A chair is still a chair, even when there's no one sittin' there
But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home
When there's no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight
Burt Bacharach's music has been dismissed by many critics
over the years as post-Standard pop kitsch. However, there's something to be
said for a composer whose music is so enduring and melodies so often lingering
("hummable," if you will).
The lyric excerpt above is from "A House is Not A Home," a cut that first
appeared on Bacharach's 1967 collaboration album with lyricist Hal David,
Reach Out (A&M CD re-release). The original title was "House is Not A
Home," but the "A" made it in there after a few singers tackled the song. And
tackle is an appropriate word; the music is so complex and filled with jumps
from flats to sharps that if performed by a less-than-talented vocalist it
becomes nothing more than an emulation of a drunken karaoke night at some gin
joint. Among the talented people who've recorded the song (along with their genres)
Aretha Franklin (Soul)
Alicia Keys (R&B)
Pearl Baily (Soul)
Perry Como (Easy Listening)
Eric Alexander (Jazz)
Bill Evans (Jazz)
Stan Getz (Jazz)
Peter Nero (Easy Listening)
Joe Sample (Smooth Jazz)
Sonny Rollins (Jazz)
Barbra Streisand (Pop)
Mel Torme (Jazz Vocal)
Sarah Vaughan (Jazz Vocal)
Dionne Warwick (Jazz Vocal)
Now, for fans of the song, composer, and the artist who made this song "his
own," I've intentionally left one R&B artist for last: Luther Vandross.
Sure, Ms. Franklin's version is soulful, but scattered. Sassy Vaughan, (who
knows why), failed to tell a story. The story. And the lyrics tell a
story in metaphor and in bleak reality in such a fashion that the word "moving"
used as a descriptor seems to be insufficient. But just like careful handling of
this wonderful music and beautiful lyrics, saying more than "moving" is
taking it over the top; emoting; over-acting (Nero, Streisand, and Warwick were
all guilty of a lack of restraint).
The album Reach Out contains some other Bacharach/David songs that
skyrocketed up the charts and have become pop favorites performed by numerous
artists: "Alfie," "Bond Street," "I Say A Little Prayer," (a huge hit for both
Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin) and "What the World Needs Now is Love." One
has, arguably, found its way into the Great American Songbook: "The Look of
Love" from the movie Casino Royale (performed by Diana Krall on two
records; most lately Live In Paris (Verve) as well as having been covered
by such notable singers/players of Standards as Tony Bennett, Billy May, The
Ray Charles Singers, Dusty Springfield, Stan Getz, Shirley Horn, Astrud
Gilberto, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, Frank Sinatra and Nelson
Riddle. Myriad other singers and instrumentalists in other genres have also covered the tune.
Unless jazz singers embrace "A House is Not a Home" &mdash jazz singers of the calibre of Tony Bennett, Carol Sloane, or Diana Krall (or even Natalie Cole on an album of Standards), the song just wasn't popular enough, the lyrics good but not clever enough, to make it into the Standard Songbook. The music's intense and creative enough, allowing a singer of the ballad to show off a romp up and down difficult riffs while at other times sustend long, lovely notes. Sadly, Shirley Horn's gone; so is Carmen McRae. Those ladies could've accomplished moving this tune off the Bacharach shelf and firmly ensconce it in the precious cabinet which houses the American jazz Standard repertoire. But that's not to be. Oh, and the late Bobby Short could've helped some.
Luther Vandross's album Never Too Much hit the R&B charts running in 1981.
"A House is Not a Home" enjoyed immense popularity on the radio on soul
stations, smooth jazz and Urban stations as well. I remember listening to
Frankie Crocker on WBLS, as well as other romantic-leaning Urban programming
like "The Quiet Storm" on the same station, in the late-night spot. The artist's
soulful voice and romantic timbre earned him legions of fans in both the R&B and
Adult Contemporary genres. I bought the album on vinyl shortly after its
release. I've since purchased compilation CDs which contain Vandross's "A House
is Not a Home."
