Hal David as a Lyricist: 5 Reasons to Love Him
Written by Jimmy
We’ve spoken before of Hal David’s passing - click here. But we always promised to revisit him, speaking more about his impact as a lyricist. Here are my top 5 reasons for loving his contribution to music:
1. He made the simple profound: In One Less Bell to Answer, the first verse starts…”One less bell to answer/One less egg to fry/ One less man to pick up after/ I should be happy/ But all I do is cry.” No hyperbole. Nothing fancy. Just a simple statement of loss – one less egg to fry. We lost a loved one this summer and his wife in describing the loss talked first of how weird it was to set one place for breakfast. The empty space screams volumes. On his website, he writes, “In writing, I search for believability, simplicity and emotional impact.” He was quoted elsewhere as saying: “I tend to understate rather than overstate…I strive for a natural quality- as if anybody could have done it.”
He does it again, with I Just Don’t Know What To Do with Myself. I love Jack Whites version:
2. His Rhymes are Just Bloody Clever: We all know the song, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. But imagine listening to this for the first time: “What do you get/when you kiss a guy?/You get enough germs to catch pnemonia./After you do/He’ll never phone ya./I’ll never fall in love again.’ There’s a good little list of worst rhymes in pop music history - click here. But I’ve never seen ‘best’. This is one lyric. I love ‘Do you know the way/to San Jose’? Cracks me up.
3. Every word matters. Hal is quoted as saying, “I work very, very hard. To a certain extent, lyrics flow easily, but no matter how much they flow at a given time, by the time you really get it put together and finished and refined to the best of your ability, it’s a lot of work? It’ll probably go through two or three drafts. You may even go back—that’s close to the very first draft you had, but you’re trying the others just to see whether it can be improved or not.” Here are the words for Whoever You Are, each of which seems necessary and could be the final letter closing an awful relationship: “Sometimes your eyes look blue to me/ Although I know they’re really green/ I seem to see you differently /Changing as I’m treated kindly/ Or treated meanly./From moment to moment /You’re two different people /Faithful and warm/ when I’m in your arms /And then when you /You’re so untrue/But however you are /Deep down,/ whatever you are /Whoever you are, I love you”
4. He dives into the mundane to tell his story and hides the drama. Like McCartney, Hal David embraces the mundane to tell his stories. In I Say A Little Prayer, you are reminded of McCartney’s intervention in a Day in the Life: Woke up/fell out of bed/ran a come/across my head/Went downstairs/And Had a Cup/And Looking Up/I noticed I was late. In Promises, Promises we get: The Moment I Wake Up/Before I Put on My Make Up/I say a little prayer for you./While combing my hair now/And wonderin’ what dress to wear now. I say a little prayer for you.” A Day in the Life was written in Jan/Feb 1967. I know Say a Little Prayer was release second half of 1967 so probably written in first half. It is a nice image, imagining Paul and Hal sitting down roughly the same month writing about morning rituals.
5. There’s an intelligence and consistency that matters. I love his discussion of What the World Needs Now from his website. You are listening to a very smart man, caring massively about his craft: “Most songwriters like to think they know when they have written a hit. I’m no exception. Years ago Burt Bacharach and I wrote a song that we thought we liked. After looking it over we decided that our original instinct was wrong. We put it away in our desk drawer and kept it hidden there for ten months-a flop, we thought. This was particularly disappointing to me. I had thought of the idea at least two years before showing it to Burt. The chorus section beginning with, ‘What the world needs now” came quickly. However, after I finished with, “No, not just for some but for everyone,” I was stuck. I kept thinking of lines like, “Lord, we don’t need planes that fly higher or faster…” and they all seemed wrong. Why, I didn’t know. But the idea stayed with me. Then, one day, I thought of, “Lord, we don’t need another mountain,” and all at once I knew how the lyric should be written. Things like planes and trains and cars are man-made, and things like mountains and rivers and valleys are created by someone or something we call God. There was now a oneness of idea and language instead of a conflict. It had taken me two years to put my finger on it. When the idea came the lyric flowed with ease. As soon as Burt saw the lyric, the music seemed to flow as naturally. However, after our initial enthusiasm, we became disenchanted. Finally, a day came when we were short of songs for a recording session. We took the song out of the drawer. The singer loved it and so we recorded it. The song was “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Although we have over a hundred records of the song my favorite version is Dionne Warwick’s. She always interprets my lyrics in a way that sounds as though she had written them herself.”
I borrowed heavily from far smarter people in writing this and there are far better blogs about Hal. Here are my top 3:
1. Melinda Newman. Fully credited with two of the top 5 (simplicty/mundane) and a far more expansive look at this lyrics. Click here.
2. Bill DeMain wrote a lovely article and including an interview with Hal David. He’s credited with ‘every word matters’. Click here.
3. Paul Grein writes a nice little article about Hal David and I used a quote. Click here.