Burt Bacharach’s Final 2021 Recording With Elvis Costello Is Released
What is believed to be one of the last recording sessions that Burt Bacharach took part in, if not the last, was quietly released this weekend, following the songwriter’s death. “You Can Have Her,” a previously unreleased composition by Bacharach and Elvis Costello that was recorded by the latter singer with a full orchestra at Capitol Studios in 2021, went out to digital service providers on Friday.
The song’s arrival went virtually unnoticed, as the record company opted to postpone any press releases about the long-scheduled song in deference to those mourning Bacharach’s death. The legendary composer died Feb. 8, and his passing was announced the following day, only about 12 hours before “You Can Have Her” had its soft launch.
The dramatic, gorgeous track stands as an additional testimonial to the legacy of Bacharach’s compositional greatness and will no doubt attract more attention once it becomes more widely publicized.
“You Can Have Her” had long been scheduled to come out Feb. 10, as a teaser track for the boxed set “The Songs of Bacharach and Costello,” which comes out March 3. It’s one of two Bacharach/Costello songs heretofore unheard by the public — the other being “Look Up Again” — that the two principals reteamed to record at Capitol in September 2021 to cap off the expansive new collection.
Although never recorded as anything other than demos until two years ago, he songs were written in the 2000s as additional material for a planned Broadway musical that never came to fruition, which would have been titled “Painted From Memory,” after the album of that name that Costello and Bacharach released in 1998.
Bacharach served as co-producer with Costello for the sessions. Another legend, Vince Mendoza, wrote the new orchestral arrangements and conducted them in the combined Capitol A and B studios.
Costello describes the sessions at length in the liner notes for the “Songs of Bacharach and Costello” set. An excerpt from those notes:
“Behind the mixing board was Steve Genewick, who I had first met working on Diana’s records alongside Al Schmitt and now one of Capitol’s finest engineers in his own right. Beyond the glass I could see Vince Mendoza at the podium making final notes on his score and the members of the orchestra were arriving and preparing for the downbeat.
“A session of this scale required the combination of both Studios A & B with Burt’s handpicked players; Peter Erskine, who had played on both the New York sessions for North and the Abbey Road recording of ‘Il Sogno’ and bassist Will Lee, who I had known from his many years in the Letterman house band. The group was completed by guitarist, Paul Jackson Jr. and the pianist, Jim Cox, who did a wonderful job in finding the weight and tone that Burt might have brought to the part on earlier sessions.
“I was in the vocal booth, setting vocal levels, when I heard Burt was pulling into the studio car park. Although we had spoken on the telephone at regular intervals we had not seen each other since we had played a seven-song set at a benefit performance in 2017 at the Belly Up, a small venue in Solana Beach, CA.
“I can’t pretend that time had not taken something from both of us but any thoughts that this might be a mere lap of honour were put away just two takes in when a familiar soft voice came over the talkback to my vocal booth. ‘Elvis…,’ always that ominous pause, ‘Bar six. You are not singing the right melody.’ Indeed I had unwittingly amended the notes of one phrase but it was not a change the composer wanted to hear. As the orchestral performance quickly began to cohere under Vince’s direction at the podium, Burt nevertheless had his ear tuned to the fine details and rhythmic agreements and spoke to the conductor. ‘I think we need to look at the downbeat of Bar 60.’
“I looked through the glass into the control room at Burt’s assistant, Sue Main, who had been tireless and so caring in pulling this session together, as in everything else she has done since coming to work with Burt. Sue smiled knowingly. We’d seen this movie before.
“Burt once told me that he didn’t drive himself mad seeking 110% anymore — ‘I settle for 95.’
“Then again, he is also the man who responded to my concern about his recuperation after a bout of pneumonia, telling me that he had taken a long walk on the beach in 95º heat before adding, ‘But you know me, I’m an extremist.’ Although one might not think it at a glance, a truer word has never been said.
“Then it was over and we had the two takes in the can with thirty minutes of the six-hour double session to spare. Studio musicians are not given to overt displays of extravagant emotion, approval sometimes only registered by a quiet departing word or the tapping of violin bows on music stands, but this orchestra rose as one to deliver a sustained ovation, when Burt walked out onto the studio floor to thank the players at the end of the session. The experience was rare and we all sensed it.“
Although the orchestra nailed it, Costello adds in his notes that neither he nor Bacharach was completely happy with his vocals during the Capitol session, which he intended more as a guide for the orchestra than something that needed to be set in stone. Six months later he recorded fresh vocals with Kevin Killen to complete the two songs “to the satisfaction of both co-writers.”
The forthcoming boxed set includes one more fresh recording that was laid down especially for the boxed set, although this one did not have Bacharach on hand to direct the session — “Taken From Life,” recorded with Costello’s backing band the Imposters in 2022.
The entire second disc of the four-CD set is titled “Taken From Life” and consists of an assortment of songs that would have been included in the proposed “Painted From Memory” stage musical (which was conceived by TV mogul Chuck Lorre and Steven Sater). The loose reconstruction of the musical’s song score encompasses everything from demos sung by outside singers to several numbers that Costello and the Imposters ultimately recorded for their Grammy-winning “Don’t Look Now” album, including some with Bacharach sitting in on piano.
Of the song “You Can Have Her” itself, Costello writes in the boxed set’s liner notes that is is “a denunciation that barely obscures deep hurt. … ‘You Can Have Her’ had been written for a supporting character in the show; a rich businesswoman, the lover with whom our volatile protagonist was sheltering as the story began. The specifics of the song’s relationship to the plot are less important to me now, as this could be anyone, covering their rejection and wounded pride by tearing down their departed lover, while letting slip the weakness into which obsession had driven them in the face of the casual cruelty of youth.”
Costello paid tribute to Bacharach at the opening of his 10-night stand at New York’s Gramercy Theatre Thursday night, covering three of his friend and collaborator’s 1960s hits, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Baby, It’s You” and “Please Stay.” Read Variety‘s account of that performance here.