- - Tuesday, February 14, 2017



By Carole Bayer Sager

Simon & Schuster, $28, 352 pages

Pop music fans may not recognize the name Carole Bayer Sager, but they have heard many of the 400 songs for which she wrote the lyrics. Songs such as “Nobody Does it Better,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Arthur’s Theme (Best You Can Do)” and “The Prayer” received extensive radio airplay and sold millions of copies and have been featured in major films.

In her new memoir, “They’re Playing Our Song,” the author recounts her life growing up in New York. Ms. Sager begins by writing: “More than once it’s crossed my mind that if my mother had been just the tiniest bit more nurturing, if she’d have looked at me a little less critically, maybe I would have felt like enough. But then I never would have had the intense need to be seen and heard, and I wouldn’t have had the life I’m about to share with you.”

Readers should not be discouraged that this is a book of whining or a reliance on psycho-babble. Her mother, though, is a strong presence in the book and causes Ms. Sager consternation, even at the Academy Awards ceremony.

By the time she was in high school, she was writing songs. Her first song to be recorded, “Groovy Kind of Love,” was a hit for the British group The Mindbenders. After college she was teaching English at the Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational High School in Manhattan, earning $5,000 per year. Her royalties for “Groovy Kind of Love” totaled $34,000. She knew it was time to turn to full-time song-writing.

Ms. Sager’s prolific output of songs seems to flow freely from a spigot. She does not claim to be a child prodigy, nor one who was pushed to practice the piano day and night.

One of the central episodes of “They’re Playing Our Song” is Carole Bayer Sager’s tumultuous marriage to fellow song-writing legend Burt Bacharach. When, during the wedding ceremony, Mr. Bacharach was asked: Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife in sickness and in health, till death do you part?” he responded: “I’ll try.” This prompted one of the few wedding guests, singer Neil Diamond, to exclaim: “Holy s–!”

On a trip to Hawaii, Mr. Bacharach asked the author to light him a marijuana cigarette. When she was arrested by undercover police officers, he allowed her to take the fall by herself. (A year later the charge was expunged from her record). The way in which Mr. Bacharach informed her that he was ending the marriage was heartbreaking and gut-wrenching.

She also had a longtime relationship with Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch.

She recounts how different they were, such as how Mr. Hamlisch frequently wore a three-piece suit, while she opted for a T-shirt and jeans.

They first met when they were assigned to collaborate on writing the theme song to a long-forgotten TV sitcom. Mr. Hamlisch happened to mention that he was writing the score and theme song to “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the upcoming James Bond film, Ms. Sager mentioned that when she heard “James Bond,” she immediately thought of the phrase “nobody does it better.” Within minutes, Hamlisch was at the piano playing the tune, while Ms. Sager jotted down the lyrics for what would become a smash hit for Carly Simon.

Playwright Neil Simon thought their relationship was the stuff of musical comedy, and set out to write a play about a mismatched song-writing couple. Ms. Sager and Mr. Hamlisch wrote the music to what would become “They’re Playing Our Song,” which ran on Broadway for 1,082 performances.

Ms. Sager finally found lasting love with Bob Daly, the former chairman of Warner Brother’s studios. She also recounts special friendships with singers and songwriters like Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Peter Allen, Melissa Manchester, record executive David Geffen and actress Elizabeth Taylor.

“They’re Playing Our Song” is an enjoyable memoir and should be read by anyone who remembers and appreciates popular music of the last 50 years. Ms. Sager does not give much detail about the creative process behind each song, but she captures beautifully the mood of each song, the relationship with each collaborator and how that song impacted the public.

• Kevin P. McVicker is vice president with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia.

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