Grammy Nominations 2017

Carole Bayer Sager on Her Brutally Honest Memoir, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach & Songs She Wishes She Wrote

Matthew Rolston
Carole Bayer Sager

What was instantly apparent ever since Carole Bayer Sager had her first No. 1 as a songwriter in 1966 with “A Groovy Kind of Love” was that the Oscar- and Grammy-winning writer was a major talent. Hits such as “Midnight Blue,” “When I Need You,” “Nobody Does It Better,”  “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “It’s My Turn,” “Heartlight,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “The Prayer” and countless more followed.

What wasn’t as apparent was that lyricist Sager -- who was partnered both professionally and personally with collaborators Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach -- suffered from anxiety and fears that plagued her despite her overwhelming success. In her riveting new memoir They’re Playing Our Song (Simon & Schuster), out Tuesday, she humorously and poignantly revisits her life, from almost drowning when she was 2 months old to her very happy ending with third husband, former Warner Bros. CEO Bob Daly. The book takes its title from Neil Simon’s hit Broadway play based on her life with Hamlisch, for which she and the late composer wrote the music.

In addition to spilling stories about writing with everyone from Bette Midler and Michael Jackson to Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood, Sager, 69, tells Billboard, “I wrote the book also to tell people not to compare their insides to anybody else’s outsides because I know my life must have looked fabulous to anyone looking in in the '60s and '70s, and yet, I wasn’t even fully alive.”

The book opens with your wondering if your mom had looked at you less critically while you were growing up, maybe you wouldn’t have felt the need to look for affirmation in other ways, including the songwriting. Would you trade your life to have felt loved by her more? 

Having lived now as long as I have, I can now say no, I wouldn’t, but there might have been a point early on when I had one hit and no more for five years that I might have said yes to that question because it must be a wonderful feeling to feel completely loved by your mother. And I do think that part of my need to be seen and heard and listened to came from the feeling that [I] wasn’t. … What I think saved me was the music and the career and being acknowledged and having hits and needing that external validation to say "You’re doing good," because I didn’t hear that from the person who it was most important to hear it from.

You’re remarkably candid throughout the book -- not only about your career, but about your life and your fears. 

This was about telling my story in the most honest way, which is funny and sad, at times. I didn’t want to just write a book about songwriting. I thought, "I want to tell my story honestly and I want to give hope to people that you can be in a ton of fear and anxiety and you can still accomplish a lot of your dreams if you stay focused." For me, once I was in that lane of songwriting, I was fine. I didn’t think about being afraid of anything. I didn’t feel insecure about anything because I was doing something I loved. Somehow I didn’t mess that up.

You had a No. 1 with your first cut, “A Groovy Kind of Love.” You must have thought writing hits was a breeze.

I know. That was incredible. I thought it was just going to be like that. I wrote a Broadway show in-between [hits]. I had [songs recorded by] The Monkees, Davy Jones, but at the same time, I did feel like, “Wow, maybe I just have one hit in me,” but there was nothing else I could do. I wasn’t equipped to do anything else and my passion was to do what I was doing. 

The Broadway show was Georgy Girl, which flopped. Was it hard to be honest about your failures?

If you want to just sugarcoat your life, put out a candy bar and call it a day. If I was going to take the time to do this, I felt like I owed it to myself and whoever was going to be reading it to be honest.

Did you ever suffer from writer’s block? It seems like you’d sit down with your collaborator and the lyrics came pouring out.

We’d always get a song. The question was, did we have a good song? I went through a period of time in the '90s where I would stumble over a melody and I didn’t have the flow, but no, I had no problem always hearing words when I heard music. And then it was just a question of are they good enough.

One of the funniest stories is about your writing “Under Your Spell” with Bob Dylan in 1986.

It was the weirdest thing. I mean, really, he’s the least collaborative person I can think of. He’s such a solo man. 

What did you take away from that experience, awkward as it was, writing in his barn in Malibu? 

I think the thrill that I wrote with Bob Dylan or kind of tried to write with him.

He was also one of your guests for Elizabeth Taylor’s 55th birthday party in 1987, which just seems so odd.

At the end of the day, strange as it seems, he, too, wanted to meet Elizabeth Taylor. He didn’t say that to me, but that’s what I believe. 

One of the saddest stories is you're so happy after you and Burt won the Grammy for song of the year for “That’s What Friends Are For,” and you throw Taylor’s party, and, yet, a few days later, you miss your own induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction because you fall in a dark depression.

It was sort of a mini-nervous breakdown. It was so crazy to punish myself in that way because it had to be me doing that to me on some level. It wasn’t like I had the chicken pox. This was me collapsing.

Did Burt see the book in advance? He doesn’t come across well as a husband.

He knows what’s in it. The truth is everything I put in the book about Burt is honest, but I think I was partly at fault [in our relationship] because I was pretty needy at that time. I don’t think he had that much ability to fill an empty hole and also, Burt was Burt. I really think I literally made him up. I went into some illusion of who I wanted him to be and he was never that person. If someone tells you who they are, believe them.

You write about how frustrating it became for you sitting by his side for hours as his muse, but he’s not very nice to you when he didn’t need that -- he was watching porn, doing his own thing. 

It’s not that he wasn’t nice, it’s just that he prioritized his life in a way that when he was finished taking care of all the things on his list, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for you. I still love Burt on some level. Recently he wasn’t feeling well. I went over to see him. I just want him to be well. He’s been a good dad to [our son] Christopher. He gave me some great material for this book. I think, maybe, it allowed me to vent a little of some of the hurt I was left over with. Things happening the way they were meant to happen really gave me the best part of my life, which is my life with Bob.

You also set the record straight on whose idea it was to have the all-star version of “That’s What Friends Are For” with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John and benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1986.

I just did that because I’m so tired of hearing other people take credit with things they shouldn't be credited with. I don’t get that because usually those people have huge amounts of wonderful things they’ve done. I was tired that Dionne kept saying that it was her idea. Clive [Davis] wrote in a book that it was his idea. So I just thought I’d set the record straight and say it wouldn’t have even been my idea if Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t come down to the studio that day to hear Stevie Wonder put his voice on the song and that’s when the idea came to me. 

You haven’t written much since 2008. Do you miss it?

I don’t miss it, but I could miss it. When I hear a great song on the radio, I think, “Oh, I would have liked to have written this song.” We actually went into the studio not too long ago: Kenny ["Babyface"] Edmonds, Bruce Roberts and I wrote the theme song for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “Stronger Together.” It’s No. 12 on the Billboard Dance Club [Songs] chart [dated Oct. 29]. We’re trying to see if it’s going to cross over into pop, but it’s really been a fun thing to do and it was fun being in the studio again. So we’ll see.

At one point, you reel off a list of how your favorite top artists have all recorded your songs…

I would make a new list today. I’d want Adele.

Are there any recent songs that you wish you’d written? 

A couple of years ago, I heard this song [A Great Big World’s] “Say Something,” and I thought, “Wow, I love this song,” so I wish I wrote that. I wish I wrote “Brave” that Sara Bareilles did. I like Bruno Mars. I like Gwen Stefani. There’s a lot of stuff that I like that would be fun to write, but usually these artists are so self-contained and they’re not really hunting me down to write with me. 

They may be if they see this.

That would be a nice byproduct.