The driveway leading up to singer-songwriter Carole Bayer Sager’s home in Los Angeles’ posh and leafy Bel-Air enclave passes a guest house most journalists could call home and reached a sprawling, tree-covered compound where Bayer Sager’s husband, the former Warner Bros. Studio chief Bob Daly, casually chats with one of the couple’s groundskeepers.
Stepping inside Bayer Sager’s music studio, one is surrounded by walls covered with plaques denoting millions of radio plays of songs, as well as gold and platinum records for her songs for artists such as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, and a dozen or so other mega music stars.
So it’s a little disconcerting to hear the diminutive Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy winner who co-authored countless timeless hits such as “That’s What Friends Are For,” “The Prayer,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “Midnight Blue,” “Nobody Does It Better,” and the one that started it all 50 years ago, “Groovy Kind of Love,” ruefully pondering, “I wonder what my life would have been like if my mother had expressed more love, been less critical, if I’d lived with less anxiety.”
From the lyrics of her songs to the touching and piquant autobiography she just penned, “They’re Playing Our Song” (Simon and Schuster), Bayer Sager’s heart is not just an open book, it’s the source of her art and success, and perhaps the key to understanding how a one-time school teacher moved so effortlessly across music genres and decades to arrive at this celebrated industry perch with her sensitivity and honesty intact.
“Writing this book,” says Bayer Sager, “was extremely cathartic and painful. I wanted to be honest, and writing required me to own my own part in all of it. But if life is a journey from darkness to light, looking back honestly also provided a couple of surprises. I never realized it before, but I’ve had a big life. I never thought of life as big or small, I only lived day to day. I had no overview. But it became clearer how creativity really saved my life.”
That creative journey began while Bayer Sager was still in high school and continued while she attended college in pursuit of a degree that could assure the security of a teaching position.
“I was in my first year of teaching,” recalls Bayer Sager, “when ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ [co-written with future, Archie Toni Wine] hit the No. 1 spot on the Cashbox charts. Later, what really convinced me to drop teaching was a check I received for royalties on a song I wrote for the Monkees. It was for $30,000, and as a teacher I was making about $6,000 a year.”
One of the choicest anecdotes from her new book recalls the one date she had with Paul Simon, and how their dinner conversation became fairly combative over who first used the word “groovy” in a hit song title. (Bayer Sager FTW, BTW).
She still lived with her parents when Simon came calling, and her mother, who was excitedly anticipating this future union of budding creative talents, answered the door but couldn’t see Simon, who matched Bayer Sager in the slight of height department. When her mother finally saw Simon standing on the porch, well below the level of the door’s peephole, Bayer Sager remembers her mother turned to Bayer Sager’s father and ruefully whispered, “Forget it. They’ll have midgets. Midgets.”
Bayer Sager’s uncanny attention to the details of the days and nights of a career that began in such famed songwriting environs as the Brill Building of New York City, where the greatest American pop songwriters of the ‘60s were cranking out dozens of hits every month, yields insights into the rivalries and the realities of the time.
Bayer Sager remembers “yelling at our publisher, ‘You’re always pitching Mann-Weil [legendary songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil] songs! Why aren’t you pitching ours?!’” But she also recalls the person that remains a beacon of talent and wisdom to this day.
“I knew Carole King and the songs she wrote with her partner, Gerry Goffin, were extraordinary,” says Bayer Sager, “but it was more than their success that I grew to admire. Remember, we were all fed on the competition. We all worked in these little rooms, but Goffin-King had a room with a window!”
Bayer Sager says beyond the charts hits and beautiful melodies, she saw in King “an icon, because she has always stays completely true to her principles and beliefs. She still knows she’s Carole King. She’s always had this impressive sense of self, this self-esteem, self-worth and she never cheapened herself. Even her choices later at the time of the incredible success of ‘Tapestry,” and later when she moved to Idaho. She didn’t have a phone in Idaho, she had a P.O. box!”
