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Hal David: King of the Short Words

Photo of Hal David, balding and in a tux, with a wan-looking Burt Bacharach in a fancy scarf

Hal David (left) with Burt Bacharach in 2010. (Photo: Joseph Marzullo / WENN.com)

Lyricist Hal David has died at age 91. He passed away at Cedars-Sinai Hospital (yes, the ER to the Stars) of complications from a stroke.

Hal David was the lyric-writing partner of Burt Bacharach. The pair never quite ruled pop music but they had hit after hit in a rare vein of light sophistication. (“We were really running parallel to rock ‘n roll,” is how David aptly put it.) The set list is long: Walk on By, Close to You, What The World Needs Now Is Love, Alfie and dozens more.

What blows any writer’s mind about Hal David is how short he kept his words.  He rarely went to three or even two syllables, and that ain’t easy. Dig the first lines of some of his big hits:

Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’ve been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.
No word there even longer than five letters. Wow.
The look of love
Is in your eyes
A look your smile can’t disguise
The look of love
Is saying so much more
Than just words could ever say
And what my heart has heard
Well it takes my breath away
Disguise has eight letters — that’s getting crazy for Hal David. Note how he drops it right at the end of the line where he can make the most of its weight and impact. No wonder every singer draws that out: disgay-ay-ayes.

Now on to Walk On By:

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by
Make believe
That you don’t see the tears
Just let me grieve
In private ’cause each time I see you
I break down and cry
And walk on by
And walk on by

It’s possible that Hal David had to keep the words short because Burt Bacharach’s tunes were so intricate and confounding. It made a good pairing, for sure.
What the world needs now
Is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now
Is love, sweet love
No, not just for some but for everyone
Just a strong, clear voice. Sorry to see him go.

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