The Special Meaning Behind The Song
A room is a still a room, even when there's nothin' there but gloom
But a room is not a house and a house is not a home
When the two of us are far apart
And one of us has a broken heart
The house on Waverly Avenue between DeKalb Avenue and Lafayette Avenue in New
York's borough of Brooklyn was the largest I'd ever lived in. (The space was enormous compared to the Manhattan apartments I'd dwelled in prior to this opportunity. A friend
had bought-up a group of buildings, the carriage houses that abutted (and once
served) the mansions lining the East side of Clinton Avenue, the next
avenue over. The five carriage houses were gutted and renovated
to sheetrock; mine was the only finished and furnished unit and I got to live
there in exchange for keeping the "model home" clean and making appointments
(particularly on weekends) with the real estate agents and keeping track of
calling them back to see if there was any interest.
As the other four homes sold, over a period of two years, I knew that sooner
or later someone would buy the amazing 3,500 square foot residence I was
privileged to call "my own." The house had a terrace covered with potted plants and eclectic outdoor furniture, on the second floor
in the rear. The living room measured a whopping 35' x 24'. The place was
appointed with two and a half bathrooms tiled in marble. The kitchen opened out
onto an informal dining room which made the place great for intimate
entertaining; the dimensions of the living room and the 25' x 18' dining room
made entertaining for groups a breeze. The gigantic windows which faced the
front of the house looked out not on other buildings, but on Underwood Park; a
tiny one-block patch of greenery in this eclectic neighborhood; gentrified homes
and Pratt Institute on one side and the slums of Brooklyn's notorious
Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood a little farther away on the other.
ornate stone cathedral-styled Baptist church sat directly across Underwood Park
from the house. On summer Sundays when the weather allowed, the gospel music
floated out of their stained-glass windows and into the five-foot-tall windows
in the front of the carriage house. Their windows were always open in the
summer due to lack of air conditioning. I'd cut the air conditioning off and
hoist my counterweighted windows open just to listen, and gladly endure
the sweltering heat for the sake of a free concert.
An interesting aside: my house once was the stable and carriage house for the
gigantic brownstone mansion located behind it on Clinton Avenue, a stately,
tree-lined boulevard as grand as the enormous homes which line the Avenue. (My
street, Waverly Avenue, was merely a service road which ran behind the mansions,
originally for the purposes of taking deliveries, boarding the horses and
storing the carriages owned by the wealthy homeowners.) The mansion behind (or,
more properly, in front of) my carriage house was once owned by socialites William and Ann Woodward.
They also had homes in Oyster Bay Cove, New York and in Maryland's racing
country. William came from a family of wealth (banking) famous for raising three Kentucky
Derby winning steeds. Ann gained her socialite status by marriage; her
mother-in-law, pillar of New York high society Elsie Woodward opposed the
marriage. Gossip and innuendo quickly branded Ann a "gold-digger."
High Society Ghosts?
In a nutshell, here's the story of Ann's further claim to notoriety. The
Oyster Bay area of Long Island had been at the time (1955) been plagued by a
series of burglaries. The Woodwards had taken to keeping firearms at bedside
while sleeping at night (in separate bedrooms; not uncommon among the wealthy
and privileged). On the evening of October 30th Mr. and Mrs. Woodward attended a
high-society gala ball in honor of the Dutchess of Windsor. Upon returning home,
they retired for the evening. According to Ann's story, she was awakened by a
figure at the hallway door whom she thought was an intruder. She picked up the
12-gauge shotgun at her bedside and discharged it twice. One spatter of lead
shot bore a hole in a wooden door; the other caught her husband in the face and
chest, killing him instantly. Now, the details of this story will certainly become another node
The story of the high-society murder, replete with jealousy, private
detectives, adultery, and accusations flying about like tennis-balls at
Wimbledon sold newspapers like crazy. Ann ended up not being indicted by
a Grand Jury, and got off free as a bird, based predominately upon the testimony
of a man who claimed he, indeed, had been in the house and was the Oyster Bay
Burglar. Rumor had it that despite her hatred for Ann, Elsie Woodward was rich
and powerful enough to arrange for her daughter-in-law's freedom, sparing the family
any further embarrassment.
Ann Woodward's story was the basis for two novels; Dominick Dunne's "The
Two Mrs. Grenvilles'' and Truman Capote's "Answered Prayers.''
