Starting in the eighth grade, peaking in my sophomore year in college, and schlepping into dodderdom, the eternal question: “How can you judge music? How can you say one song is better than another?”
I’ll tell you how. Listen to Cilla Black’s ‘Alfie’ Listen to a thousand other ladies singing it. Listen to 10,000 other pop hits from the same era. You’ll cease asking the question. It’s engraved in the sky. This is fine, fine music.
The story is as long and twisted as a bolt of Mexican spaghetti after a weekend in the Ankara bus station.
In 1966, Michael Caine was already a star (“The Ipcress File”), a new breed of sex symbol –bespectacled. My mother said I resembled him; but, alas, she was the only female to see that. He was cast as a serial womanizer in a British comedy-drama which presaged the current plague of Generation Y’ers: urban, disengaged, self-serving, sharp and witty, acutely cute.
The producers wanted a song as a tie-in to the movie. They convinced Brill Building masters Burt Bacharach and Hal David to try their hand at it, despite the pedestrian name (“Alfie’s a dog’s name.”) For a change, Hal wrote the lyrics first, working from a line in the script: “What’s it all about?” Here’s Burt describing the process and singing it (“my favorite song of ours.”)
B&D wanted their default chanteuse, Dionne Warwick, to sing the song, but the producers wanted a Britte, so when Sandy Shaw turned it down they turned to Liverpudlian Cilla Black, stablemate and childhood friend of Les Beatles under Brian Epstein’s management.
Cilla had already had a Bacharach/David hit in the UK, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, a pale imitation of the stunning original Bacharach arrangement for Dionne. She was hesitant, insisting that Bacharach come to England to conduct and play piano, trying to quash the deal. He agreed, and a legendary session of 31 takes with a 48-piece orchestra took place in Studio One at Abbey Road under the direction of Bacharach and George Martin. This clip tells the fascinating story, and is well worth watching.
The single was released in January 1966, eight months prior to the opening of the film, essentially intended to promote interest in the upcoming film. It went nowhere in the US, but became a Top Ten hit in the UK.
The director objected to the B&D song being used in the film, feeling it would interfere with the Sonny Rollins jazz score. A compromise was reached in which the song would appear over the closing credits. But!—
The Suits decided to commission a new version–by young hottie Cher (here in a memorable shocking yellow mini-dress on The Smothers Brothers’ TV show), produced by hubby Sonny (Bono, not Rollins; and not that Bono, but the mayor of Palm Springs—oh, forget it!) which was released as a single in June, and made it up to #32. Bacharach said laconically that Cher’s version was “different than how I had envisioned it.”
To coplimcate the matter even further—there were at least eight other versions recorded by the time of the movie’s release (August, 1966). I won’t even go into which version was included on which version of the movie soundtrack record.
Despite its messy release history, ‘Alfie’ has become one of the most iconic pop hits of the past half century, a song that can stand proudly with the best of the Great American Songbook. It’s been covered by everyone and the kitchen sink, including Stevie Wonder’s knockout harmonica hit version from 1968 (here live with Burt), a lovely version by Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston.
Somewhat more in my comfort zone, it gives us a rare chance to compare versions by my two favorite pianists: Bill Evans (here from an incredible film of a home performance in Finland, 1969 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell, including a chat on the creative process) and Brad Mehldau (here from an outstanding 2003 bootleg).
Cilla Black died in 2015. Her small reputation in the US was as a cohort of The Beatles et al in the early days of The Cavern. There’s a quite charming, unpretentious British mini-series bio-pic “Cilla” from 2014 documenting those days quite realistically, recommended for fans of the era. But in the UK, she had 11 Top Ten hits from 1964-1971, including three written for her by Lennon and McCartney (‘Love of the Loved’, ‘Step Inside Love’, and ‘It’s For You’, three very evocative clips).
From the late 1960s, Cilla began a long career as a hostess of a variety of television shows, making her a major household face and name in the UK.
I’ve watched this clip about her recording ‘Alfie’ with Burt Bacharach and George Martin several times, enjoyed every time. (Here are Burt and Cilla, some years on, reminiscing about the session.) Treat yourselves. I don’t think you or anyone on this earth will disagree—‘Alfie’ is one heck of a good song.
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel;
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.