In the summer of 1966, songwriter Johnny Mercer had his final Top 40 American hit with Frank Sinatra’s version of his song “Summer Wind.” That same summer, young songwriter Carole Bayer had her first chart hit with the English rock band the Mindbenders’ version of “A Groovy Kind of Love,” a song she co-wrote with Toni Wine.
The half-century since “Groovy” hit the No. 2 spot on the charts has proven that success was no fluke for the fledgling tunesmith, who now goes by the more familiar name of Carole Bayer Sager and received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 13.
An Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winner for songs such as “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” Bayer Sager first caught Variety’s attention on May 10, 1967, when BMI honored her and Wine with a Citation of Achievement for their success with “Groovy.”
How far into your songwriting career were you when “Groovy” became a hit?
I had been writing songs on my own without any success for United Artists publishing. I was paid $25 a week. Then they put me together with this young girl
named Toni Wine, and we started working at what I’d call the lower rung of writers. At this point neither of us had had a hit. This was when the higher level of writers included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. I remember wondering why no one was playing our songs for the acts who were looking for material. The truth is, they were all looking for Carole King’s next song.
Had you and Toni been collaborating for a long time before “Groovy”?
It was one of the first songs we wrote together. She had a melody, which was basically a piano exercise. The funny thing is, our demo was slower, and much closer to the tempo of the Phil Collins version of the song. And that version went to No. 1 over 20 years later, while the Mindbenders version went to No. 2!
That first hit must have moved you and Toni up the ladder.
Once it happened, things changed pretty quickly. Suddenly I was much more on [publishing chief] Don Kirshner’s radar. Toni was doing a lot of background singing and then married record producer Chips Moman, so I was looking around again for writing partners.
Did you interact with the more established songwriters?
I saw Carole King and told her how much I loved her songs and her voice and I asked her, “Do you think we could write a song together?” She explained to me that she only wrote with Gerry Goffin. So it was a huge thrill 30 years later when Carole and I wrote “Anyone at All” for Nora Ephron’s film “You’ve Got Mail.” I was luckier with Neil Sedaka. I asked him about writing together, and he said, “Let’s try!” We wrote “When Love Comes Knockin’ (at Your Door)” and that made it onto the Monkees’ second album. And we wrote “The Girl I Left Behind Me” for the Monkees. I also wrote another song for the Monkees with George Fischoff.
You and Toni were so young when you started out, and you sustained that success over the decades. But literally millions of people try to be songwriters and never make it.
So many people have talent, but you also have to have luck and timing — being in the right place at the right time. When I was young, I was completely driven. I would say not unlike Diane Warren today. The best part of my life was songwriting. It was always my dream, and I simply refused to ever stop.
There must have been some dark days and setbacks.
The musical “Georgy” was based upon the hit movie “Georgy Girl,” and I co-wrote the songs with George Fischoff. It closed after four performances, but the marquee at the Winter Garden, which is like a block long, stayed up for a year. So every time I walked down that street I saw my failure in giant letters. Thankfully I got the chance to work on “They’re Playing Our Song” for Neil Simon. That played for about 1,000 performances and helped ease the pain.