Neighborhood rumors had it that the house, after being vacated by Ann in
favor of an apartment in a high-rise building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan,
remained empty for protracted amounts of time, the latest being for nearly
twenty years ending in the early 1980s, when plans were made to divide the manse
into four large condominiums. Throughout my occupation of the carriage house,
friends and I would look out the small window looking up at the mansion, located
in one corner of the living room, which used to be the rear of the carriage
house. Now, it could've been booze, it could certainly have been drugs, but
myself and three others swear to this day that we saw a flickering light
moving around the upper floors of the old house. The house was boarded up on the
first floor and alarmed against fire and burglars. The occasional realtor with
information about the house assured me that nobody, not even maintenance men,
had entered the house in years. Who knows? Was the light the ghost of William?
Or was it the ghost of Ann, who committed suicide in her Manhattan apartment in
1975. (This not too long after Esquire magazine published portions of
Capote's book; the character in "Answered Prayers," based on Ann Woodward, was
How Deeply Can One Love An Inanimate Object?
Before I moved out of the carriage house, I enjoyed the Luther Vandross record
immensely. To this day every time I hear "A House is Not a Home" I think of my
absolute feeling of sadness and loss as I packed the boxes with my belongings,
readying for the move back to Manhattan and an apartment less
than a third of the size of the Waverly Avenue house. I sat on the staircase in
the empty house, feeling bleak and thinking of that song.
Why? Obviously, the freedom afforded by the vast size of the carriage house
was something one could easily get attached to. But perhaps it was the blood,
sweat and tears I put into that house, decorating, re-decorating, cleaning up
after carpenters were brought in (three different times) to change the
first-floor's configuration so as to make it more appealing to potential buyers.
And I needn't tell you the effort it takes to vacuum a 36' x 24' expanse of
off-white cut-pile carpeting (the living room) with a Hoover that's about 12
inches wide. After six months of doing that; I gave in and hired help to keep
the house clean. Keeping the gritty black filth that New York deposits on one's
windowsills and furniture at bay, cleaning a double kitchen and three baths, as
well as sweeping and polishing what seemed like acres of wide-board flooring and
light-colored carpeting. "Fluffy" the transvestite housekeeper and her army of young Latino boys did the task well, and cheaply (and didn't drink too much of my booze, except on Fridays).
The last vestige of the glory that was the carriage house, the elaborate
staircase, handrail and banuster, was reserved for me, a terry-cloth towel, and my trusty bottle of
Scott's Liquid Gold furniture polish. It gleamed. Every time I did that chore I
wondered why more of the architectural gems built into the house remained hidden
behind sheetrock or inside closets.
Perhaps it was the delightful mix of people in the neighborhood; an eclectic
mix of the Italian hangers-on from the early days of the DeKalb Avenue
neighborhood, college students from several small colleges as well as the art
and engineering mecca of Pratt Institute, or the folks who'd made their fortunes
and moved into and gentrified many of the neighborhood buildings after fleeing
the squalor and danger of the enormous ghetto called Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Now and then I call your name
And suddenly your face appears
But it's just a crazy game
When it ends, it ends in tears
I've never been as attached to a residence (certainly not to an apartment) as
I have to the carriage house on Waverly Avenue. Although my Zodiac sign is
Cancer, and we're supposed to be "nesters," I'd never become nearly as attached
to a residence as I had this one. I have friends who wax wistfully about a
favorite car or a favorite piece of furniture. Not me. Not "things."
Shortly after moving out, I sat in my new apartment in a chair that I
purchased for the carriage house and bawled my eyes out while listening to the
song. Perhaps I'm a sucker for punishment, but I re-played the cut a number of
times that night. Leaving that place left a dent in my heart that has
since healed but left a scar. Show me a
person who has no scars upon their heart and I'll show you a person without
Yet another shaogo submission for E2 Quest: More Than Walls
- Burt Bacharach on Starpulse.com:
- The website of ASCAP:
- A-Z Lyrics:
- Luther Vandross discography on line: http://www.masuma.nu/luther/ldisco01.htm
- "Long Island History," a section of Newsday's website: http://www.newsday.com/community/guide/lihistory/ny-history-hs804a,0,7223234.story
- The writer's familiarity with the music of Burt Bacharach and the Great
American Songbook in general.