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"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
Burt Bacharach, Hal David
Sometimes a Song must wait a long time for its day in the limelight. This week’s song is one such. I myself have been holding onto it for over a year, waiting until we chose as our Film of the Week the film it was written for, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” And our song was far from an immediate when it first appeared.
Hal David and Burt Bacharach were in the early part of their musical collaboration when Paramount approached them to compose a song for a film the were making to be called “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” The whole story of why Bacharach’s and David’s fine song was never used for the film is not clear, but there was some legal conflict between the writers and the studio, and although Paramount hired and paid Gene Pitney to record the song, the film was released without it. Pitney did hit Number 4 in the Billboard Charts with his version, but his was the second release of the song. The first was done by a folk singing group called the Fairmount Singers, with small success. Although Gene Pitney was not a Country & Western singer, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (the song) was also a hit for him on the C & W charts, likely because of the appeal of the lyrics, which encapsulate the entire story of the film, culminating in the outcome of a wild west shootout. And, too, Bacharach and David had had their first-ever hit with a tune recorded by C&W star Marty Robbins in 1957.
But “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was far from the kind of music that came to be called “The Bacharach Sound” in the 1960s, when the team hit it big as songwriters for rising star, Dionne Warwick, with such songs as “I’ll Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By,” “Alfie,” “What the World Needs Now,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” For her, they wrote hit after hit after hit, all in the easy-listening vein, though Bacharach disliked that designation because he thought it suggested that his musical compositions were “easy,” when — as he pointed out — they were quite complex in their structure. And when you think of the Dionne Warwick’s Bacharach hit songs, you can hear in them some of the same sort of musical virtuosity that makes “Liberty Valance” so appealing.
Burt Bacharach had a good deal of formal training in music, was a skilled pianist, and had spent much time as a conductor in the 1950’s before turning primarily to the writing of his own music. His work was immensely popular, and he continued composing well into his 80’s. He wrote the score for eight films, including for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” winning the Academy Award in 1969 for best score and for Best Song, “Raindrops Keep falling on my Head.” He was a four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Song; his second Best Song win was for “Arthur’s Theme” in 1981. On a humorous note, Burt Bacharach’s earliest motion picture hit (with lyrics not by Hal David, but by his brother, Mack Bacharach) was the lead song from the 1958 thriller (and cult classic film), “The Blob,” which reached number 33 on the Billboard charts in 1958. Imagine succeeding with “The Blob” in 1958 — a big hit — to failing with our Sometimes a Song — a really fine song that was rejected by the studio and scored only a faint blip on the charts on its first release.
And between its first release by The Fairmount Singers in 1962 and its cover by James Taylor in 1985, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” spent two decades largely unsung, until Taylor, a songwriter himself with a style which drew upon folk, jazz, and rock and roll, brought the song back to public notice as a jazzy ballad and secured for it a well-deserved spot in the annals of American Song. I confess that Taylor’s is my favorite version of the song, though I do give a hearty hat tip both to The Fairmount Singers and to Gene Pitney for their earlier and quite different productions, each excellent in a very different way from the other. I’m including all three versions below and will leave it up to you to choose your favorite.
Click below to listen to the first release of our song, by The Fairmount Singers.
Click below for the version by Gene Pitney, recorded specifically for the film.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.