Songwriter Sager Reflects On Music, Marriage, Friendships

Oscar-winning songwriter Carole Bayer Sager had no idea how many stories she had to tell until she worked on her memoir.

“For the first time it occurred to me, ‘My God, I’ve had a really big life,’“ she says. “There are moments, ‘Wow, I’m sitting on Elizabeth Taylor’s bed and she’s showing me her jewelry,’ or ‘Wow, I’m sitting on a cot across from – Bob Dylan?’ And I’m writing a song?’ There are those moments, but for the most part, they’re like moments, but you don’t really get the scope of your life.”

Photo: AP Photo
In an image taken from video, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager appears during an interview in New York.

Sager’s “They’re Playing Our Song,” which has just been published, tells how she crafted lyrics for “It’s My Turn,” ‘‘Don’t Cry Out Loud,” ‘‘That’s What Friends are For” and many other hits and offers intimate takes on such friends, lovers and collaborators as Taylor, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and ex-husband Burt Bacharach. The book also traces the inner journey of a woman who reached the heights of professional achievement despite deep and long-held insecurity, starting from her mother’s taunts about her weight and continuing through her relationships with Hamlisch and Bacharach, “the great, fake love of my life.”

“I thought my book would help a lot of people, because I think so many people compare their insides to other peoples’ outsides. I can imagine people looking at me through the years when I was with Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach and thinking ‘What a great life she has,’” says the 69-year-old Sager.

A native of New York City who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Bob Daly, Sager discovered a gift for words early in life and was still in her teens when she helped write the hit “A Groovy Kind of Love,” later a No. 1 song for Phil Collins. By the 1970s, she was working with Midler, Melissa Manchester and other performers and took over the vocals herself for Carole Bayer Sager, her first of three solo albums.

She soon found success on stage and in film. She and Hamlisch teamed with Neil Simon on the Broadway musical that provides the title for her memoir and she’s had a long run of hits for movies, whether teaming with Hamlisch on “Nobody Does it Better” from the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” or with Bacharach, Peter Allen and Christopher Cross on the Academy Award-winning theme song from “Arthur.”

During a recent interview with The Associated Press, Sager talked about some of her most personal songs, her years with Bacharach and her famous friends. She is articulate and exacting about herself, and an accomplished mimic of the people she knows, whether Bacharach’s seductive rasp, Midler’s brassy candor or Jackson’s fragile whisper.

Here are some highlights:

On writing the hit “You’re Moving Out Today” with Midler, who became a close friend:

“She criticized me and said ‘WHY ARE ALL YOUR SONGS ABOUT HOME AND LIGHT AND FINDING YOURSELF?! WHY DON’T YOU WRITE SONGS WITH SOME INTERESTING WORDS?!’ … I said, ‘Bette, that’s kind of what I do. I try and synthesize feelings into their simplest form and share them and connect with other people.’ ‘WELL YOU’D HAVE MORE HITS IF YOU USED BETTER WORDS.’ And she’d pull a book off the shelf and say, ‘NOW, HERE’S A WORD, “IMMORTAL.” WHY DON’T YOU USE THAT WORD?!’“

On her friendship with Taylor:

“In the summertime, I lived in white linen pants and a white T-shirt and I had another shirt that was kind of sheer that I’d wrap around my hips, and tie it in the front. She’d called me ‘little one’ or sometimes ‘mighty mouse.’ I didn’t mind either because they were said with such affection. But she’d say, ‘Little one, why are you wrapping that thing around your bottom? Take it off, you look perfectly fine. What are you hiding? You don’t have to hide anything, sweetheart.’“

On the different “channels” of Michael Jackson, who dedicated his “Invincible” album to Sager:

“You have one channel that comes in perfect and that was Michael’s talent. It never wavered, only when he wavered in self-doubt. … But then you’d go to a channel about his interaction with people and it’s just static, complete static, because he couldn’t connect to most people. He was terribly shy. He spoke in a child’s voice, ‘Carole, will you come sit upstairs with me until Elizabeth (Taylor) comes because I’m frightened.’

On “The Prayer,” the ballad she co-wrote with David Foster, and how its theme of “safety” is so important to her work:

“I think it embodies everything I looked for my whole life. ‘Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe.’ I didn’t find that safety until my mid-40s, when I met my current husband, Bob Daly.”

On the end of her marriage to Bacharach, who had confessed he was seeing another woman:

“The saddest thing about it, I think, is that when he left me I was in agreement with him – that I was indeed very leaveable. And I would leave me, too. So there was no one there to say, ‘Isn’t this a shame for both of us. We’re both losing something here. … I feel sad about that now, for that person, then, who was me. I’m not that person today, thank God.”