, the Isley Brothers were signed to Wand and we were working with the staff producer and one of the main songwriters, Luther Dixon. He had heard what was I guess Dionne’s demo of the song “Make It Easy On Yourself” and he wanted to change some of the words. Well, Burt was there at Scepter and he walked into the studio and next thing I knew, Burt and Luther were arguing back and forth. Burt walked out and told Luther NOT to do the song! After all of this, we didn’t have much studio time left and in the few minutes we had, we did “Twist And Shout”! And we all know what happened to that song!” Ron laughs. Indeed, that track went on to become a massive hit for the Isleys but until this year, Ron never did get to sing “Make It Easy On Yourself” and once he did, he truly put his unique vocal stamp on the song…
The time came for the recording sessions which were held at the famous Capitol Records studios in Hollywood where singers like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra once held court. With a full orchestra, rhythm and horn sections and background vocalists all on hand and Burt conducting (invariably from the piano), Ron recorded live. “I did that maybe once before when the Isley were at RCA. It was different this time because I actually had someone in the booth filming me…” Before an invited audience that included actor Denzel Washington, Ron and Burt began by cutting “Alfie” and Burt notes, “The sessions were very thrilling and exciting because everything was live. I didn’t just want to recreate the same arrangements I had done. I wanted to try and fit what I heard coming from Ronny and try to make the arrangements as soulful as I could. Remember, many of these songs were created in an R&B context – at least my concept for R&B. Ronny is one of the greatest soul singers that we’ve ever known so I had to really tailor the orchestrations to that voice.”
There was no doubt that Burt did indeed do just that. Says Ron, “With a song like “The Look Of Love, he felt like he had to do something different so he came up with that Brazilian feel. And basically, how we worked was that we would run the song down one time with the orchestra and then record and that really was a new way of recording for me. The ‘show-off’ in me loved me. I remember when I heard the intro for “Alfie” and it was so beautiful. Burt let me sing what I felt, let me sound the way I wanted to sound. I knew it was magic – the same kind of magic I felt when I had recorded some of our Isley songs like “Hello It’s Me” and “For The Love Of You.” We cut the first five songs and when we finished each song, everyone in the studio was screaming and clapping, all the string players were standing up! The whole day went like that. I was so comfortable and everything worked so well. And Burt really is a musical genius: he can hear a fly, he can hear just one mistake on an instrument. It was like being in school with the greatest teacher. I guess I wanted his approval, forty years after that “Make It Easy On Yourself” session…I wanted him to recognize me for what I could do…”
For the musicians on hand, the experience was equally amazing. Mario de Leon, one of the string players (whose credits include sessions with any number of major artists including the likes of Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston) remembers, “I knew of Ronald Isley from some of the Isleys records but I didn’t know what to expect. He was very subtle vocally and his approach was very sensitive. Certainly having him sing live with the orchestra provided more inspiration. Working with Burt Bacharach? Well, he knows what he wants and you try to accommodate that. He has a very detailed approach in how he works and he takes a lot of care with the arrangements. We would run everything through first and then Ron sang and everything was done in a few takes. Burt would make some changes in the studio – like with the ending of “Here I Am” – for all of us, it was like feeding off the incredible energy that was going on during the sessions.”
One of the instruments that has figured prominently in many of Bacharach’s productions going back to his Dionne Warwick sessions is the French horn and Philip Yao, who has been recording since 1990 “mostly on soundtracks” says “Burt’s very energetic and involved in the music when he’s recording. He’s clear about what he wants done and that makes him very different from a lot of songwriters. You don’t hear a lot of counter melodies in his arrangements and that’s one of his musical ‘signatures’ and sometimes the arrangements are sparse which makes the notes count even more.” Philip adds, “It’s always amazing when you are in a room with a great singer and when you hear certain artists you realize why they are where they are [in the industry]. You can sense it right away.”
