When Carole Bayer Sager accepts the Johnny Mercer Award at the 50th annual Songwriters Hall of Fame gala on Thursday, she’ll become only the sixth woman to win the event’s top award. And she’ll become just the third woman to receive it on her own, not in collaboration with a male partner. The first two were Carole King and Dolly Parton.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that more men than women have received the Mercer Award. Many awards shows have a gender imbalance in their top awards. But you may be surprised at the degree of the imbalance here: More than six times as many men have received the Mercer award since it was introduced in 1981. The tallies are 39 men and six women. (The number of recipients exceeds the number of years in which the award has been presented because nine songwriting partnerships have won the award.)
In 1991, Betty Comden became the first woman to receive the award. She won it in tandem with her longtime collaborator Adolph Green. Comden and Green won seven Tony Awards for their work on five shows: Wonderful Town (1953), Hallelujah, Baby! (1968), Applause (1970), On the Twentieth Century (1978) and The Will Rogers Follies (1991). Comden and Green also received two Oscar noms for writing (story and screenplay) for The Band Wagon (1953) and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Comden died in 2006.
In 1997, Marilyn Bergman became the second woman to receive the award, again in tandem with a longtime collaborator, her husband Alan Bergman. The Bergmans’ biggest hit is “The Way We Were,” which won both an Oscar and a Grammy for song of the year. The Bergmans also won Oscars for “The Windmills of Your Mind” and their song score to Yentl. They have received 15 Oscar noms for best song, which means Marilyn has amassed more than any other woman. (Diane Warren is in second place, with 10.)
King had a legendary partnership with Gerry Goffin, her ex-husband and songwriting partner, but she was presented the Mercer award on her own in 2002. The award thus reflects both her ’60s hits with Goffin — “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and dozens more — and her subsequent solo success. Following her split from Goffin, she won Grammys for record of the year for “It’s Too Late” and song of the year for “You’ve Got a Friend.” Goffin and King were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
In 2007, Parton became the second woman to receive the award on her own. Parton’s biggest hit is “I Will Always Love You,” which brought Whitney Houston a Grammy for record of the year. Parton’s “9 to 5” was nominated for both an Oscar and a Grammy for song of the year. Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
In 2011, Cynthia Weil received the award in tandem with her husband and longtime collaborator Barry Mann. Their biggest of many hits is “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965 for The Righteous Brothers. (They co-wrote the song with Phil Spector.) In 1986, Mann & Weil teamed with James Horner to write “Somewhere Out There.” It was nominated for an Oscar and won two Grammys, including song of the year. Mann and Weil were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 — 20 years after Goffin & King (they should have gone in together).
Sager’s biggest hit is “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she co-wrote with her ex-husband Burt Bacharach. It won the 1986 Grammy for song of the year. Dionne & Friends‘ recording, which Bacharach and Sager produced, received a Grammy nom for record of the year. Bacharach and Sager teamed with Christopher Cross and Peter Allen to write “Arthur’s Theme,” which won an Oscar and was nominated for Grammys for record and song of the year. Sager has amassed six Oscar noms for best song across three decades.
The Mercer Award is presented to a songwriter (or songwriting team) who has already been inducted into the SHOF, and “whose body of work is of such high quality and impact, that it upholds the gold standard” set by Mercer, according to the SHOF site.
A total of 439 songwriters have been inducted into the SHOF. Of these, 31 are women, including several who are worthy of consideration for the Mercer Award, including Joni Mitchell, Valerie Simpson (with her late husband Nickolas Ashford), Warren, Loretta Lynn, Cyndi Lauper and Carly Simon.
If the SHOF is open to the idea of giving the honor posthumously, they could consider Laura Nyro, Ellie Greenwich (with her ex-husband Jeff Barry), Felice Bryant (with her late husband Boudleaux Bryant) — and, going further back, the great Dorothy Fields. All of these women have been inducted into the SHOF and thus are eligible.
Female songwriters of note who have not yet been inducted into the Hall — and thus can’t yet be considered for the Mercer Award — include Lucinda Williams, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift.