Remembering Burt Bacharach: Conservatory Alum Reflects on Meeting the Legendary Songwriter
With the passing of songwriter and composer Burt Bacharach, who died on February 8 at the age of 94, the music world lost a true icon and beloved source of inspiration. For generations, artists have looked to Bacharach as a role model of pop sophistication and distinctive compositional style. But very few have been as fortunate as Boston Conservatory alum Shelbie Rassler (B.M. '20, composition), who became personally acquainted with Bacharach in the final years of his life—an experience she refers to as “the silver lining of a lifetime.”
When COVID-19 brought the world to a halt in March 2020, Rassler turned Bacharach’s 1965 hit “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” into a viral phenomenon. Her senior year ended with a shift to remote learning, just two months shy of graduation; so Rassler focused her energy on creating an orchestral arrangement of the classic song, inviting dozens of her classmates to contribute homemade recordings of themselves performing it. The resulting music video spread rapidly on social media platforms and major network news programs including the Today Show, Good Morning America, and NPR.
Arriving at the leading edge of the pandemic, Rassler’s creation captured the sadness and uncertainty of the moment, as the world adjusted to a new reality of lockdowns and social distancing. Beyond the song’s hopeful lyrics (penned by Hal David), there was a poignancy to the compiled footage of young artists making music alone in their rooms—yet trying to remain connected with each other, whatever way they could.
Bacharach himself was deeply moved. Speaking to an interviewer from NBC’s Sunday TODAY in April 2020, he said, “As many times as I’ve done this song, it means so much more now. Because these are really, unimaginable, tough times. And if you can get uplifted, like these kids have done with this song, I’m very, very grateful for that.”
WATCH: The late Burt Bacharach spoke to Sunday TODAY in 2020, praising Shelbie Rassler's adaptation of "What the World Needs Now Is Love."
As many times as I’ve done this song, it means so much more now. Because these are really, unimaginable, tough times. And if you can get uplifted, like these kids have done with this song, I’m very, very grateful for that.
— Burt Bacharach, April 2020
Rassler’s video brought a renewed focus on Bacharach’s work—though, in truth, he was seldom very long out of the limelight. With a string of hits beginning in the 1950s and still charting late into the 1990s, Bacharach created his own category of elegant—and elevated—pop music, distinguished by complex harmonies, polished orchestrations, and shifting time signatures. A great many of those hits became cherished standards, including “Walk on By” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” originally recorded by frequent collaborator Dionne Warwick; “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” made famous by the Carpenters; and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” recorded by B.J. Thomas for the Oscar-winning film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For these accomplishments and more, Bacharach received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2009.
Bacharach’s catalog is so vast that even fans like Rassler, who knows his work well, are occasionally surprised to find his name in a songwriting credit. “To this day, I hear songs and I find out that’s also another Burt Bacharach song,” she said. “He’s written so many unbelievably important songs that the world has resonated with for literal decades.”
Though Rassler and Bacharach were not able to meet in person due to the pandemic, they got to know each other via Zoom. Bacharach invited Rassler (and about a dozen other musicians from Boston Conservatory at Berklee and Berklee College of Music) to join him for a mentoring session, which was recorded by CNN for the network’s Fourth of July coverage in 2020. Not only did he lead the students in a virtual performance of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” in the broadcast, Bacharach spent hours with them, sharing stories from his career, and offering advice and encouragement.
“He was soft spoken, but everything he was saying had decades of experience and knowledge and wisdom behind it—and also just kindness,” Rassler said. “To be able to share those few moments with him in his last chapter is something that I will cherish forever.”
To be able to share those few moments with him in his last chapter is something that I will cherish forever.
— Shelbie Rassler
Following the global success of Rassler’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” for virtual orchestra, she was invited to collaborate with the production team of the 2021 Presidential Inauguration Concert, helping to create a compiled video performance that featured Broadway luminaries performing “Seasons of Love/Let the Sunshine In.” She also produced virtual performances for Stacey Abrams’s “Rock the Runoff Concert,” as well as fundraisers for the NAACP, Americans for the Arts, and several pandemic-related healthcare workers funds—all while completing her master’s degree in music composition at the Juilliard School.
Rassler has also composed music for commercials and documentaries, and is preparing to premiere a composition with the New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute. Having cofounded a musical services company, Jenkins & Rassler, in 2022, she will be featured on a creative entrepreneurship panel at Berklee’s annual Career Jam on March 31.