A Western centered around two 19th-century outlaws is not where you’d expect to find a ukulele-heavy song called “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
But more than 50 years ago, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s whimsical ditty featured prominently in Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which premiered on Sept. 23, 1969.
Beloved now, the song’s inclusion was so controversial at the time that studio executives and Redford – who broke out as a superstar with his performance as the prepossessing, sharp-shooting Sundance Kid – were the song’s leading critics.
“I found out much later that the entire board over at 20th Century Fox didn’t like the song, and Robert Redford didn’t like it too much, either,” says Bacharach, 93. “But it felt right.”
Redford comes clean in a statement to USA TODAY.
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“When the film was released, I was highly critical – how did the song fit with the film? There was no rain,” Redford says. “At the time, it seemed like a dumb idea. How wrong I was, as it turned out to be a giant hit.”
History has proven it was a good thing that director George Roy Hill insisted on keeping the song. “Raindrops” would turn into a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, earning Bacharach and David an Oscar in 1970. Bacharach earned another Oscar for his film score (two of the four Academy Awards “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would take home).
Bacharach understands the misgivings. After all, the single recorded by B.J. Thomas, who died Saturday at age 78, included curious lyrics like: “Raindrops are falling on my head / And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed / Nothing seems to fit.”
Inspiration struck the composer while watching the scene of Newman’s charming outlaw Butch Cassidy showing off his new bicycle to Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place (Katharine Ross) during a low-key moment in their outlaw existence.
“As Butch was riding, it was the way he looked. I kept hearing melodically what it sounded like with the ukulele and the bicycle, and it was all very simple,” says Bacharach. “I put in these dummy lyrics into the melody I was writing, I knew it made no sense.”
Even after the song was written, the songwriters tried to Western it up. But “nothing beat” the dummy lyrics which became the song title.
“There’s no reason the song should work, but it does, I can’t explain it,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “It’s catchy, quirky with ethereal lyrics and unusual tempo. But it’s so appealing. And when you’re looking at those attractive people in a Western setting, it all comes together.”
Bacharach says he was unaware of any song criticism at the time, and Hill said nothing. “I caught no flack from him,” says Bacharach. “He never said, ‘This doesn’t work’ or ‘It’s too close to the edge.’ “
“Raindrops” was released ahead of the film in 1969, and Bacharach recalls the reaction in the “Butch Cassidy” premiere was enthusiastic when the scene played out. “The place erupted,” he recalls.
Months after his Oscar win, Bacharach ran into his friend Dick Zanuck, then president of 20th Century Fox, who told him about the flap with other board members and Redford.
The songwriter says he has still never discussed the issue with Redford. But the film’s star, a founder of Sundance Film Festival, has seen the light. “Today, the song still works from the standpoint of nostalgia. All these years later, it still has resonance,” Redford says.
Bacharach keeps his two Oscars in the living room next to his Oscar for 1981’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).”
“I walk in every day and look at those two and appreciate them. They never will be taken for granted,” he says. “I am just proud that it happened. And it’s a very special film.”
Contributing: Kim Willis