One of the other icons of the era, Bob Dylan, was also the man who claimed to have “killed Tin Pan Alley” and the songwriting conventions of his time, and he colorfully figures into Bayer Sager’s memoir. One of Dylan’s lesser-celebrated albums, “Knocked Out Loaded,” took its title from a song the Minnesota bard co-authored with Bayer Sager in the ’80s. Collaborating with the man who, in Bayer Sager’s view, “along with the Beatles completely changed our culture in such a huge way,” didn’t dull her sharp sense of observation. Assessing Dylan as “a brilliant storyteller,” she also puckishly confirms Dylan’s penchant toward personal opaqueness, by concisely noting, “Bob Dylan is the kid who covers up his test with his hand so you can’t see his answers.”
Bayer Sager’s new tome won’t disappoint her fans or those eager to learn more about the myriad other American culture greats she’s worked with, who include familiar names such as music producer David Foster, BFF/mogul David Geffen, songwriting partner and screen giant Clint Eastwood, her longtime paramour and songwriting partner, the late Marvin Hamlisch, and Broadway giant Neil Simon, whose Tony-nominated musical, “They’re Playing Our Song” boasts Hamlisch-Bayer Sager songs and was loosely based upon their colorful showbiz relationship.
Given the “big” life she’s led, it’s not surprising to hear Bayer Sager’s omitted almost as much as she’s included. “So much of this is not the book I began with. My agent, Amanda Urban, kept saying ‘Dig deeper,’” which she notes, led to cuts in ruminations on her New York City childhood but also: “We took out a whole chapter about Neil Diamond, who I love. It’s not a book about Neil Diamond!”
Bayer Sager’s wickedly sharp sense of humor doesn’t spare herself for succumbing to the industry-related ailments of ego, self-absorption, and delusions of grandeur, which of course includes the awards of every kind, shape and color, most notably gold as in Globes and Oscars.
Though she’s got the Oscar for “Arthur’s Theme” on her mantle, that was only one of six nominations, and she remembers one of those times when “The Day I Fall in Love,” the song she co-wrote for the slight family comedy sequel “Beethoven’s 2nd,” was competing against the likes of Neil Young and the ultimate winner, Bruce Springsteen, who composed the title song for “Philadelphia.”
The day of the Oscar ceremony, Bayer Sager remembers, “David Geffen called me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘What do you think? I’m getting ready for the Oscars.’ He said, ‘What on earth for? Do you actually think your song about two dogs falling in love is going to beat a Bruce Springsteen song about the AIDS crisis?’”
A brief chat with Bayer Sager or a quick spin through “They’re Playing Our Song,” and it’s clear that it’s not just the hits and accolades that continued decades after her initial breakthrough that keep her creatively alive and emotionally in the moment. “I have friends,” she says, “whose lives peaked early. They either feel that or it’s simply true. The best of life came early. But the best of my life came later.”
She acknowledges the challenges of staying relevant and in fashion in a youth-dominated business. “When I started writing pop hits, I believed that whoever was the biggest would always remain the biggest. Rogers and Hammerstein, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Johnny Mercer: How could they not have hits? Then as I got older I realized it’s the rare exception. Every generation wants to discover their own icons.”
Thankfully, Bayer Sager the lyricist, memoirist, and person, may have total recall of the past, but her restless imagination and ruthless honesty enables her to voyage past the rocks, which include an early failed marriage — an almost obsessive relationship, creative partnership, and marriage to music legend Burt Bacharach — to a place where she can quietly note, “My husband, Bob, is the first time I’ve truly felt loved by a man.”
But Bayer Sager doesn’t let herself (or previous loves) off the hook for the personal failures, noting, “When you’re damaged, you can’t obtain love because the damage prevents any real intimacy.”
With the California sun outside her window and the mansions standing by as beacons of all kinds of success, industry and otherwise, Bayer Sager reaches back to her childhood for a name probably unfamiliar to her fans. The great American wit Fred Allen was a family friend, and Bayer Sager recalls his famed pronouncement that “California is a great place to live if you’re an orange,” a view she shared before she left her beloved New York City for life on the Left Coast. Adds Bayer Sager, “Today, I appreciate the orange.”