When it comes to writing greatest hits, Carole Bayer Sager’s accomplishments and musical influence cannot be overstated. For five decades, she has been among the most admired and successful at her craft, giving the world some of the most memorable and beloved songs of our time. “Nobody Does It Better,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “The Prayer,” and the Oscar-winning theme from the film Arthur, “The Best That You Can Do,” are just a few of her enduring hits.
Sager has collaborated with and written for a staggering number of artists such as Ray Charles, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Babyface, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Carole King, Melissa Manchester, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand, showcasing her remarkable versatility, as well as the depth and scope of her talent.
Having written more than 400 songs, Sager has received an Academy Award, a GRAMMY, two Golden Globes, and a combined fifteen nominations. In 2019, she was the recipient of the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. BMI has also presented her with 26 BMI Awards for her exceptional songwriting.
Sager’s long-running hit musical, They’re Playing Our Song, is also the title of her fascinating New York Times best-selling memoir. In it, Sager speaks candidly about her life, collaborations, and relationships, all of which inspired her incomparable body of work.
BMI recently had the opportunity to interview Sager in the lead up to BMI’s Pop Awards, where she will be saluted as a BMI Icon. Here, she shares insights about her creative process, her advice for songwriters, and some incredible memories from her spectacular career.
Throughout your illustrious career, you’ve been acknowledged by the industry and received numerous accolades. We are humbled to be adding another milestone to your abundant accomplishments with the distinction of BMI’s highest honor, the BMI Icon Award. Can you tell me what this acknowledgement as a BMI Icon means to you?
Well, it is so rich and so filled with emotion because I started my career with BMI so many years ago and BMI was always very supportive of me as a young writer. And to get this award, or to get even the word ‘icon,’ is so kind of hard to digest because I don’t think of myself as such. But it’s such an honor to be acknowledged by BMI in this way because they have been with me on my whole journey. To have them think of me in this way is very thrilling and I almost have to pinch myself.
It’s very hard to believe that my work has touched people enough in a way that I always hoped it would, but still, I mean, an Icon Award? It feels so beyond me. But I am humbled by it, and I am extremely honored. The company that I join is also humbling. It’s really very thrilling and unexpected. To be acknowledged in this way is to be seen and to be heard and that’s all I ever wanted to do with my songs.
Let’s go back to “A Groovy Kind of Love.” How old were you when you wrote that song?
I think I was 18 when I wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love.” I wrote it with a girl named Toni Wine, who was a young songwriter at Screen Gems. Donnie Kirshner signed me there and introduced me to Toni, and it’s the first song we wrote. I had never heard of the Mindbenders, but it was actually the first record they ever got me, and it was just great. I remember writing it and hearing it in public transportation, and I was like, oh my God, that’s my song. And then, of course, I just kept writing and it took a long time till I started having many more hits and that was in the seventies.
But I think if you really believe that what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing then you pick yourself up from disappointments and you just go on. I think the difference between maybe me and my career and many other people who truly had maybe as much talent, if not maybe more talent, is I had a drive inside of me that just knew that this is what I wanted to do, this is what I loved to do, and this is what I planned to do even if it wasn’t happening in my time frame. It’s really the work, it’s putting in the time and doing the work. But here’s the thing, it never felt like work to me because it’s what I loved.
You’ve had so many great collaborators and have had hits by amazing artists. What type of advice and inspiration did you share with aspiring artists when you were a celebrity judge on American Idol and what advice can you give today to emerging songwriters on collaboration and beyond?
Well, I had the great fortune of writing with some amazing songwriters, starting with Melissa Manchester and Peter Allen. And then I was asked to try to write a song for a television show that didn’t get on the air with Marvin Hamlisch. And he was going off to score a James Bond movie in England and I just offhandedly said, ‘Oh, if I was writing a song for a James Bond movie, I think I’d call it Nobody Does It Better.’ And he just loved that, and ran to the piano and came up with the chorus, and then he went to England to see if the Broccolis, who produce all the Bond movies, would accept my writing it, since they liked to go with a tried-and-true lyricist. And they loved what I wrote, so they said yes.
And then I had to finish the song, with Marvin in England scoring, and me with a tape, which isn’t my favorite way to write. My favorite way to collaborate is in a room with the other person at the keyboard or at the guitar, and the minute I hear music I hear words, and I start to even hear melody sometimes. But my advice is about finding a chorus and finding something that repeats to you that you just love, and you want to hear it over and over.
But you know collaboration, my God, I was so fortunate for the people that came my way through the years and some just for a song. The thrill I got writing with Carole King. And the same holds for when I wrote with Carly Simon. We did a song for Nora Ephron’s movie, You’ve Got Mail. And hearing Carly at my piano, I mean, it was a thrill. These were like crushes for me, songwriting crushes. Writing with Bob Dylan, I mean, how did that happen? Crazy. But fantastic. So, I just feel like my God, I mean, the people I brushed music pads and pencils and [laughs] keyboards and guitars against were so, so incredible, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities that each one brought me.
One of your compositions with Burt Bacharach, Juan Winan’s version of “On My Own” recently hit number one on the gospel charts.
