Realizing Our Humanity Through the Music of Burt Bacharach

“If I can get 10 people in an audience to sing 'love, sweet love' along with me, then I’ve done my job.”

Growing up in our crowded shanty house in South Africa, there were 12 Butler kids waiting up every night for our father to turn on the gramophone at 11 PM. Why? This was the only hour that Black music was played on the radio. Under the apartheid system in the ‘70s, both international and local Black music was censored; I always felt a special anticipation to hear that Motown sound from America as a kid. The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Tom Jones were my idols. I connected to them.

Of course, we grew up listening to all kinds of music on the radio. Burt Bacharach’s songs were particularly familiar to my family. As the youngest of a family of performers, I was aware that even my older sisters were actually singing these songs in their concerts: “Alfie,” “Say a Little Prayer,” “Close To You,” “Do You Know The Way To San Jose.” These songs were not for me to sing myself at that time, as I was just a kid and only spoke Afrikaans, not English.

But I soon started to learn English through music, and my first recording in 1974 was a song called “Please Stay.” I was 12 years old. On the day of the studio session, I was flown from Capetown to Johannesburg, learned the song in the studio that day, and was coached through the process by producer Peter Vee. Back in the day, Blacks were limited to record a record in one day. When the song was released, it climbed the pop charts to number two. I then became the youngest Black artist to be played on white radio stations during the apartheid era. Everything happened so fast, that it was only years later when I looked more closely at my own single in my hands—it was composed by Burt Bacharach!

Back then, I was too young to relate to the remaining catalogue of Bacharach songs. Now that I am in my 50s, the catalogue speaks to me in a very mature way. I began to feel a pulling to make a full Bacharach album. Throughout all of these years as a singer-songwriter, I had already heard many amazing artists’ recordings of Bacharach’s music, from Dionne Warwick, to Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross. The first time I heard “Close To You” was from Karen Carpenter’s recording; I loved the way she sang it. So, sitting at home on the piano with my fiancée, this was the first song I explored along the idea of making my next record a Bacharach catalogue record.

At that time, for about a year and a half, I was thinking about what my next project would be. I’ve had a career of over 30 years of mostly writing my own music. I had files full of ideas from my travels; however, I didn’t really feel inspired to write for myself. Sometimes you’re just creatively stuck. So, I kept searching for inspiration. Once I discovered how good I felt singing “Close To You”—that there was something there that I could physically hold onto and feel, and that healed me mentally, spiritually, and emotionally—I committed to this idea: A Bacharach tribute with every song reflecting my South African roots.

This was a big step for me! Burt Bacharach is one of the greatest composers we all know. These songs are big and complicated, yet so simple and timeless. And this time, it would be different—I didn’t have the blissful ignorance of not knowing whose music I was recording like I had so many years ago with “Please Stay.” The pressure was on and it took me some time to understand the nuances—how Bacharach composes and arranges. I became a student for the first time in a long time. I wanted to honor his compositions, avoid imitating the other artists, and add my South African stamp to it. (I knew going in this direction may not be well-received from my record company.) Every artist must roll the dice at some point in their career—I truly believe that. Luckily, this just feels right. I consider this a new chapter for me to evolve, while maintaining my deep admiration for jazz that is reflected in all the music I play.   

I salute Burt Bacharach through this album and I am thankful that, because of him and my very first recording, “Please Stay,” I now step into another level of creativity, songwriting, composing, and producing that will say to my fans that I’m not afraid to take risks and to change. I feel like I’ve come full circle, opening up my mind to an era of music that I may have skipped over. It’s all about timing and chance. Speaking of timing, meeting Bacharach hasn’t happened yet—how interesting music is, that you don’t even have to meet the writer of the songs to still feel connected to them in some way!

Also, I must say that the most important song on this record is “What The World Needs Now.”  My record company also felt it was so timely that they chose it as my first single. It gives me optimism and excitement to spread this message while our nation is living in a house that is divided. What a powerful vehicle for realizing our humanity. If I can get 10 people in an audience to sing “love, sweet love” along with me, then I’ve done my job. It will be a song that I sing forever.

Following several monumental decades of moving  from South Africa to America, building a worldwide audience for his music while also raising his children to adulthood, sing/guitarist Jonathan Butler arrived at a crossroads in his marriage which ended in divorce. A few years later Jonathan met violinist Nadira  Kimberly, who brought profound new meaning to his life. Her presence by his side became the inspiration for Close To You, his tribute to the hallowed pop canon of Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics).

Butler’s musical story began at age 12 recording the Burt Bacharach song “Please Stay,” originally recorded by vocal quartet The Drifters in 1961. Escaping then-­Apartheid-­poisoned South Africa through a love for music instilled within him from his parents and siblings, Butler has become a world-­renowned singer, guitarist and entertainer via songs ranging from the pop of “Sarah, Sarah” and the soul of “Do You Love Me” to the jazz of “Deliverance” and his contemporary gospel classic “Be Encouraged.” Now 56, Butler has come back to Bacharach full circle with the music of Close To You.