Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this as the theme song for the 1966 movie Alfie. The musical questions asked in the opening stanza of lyrics are the questions that create the drama in the Oscar-nominated movie, which stared Michael Caine, Shelley Winters and Vivien Merchant.
This was included on Warwick's 1967 album Here Where There Is Love
, which included three other hit singles: "I Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Trains And Boats And Planes" and "What The World Needs Now Is Love." Warwick was signed in the early 1960s to create demos for the songwriting team of Bacharach and David. Soon they let her cut her own records and the team began to hit the pop and R&B jackpots.
Burt Bacharach says of this song in Q Magazine October 2007: "With a song like Alfie, I had it all in the initial week. But I had 3 weeks before I had to turn it in and I kept fussing with it. A note here, a push there. You've got 3 and a half, 4 minutes, so there is no room for waste. Once it's there, you just try to make sure it's there."
Burt Bacharach (from Record Collector magazine): "'Alfie' could be as close to the best song Hal and I ever wrote. It was a hard one to write because most of it had to be said lyrically at first. I had to set it musically and it was challenging but it turned out great. We went in and recorded it quickly with Dionne because the original record was with Cher. Sonny (Bono) made the record with Cher and that was different than how I had envisioned it."
In the UK, Cilla Black's version, on which Bacharach himself played the piano, reached #9. Black's cover was produced by George Martin who was flexible enough to allow for the American songwriter's perfectionist ways. Bacharach explained to The Guardian October 18, 2008: "The first time I met George Martin he was in the booth at Abbey Road when we were making 'Alfie' with Cilla Black. He was such a gentleman and let me do my crazy thing. I don't know if you've seen or heard about that session with Cilla Black; we got to 28, 30 takes, 32 takes and you know what? We'd had it on about take three or four, but I believed in that thing of give me one more take, maybe we can make it better."
Stevie Wonder recorded a version in 1968 that went to #66 in the US. He was credited on the recording as Eivets Rednow - "Stevie Wonder" backward.
The song was recorded at Phil Ramone's A&R Studios in New York City, with Ramone serving as engineer. The studio was the epicenter of the Bossa Nova sound of the era; it's where the Quincy Jones album Big Band Bossa Nova
and the song "The Girl From Ipanema
" were recorded. "Alfie" was the first of many Dionne Warwick hits recorded there.
Barbra Streisand recorded this song and included it on her 1969 album What About Today. At her 2000 New Year's Day concert in Las Vegas, she told this story before performing the song:
"One day a number of years ago I was in a cab on my way to a recording session and the radio was on. I heard this girl singing, and I thought, 'What a pretty song. Why haven't I recorded that?' When I arrived at the studio I called the station to find out who the girl was, and they said it was me. They said 'Barbra Streisand.' I guess I'd recorded so many albums and songs by that time that I actually forgot I sang that song. It's one of the most beautiful movie themes ever written by my friend, Burt Bacharach."
The line, "What will you lend on an old golden rule" is one that has baffled many listeners, including Barbra Streisand, who during rehearsals in 1999 refused to sing it until someone could explain to her what it meant. Her A&R man, Jay Landers, took action, calling the song's lyricist, Hal David, who was in China but got back to him right away (the prospect of Streisand singing his song was apparently quite an enticement).
When asked about the line, David replied, "It doesn't mean anything." He was simply filling in words to Bacharach's melody, figuring he would change it later. Bacharach liked it though, so they left it in.
When Landers got off the phone, he told Streisand, "It's one of those lines that's open to interpretation." That was good enough for her.