I couldn’t believe that. I was so stunned. That’s what’s great about songwriting though. I mean, as a person now who has done it for a fairly long time, a song has a life, and you don’t know what and where the life of that song is going to take you. “Groovy Kind of Love” was my first hit but when Phil Collins re-recorded it, it was the most performed song of the year at BMI. And hearing his version, which by the way I adored, I mean to me it was always the way I heard the song, though I was so happy to have the hit with the Mindbenders. The way I heard “Groovy Kind of Love” was the way Phil Collins recorded it. But the idea that a song you wrote 20 years prior can be re-recorded, like in the case of the Winans and the case of Phil Collins, is the true beauty of being a songwriter. Some things have a life, long after you think they do and it’s always a great thrill.
What’s it like for you to hear artists reinterpreting and reimagining your songs?
Well, it’s just great. One of the songs that never became a hit but is a hit in pop culture is a song I wrote with David Foster called “The Prayer.” And it was originally sung by Andrea Bocelli and then Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion. David often says to me it’s amazing that “The Prayer” found this life of its own; it’s been recorded so many times by so many others. Josh Groban did a beautiful version, so many artists, and it just touched people’s hearts. And I think the thing about “The Prayer” is it’s one of the few songs that was sung not only at weddings but at funerals. And that is kind of unusual. I’m very proud of it. David is a great musician. How many times do you get to sit down with these masters…I mean, it’s why I stopped writing melodies, they were all just so good.
Does your creative process differ when you are working on films or musicals than when you work on your own songwriting?
Yes, it does. In my opinion writing songs for a musical like I did with Marvin Hamlisch on the musical They’re Playing Our Song, Neil Simon wrote the book, rest his soul and Marvin’s, the book dictates what the song needs to be. You have a story already that your book writer has given you, the libretto, so all you really need to do is say okay, can a song take the place of what Neil just wrote here, would it be better if we turned that into a song? Or should a song go right after this scene? But you know the circumstance, you know your characters, you know what’s going to move the story along, what’s going to be fun, what’s going to bring a tear to someone’s eye.
You have much more information than when you just sit down completely blindly on your own with someone else in a room and just have to pray that something comes through you that’s valuable. So, I think it’s easier. Same for a movie. It’s easier for a film because you know what you need to say, you know whether you can say it if it’s in the front or if it’s giving something away. You have more guidelines than just sitting down alone.
“That’s What Friends Are For” is such an influential song and I know it’s connected to an organization near and dear to your heart, amfAR. Can you speak to the accomplishment of the song as a vehicle of the scope and growth of AIDS research?
Well, it did everything I could have ever hoped it would do and more. We didn’t have that as our intention when we began. First of all, it was a song in the movie Nightshift and Rod Stewart sang it in the movie quite well. And then Dionne was recording with us and Burt had played her “That’s What Friends Are For” and she said, ‘Oh I like that, I want to sing that as a duet with Stevie Wonder.’ And we said that’d be great. So, we got a great vocal from Dionne and then Stevie recorded it and he was just fantastic.
And when I heard him singing with Dionne, I went over to Burt and said we should put two more singers on this and give the money to amfAR for AIDS research. And it just felt so right, you know? And so, we called Gladys Knight, who did an incredible job of singing on it and then Clive had the idea of putting Elton on. And Elton came in and sang on it and he just took the final bat and hit it out of the stadium.
But it meant more to me because I knew where the money was going. The minute you get into something greater than yourself, more important and something with a higher meaning, I think you care more because it’s accomplishing more, its raising awareness. And we were able to give a very nice sum of money to amfAR.
Tell us a bit about your New York Times best-selling memoir, They’re Playing Our Song.
I mean, I never thought I’d write a memoir, but I did and I’m very proud of it because I feel I was completely honest. And my feeling was if you’re not going to be honest in writing your memoir don’t write it. I mean we’re not interested in just the gold stars. You know? We want to see the bruises and we want to know what hurt and what felt good. I mean, that’s just how I felt and so that’s what I wrote, and it was a wonderful, cathartic experience as well. I think if you’re creative, you can create in lots of different sandboxes. So, I hope that that force never goes away.
Earlier in our conversation, you said you would go write a song tomorrow. Is songwriting at your heart?
Yes, it is. I started so young, and it’s just been with me longer than any relationship, longer than anything in my life. Songwriting has been a constant for me. And I said when I got the Johnny Mercer Award, I remember saying, because it’s true, ‘Songwriting not only gave me a life, it saved my life.’ Because I was a very anxious, frightened young girl and when I was writing songs in that situation at the piano, making the demo, everything was good with the world, everything was all right. And so that’s why I say that. I mean it really gave me a great life.
Can you talk a bit about your 57-year relationship with BMI?
I was quite young, and I had an attorney who has passed on, Harold Orenstein, and he said, ‘Well, you need to join a performing rights organization.’ And I had heard of ASCAP and I had heard of BMI. And I asked him what the difference was, and he said, ‘Well, my client Frank Lesser is with ASCAP but he writes theater and has written Guys and Dolls.’ And he said, ‘But for you, because you’re just starting, I think BMI would nurture you better.’ I remember that. ‘I think they would be a better parent for you.’
And so that’s when I went to BMI and I never looked to change because they have always been in my corner, they have always been supportive, they have always been there if I needed anything. I can say that BMI has always been a wonderful friend to me and a wonderful organization that I trust to monitor and collect and do all the things they say they’re going to do. And they haven’t let me down in all these years.