This week in The City, Burt Bacharach will play with the San Francisco Symphony — a first in his nearly six-decade musical career.
“It’s been on my wish list for a long time,” says the legendary composer, on the phone from Southern California, praising the musicians and mentioning that a concert of this type wouldn’t have been possible in his early days, when orchestras weren’t open to pop.
Still, Bacharach, 85, says the performance — featuring his band, singers and the symphony — will include numbers his fans expect, and that he won’t sing until “way late” in the show.
“I want to be sure the audience is on my side. My voice sounds scratchy, far from perfect, but OK — I put the emotion in,” he says.
Describing his numerous 1960s-70s hits written with lyricist Hal David, Bacharach attributes their longevity to their “timelessness” and “certain sophistication.” He points to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” a song that was at home in the middle of 1890s-set movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (“The audience at an early screening in San Francisco went crazy”) and, at the same time, was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts.
Known for melodies with wild syncopation, Bacharach never intended to write songs that were hard to sing: “It felt natural to me,” he says. Only when he wrote them down did he notice they were in unorthodox time signatures.
He admits that the title tune to his only Broadway hit, “Promises, Promises,” is a “heavy-duty challenge,” but with Dionne Warwick — his and David’s go-to singer, “We took it into the studio and floated it effortlessly.”
A turning point in his career came with “Make It Easy on Yourself.” He says, “My first taste of success was when someone let me go into the studio and make the record myself.” After that, he didn’t work any other way.
His collaboration with Elvis Costello is the first time he shared music-writing duties with another composer. Today, the pair is working on a stage musical based on their album “Painted From Memory,” but with new songs.
One of Bacharach’s lesser-known collaborations was with Marlene Dietrich. In the 1960s, he traveled the world as her bandleader. “I tried to get her to sing better, tried not to rush the music; she got dependent on me,” he says, describing their unusual relationship, which is detailed in his 2013 memoir, “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” written with Robert Greenfield.
“It’s about as honest as I can be — in my own words as much as possible, with stuff I’m not particularly proud of,” he says.
In the book, Bacharach doesn’t shy away from difficult and tragic events, and his own shortcomings: infidelity with several wives including Angie Dickinson and Carole Bayer Sager; his daughter’s premature birth, lifelong mental illness and eventual suicide; and yearslong estrangement from Warwick and David.
With David, he says, “my fault. But I can’t go back and think about what else we could have written. No can do.”
He finds David’s lyric to “Alfie” — “Are we meant to take more than we give / Or are we meant to be kind?” among his favorites (“I really tried to do justice to it”) but also thinks “What the World Needs Now” is one of his most important songs.
Pressed to name a song he wished he wrote, he answers without too much hesitation: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “After the Love is Gone” or “anything from Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers’ songbooks.”
IF YOU GO
with the San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $15 to $98