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David, on the right, with Bacharach (top); South (below)
David: Bettmann/Corbis/AP • South: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
David, on the right, with Bacharach (top); South (below)

Lyric harmony

Music | Hal David and Joe South were masters of the songwriting craft

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

It’s probably true that the lyricist Hal David, who died on Sept. 1 at the age of 91, wouldn’t have succeeded without Burt Bacharach, Albert Hammond, or any of the other melodists with whom he collaborated in his more-than-50-year career. 

But it’s also probably true that without David, his co-composers wouldn’t have succeeded either.

Neither would have Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Tom Jones, Perry Como, the Carpenters, or the Fifth Dimension, who owe anywhere from one to a half-dozen of their greatest hits to David and his songwriting partners.

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Lyricists are not much in demand anymore. They’re a casualty of the breakdown in the division of labor for which Bob Dylan is responsible. So successful was Dylan’s fusion of composer and performer that Paul McCartney and John Lennon eventually began writing their own material.  And, by the end of the ’60s, a formula without which even Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley (neither of whom wrote their own material) might never have broken through was obsolete.

What was David’s secret? By his own admission, he had “no formula.” “[S]ometimes it flows smoothly,” he wrote on his official website, “and other times it is like rowing a boat upstream.”

He did, however, clearly understand his role: to combine syllables and rhymes so that they seemed not only one with the melody but also believable coming from just about anyone. He also strove for what he called “simplicity” (“I hope I sometimes achieve it”) and “emotional impact.”

One of the best-known examples of a time that David achieved all three is “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” which became a top-10 hit for Jackie DeShannon in 1965 after Dionne Warwick passed on it.

One of the least-known examples is “America Is,” a top-70 country single by B.J. Thomas in 1985. Its lowly chart showing notwithstanding, it expresses overt patriotism much more articulately than Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”  and really should have been adopted by the Romney-Ryan campaign. “Anything you can dream you can do,” concludes the refrain. “It’s up to you.”

Perhaps most importantly, David clearly understood the many things his role was not—expressing himself at the expense of the song, for one. “One thing a lyricist must learn,” he wrote, “is not to fall in love with his own lines. ... Often I discard a good line because it is inconsistent with the basic idea. If the line happens to be witty or sad in a particularly fresh way, it hurts me to take it out. But that’s part of the pain of writing.”

It’s a pain to which too many contemporary songwriters have become all but numb.

One songwriter who did not was Joe South, who died just four days after David at the age of 72.  Like David, South began as a composer, penning career-making hits for Billy Joe Royal (“Down in the Boondocks” among them) and Deep Purple’s “Hush.”

Unlike David, he made the transition to performer, winning two Grammies in 1970 for his recording of his composition “Games People Play.”

Later that year, Elvis Presley recorded South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” And in 1971 Lynn Anderson and the Osmonds scored with South’s “Rose Garden” and “Yo-Yo,” respectively.

Then, at his career’s zenith, South vanished, succumbing to the pressures of success and grief over his brother’s suicide. His tentative latter-day comeback attempts attracted little attention.

His compositions, however, hold up. Chances are, singers will be walking miles in his shoes for years to come.

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