Sunday, December 31, 2006

“alfie”: a battle of abundance

[digital composite: cher, cilla black, dionne warwick. 2006]

“alfie,” a burt bacharach and hal david composition, spurred a spirited chart war in 1966-1967. besides hooking the oscar for bacharach and david at the 1967 oscars, “alfie” was ultimately covered by nearly 20 artists, including: vikki carr, the delfonics, maynard ferguson, stan getz, jack jones, nancy wilson, barbra streisand, and sarah vaughan. however, from the march 25, 1966 recording session at abbey road at which cilla black recorded it, the main scuffle was between contenders black, cher, and dionne warwick. arranged and conducted by bacharach himself, cilla black cited the "alfie" recording session with him as one of the most demanding of her career—with bacharach insisting on several takes. (the songwriter reputedly found cilla black's voice “strident.”)

the theme from the film of the same name, “alfie” was just one of many soundtracks for the duo—contributing to their block of oscar conquests… bacharach/david provided film scores for “what's new pussycat?,” “casino royale,” and 1969’s “butch cassidy and the sundance kid,” among others. the latter featured their most celebrated score—netting oscars for best original score and best theme song for “raindrops keep falling on my head.” the film version of “alfie”—sung by cher in a sonny bono arrangement—was performed over the end credits.

the 1966 celluloid chestnut starred michael caine, shelley winters, denholm elliott (the british character actor who died of aids in 1992), and jane asher. (sister of major rock producer peter asher, jane was with paul mccartney for five years—first as a girlfriend and eventually fiancée. she inspired many mccartney songs such as “here, there, and everywhere,” “you won’t see me,” “we can work it out,” and “and i love her”—all credited to lennon/mccartney.)

dionne warwick’s 1967 version blew away the competition—outperforming both black's and cher’s renditions in the u.s. by reaching #18 on the pop charts and #5 on the r&b charts. cher’s imperial label version garnered #32 in the u.s. compared to a “tepid” #95 placement for black (although cilla managed a #9 in her native britain). the best cilla black could muster on u.s. charts was 1964’s bacharach/david composition “you’re my world”—a #1 hit in britain—that peaked at #26 in the u.s.

complicating matters further, two other “alfie” versions competed in 1966 on the billboard adult contemporary chart, with carmen mcrae taking hers to #29 and joanie sommers besting her by peaking at #9. an instrumental harmonica version released by stevie wonder in 1968 peaked at #66 with a top 20 spot on the adult contemporary chart. in november 1971, petula clark performed “alfie” with glen campbell on his network variety show, “the glen campbell good time hour.”

for her part, cher sang “alfie” on the revolutionary and controversial “smothers brothers comedy hour.” “alfie” kept cher’s place on the charts warm on the heels of that year’s #2 hit “bang bang (my baby shot me down),” and set the stage for 1967’s #9 hit to follow—the divorce-themed “you better sit down kids.”

the cilla black-dionne warwick skirmish was unremarkable in regards to bacharach/david’s ability to straddle the u.s./u.k. charts from the very first hits coming out of their collaboration. this breakthrough occurred when bacharach/david struck gold with marty robbins in 1957, the latter taking their composition “the story of my life” to #1 in the u.k. with a top 20 result in the u.s. the duo followed that cross-atlantic hit with another in january 1958 when perry como penetrated the top 5 in both the u.s. and u.k. with bacharach/david’s “magic moments.” subsequent #1 hits by cilla black, frankie vaughan, sandie shaw, the walker brothers, and herb alpert—with bacharach/david compositions—reinforced the duo’s dominance in britain.

[while warwick weathered the rigors of the british invasion better than many u.s. performers, she only released a smattering of entries on the british charts during that period, such as “walk on by” and “do you know the way to san jose”—both bacharach/david compositions. several of the duo’s compositions—huge hits for warwick in the states—were covered by cilla black. warwick was irritated by a preference for black among music industry execs in britain and stung by a perceived sense of entitlement on the part of cilla black—now a doyenne of british television.]

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