Ron says that there were some special moments for him during the sessions: “My voice was very clear on “In Between The Heartaches”…and the most difficult tune was probably “Anyone Who Had A Heart” because you have to stay with that melody – there’s not a lot of room to do anything else but we worked it out. And yes, it was my idea to do “Windows Of The World” - on which Burt sings the first few lines. The two original songs, “Count On Me” and “Love’s (Still) The Answer” were not written for me but when Burt played them for me, I wanted to do them.”
Producer and songwriter Ted Perlman, who has worked with Burt for a number of years, says the basic arrangements for both songs were done at his Los Angeles studio, in back of the home he shares with wife famed songstress Peggi Blu. “We do the same kind of work with quite a few people – Burt, Neil Sedaka, Bob Dylan – where people will come in and lay down a track so they can see where they want to go with a song or an arrangement. I’ve been working with Burt since about 1992 and it’s like going to school and working at the same time. The way he approaches his music and watching how the songs evolve is amazing. He has this mix of New York R&B and classical music – the epitome of cool!” Burt ended up using the original basic track he had done with Ted for “Love’s (Still) The Answer” and Ted adds, “ I was thrilled when I heard Ron’s vocals. I can still remember those years in the ‘70s when I was in Stephanie Mills’ band and we used to open for the Isley Brothers - he could always sing anything he wanted – he’s still one of the best singers we’ve got…” Ted – who has just completed a smooth jazz album with Peggi and singer Terri Bradford - adds that since doing the song for the Isley/Bacharach project, he’s worked again with Burt at his studio:“The rapper Dr. Dre sent him some beats and Burt’s been working on them! You should hear them - these heavy beats with Bacharach harmonies and chords!"
One of the other participants on the remarkable sessions for “Here I Am” was singer Josie James, known for her work with such notables as Stevie Wonder and George Duke, a recording artist in her own right and a lady who has also been working with Bacharach for a few years. “I first started with Burt when he was doing the album he did with Elvis Costello. They wanted to do a promotional tour and the rumor is that Elvis – who knew my work with Stevie and George and had my album “Candles” – recommended me to Burt. We did the “Painted From Memory” tour and then Burt asked me to continue doing live shows with him. We usually do a lot of medleys of his classic songs and I do the vocals on “Anyone Who Had A Heart” which always gets a tremendous response from the audiences. When it came time to do the album with Ron, Burt had it in his head how we do the song in his shows. In the studio, I was singing live with Ron in different parts of the tune and that’s me singing the high note at the end of the song. It’s a very dramatic song and the version I do with Burt in concert is a long way from the way Dionne did it – and Ron, well, he took the song into outer space!” Josie, who was also featured on the live shows Ron and Burt did in New York and Los Angeles as well as a Chicago show that was taped for a PBS-TV 2004 airing, says she has been so inspired by the response to her work with Burt that she is planning a new album herself “that will likely be an adult contemporary, pop kind of record – maybe with some Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs in there too…”
For now, music buyers have Ron Isley’s interpretations of the wonderful enduring music Burt Bacharach wrote with lyricist Hal David in the ‘60s and early ’70s and Ron sums up the entire experience: “It was like I was in heaven. I felt like Marvin Gaye must have felt when he did “What’s Going On” and Michael Jackson when he did “Thriller.” I’ve gotten some of the greatest write-ups I’ve ever had in my entire career and this is where the fun begins – doing live shows together, standing in front of an orchestra and letting people hear the kind of music I’ve always wanted them to hear from me. And yes, there will be a Volume Two!”
With plans for a possible U.K. joint tour in the spring and some other dates due, Ron Isley and Burt Bacharach have begun new chapters in their respective illustrious careers. As someone who was first ‘introduced’ to the soul music I’ve loved all my life through those immortal records Burt and Hal David made with Dionne, I can only say how thrilling it is to hear some of my personal favorite songs – “Here I Am” and “In Between The Heartaches” in particular – given such a passion-filled workout by one of the greatest ‘voices’ in contemporary music, against a backdrop of truly beautiful arrangements by a peerless musical genius. Thanks, Ron and Burt, for giving me one of the best albums I’ve heard in years!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.