‘Nobody has any idea what you’re really feeling’: Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager talks about her candid new memoir

"So many people compare their insides to other people's outsides," says songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, who's written a new memoir.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

From the looks of things, Carole Bayer Sager has led a charmed existence.

The veteran songwriter known for pop hits like Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” and the Oscar-winning “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” lives on a sprawling, lushly landscaped estate high in the hills of Bel-Air.

The walls of Sager’s home studio are crowded with gold and platinum plaques. And while you and I exchange humdrum text messages with our spouses or children, her phone contains notes from Kim Kardashian and Aretha Franklin. (More on that later.)

Yet appearances aren’t what Sager, 69, was interested in exploring in her new book, “They’re Playing Our Song.” Released Oct. 18 by Simon & Schuster, this exceptionally candid memoir goes behind the scenes of her success to describe the fear and insecurity Sager says she’s experienced throughout her life, first as a girl growing up with an intensely critical mother and later as an artist involved both creatively and romantically with a series of powerful men.


“So many people compare their insides to other people’s outsides,” she said on a recent afternoon at home. “You could look at me and go, ‘She just won a Grammy. She’s had No. 1 records. And look at the crowd she hangs out with! What’s she got to complain about, that little bitch?’

“But nobody has any idea what you’re really feeling, even when it looks like you’re swimming beautifully. And the fact is, I was just treading water so much of the time.”

OK, so Sager’s book isn’t without its share of show-biz gossip, including vivid reminiscences of her long friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and her bumpy marriage to Burt Bacharach, with whom she had a son, Christopher, and with whom she co-wrote plush ’80s hits like Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” and “On My Own” by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald.

“The only thing Burt was able to commit to was Burt,” she writes, before recalling how, one night in bed, he announced that her touch left him nauseous.

Rarely, though, does Sager seem to be grinding an ax or even reveling in the Hollywood drama; the book always circles back to her thoughtful self-examination, and to how each of these characters and incidents affected her music.

Indeed, for all its celebrity scenery and its emotional tumult, Sager’s memoir also carefully charts the evolution of one songwriter’s craft, from her first hit (“A Groovy Kind of Love,” written in the mid ’60s while she was teaching at a vocational school in New York) through a late ’70s Broadway musical (“They’re Playing Our Song,” composed with her then-lover, Marvin Hamlisch) to later collaborations with superstars like Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson.

In this way, the book goes behind another scene, and that’s the male-dominated industry in which pop music is created — and women’s contributions are often minimized as a matter of course.

Along with Carly Simon’s 2015 memoir and “Beautiful,” the current Broadway show about Carole King, “They’re Playing Our Song” deepens an understanding of women as authors, not just performers, of pop.

Sager with Dionne Warwick, left, Burt Bacharach and Luther Vandross in 1984.
Sager with Dionne Warwick, left, Burt Bacharach and Luther Vandross in 1984.
(Ebet Roberts / Redferns )

During a lengthy conversation in Sager’s studio, not far from the desk where she said she worked on the book most days from around noon to 6 p.m., I asked her if she’d ever felt overlooked, particularly when working with Bacharach, whose pop standards include “A House Is Not a Home” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

“Well, when Burt came into my life, he’d already had zillions of hits. He was already, you know, Burt Bacharach,” she said, pronouncing his name with a kind of awed reverence. Still, she added, “I always felt — or I almost always felt — that I was being acknowledged. That wasn’t an issue for me.

“Acknowledging myself was a different matter.”

Sager, whose precisely coiffed presentation belies her blunt manner, said she “didn’t feel like enough for him until I did a little liposuction or put tiny breast implants in. I wanted to look like I belonged with him, because I put him so high up.”

In analyzing the formative relationships of her life, Sager doesn’t limit herself to the hard times with Bacharach. She also describes wounds inflicted by her mother and by the singer Melissa Manchester, an early writing partner whom Sager says snubbed her when she was thanking people onstage during an important gig at Carnegie Hall in 1975.

What was her thought process, I wondered, when it came to writing about these interactions? Did she worry what the other party might feel?

“There were things I took out because I thought, ‘That could be a little rough,’ ” she said. “I know I was toughest on Burt. But I have a friendship with him based on a respect for his staying involved in Christopher’s life, even though he went on to have a second family — or a third family.”

Sager says therapy has helped her heal most of the old injuries, and she’s not above quoting the wisdom they’ve dispensed over the years. (At one point in our chat she even quoted her friend David Geffen quoting his therapist.) She believes the people who’ve hurt her didn’t do it deliberately, so she had no interest in “burying” anyone in the book.

Yet the peace she’s attained hasn’t made her blind to fresh injustice. These days, she senses the ageism that keeps older folks from taking part in current pop, which can often feel like the exclusive domain of those under 30.

“Who’s going to want to write with me?” she asked, adding that her specialty for ballads removes her only further from the club-focused mainstream.

“I asked Kanye” — Sager and her husband, entertainment executive Bob Daly, go way back with the rapper’s mother-in-law, Kris Jenner — “‘Do you think any of my songs could be hits again?’ and he said, ‘Hey, listen, I could cut ‘On My Own’ with Rihanna.’ ”

But so far it hasn’t happened.

Carole Bayer Sager and Kim Kardashian
Carole Bayer Sager and Kim Kardashian
(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images )

“I get it — every generation wants their own artists,” Sager went on. “And I certainly didn’t want to listen to what my parents were listening to. But for me, creativity is necessary.”

So she paints. She thinks of returning to the theater. And of course there was the memoir — not to mention its promotion, for which she’s thrown herself into mastering social media, she said.

In fact, it was through Facebook that Sager recently resumed contact with the Queen of Soul.

“Someone had posted something about a song called ‘Ever Changing Times,’ which Burt and I wrote for the movie ‘Baby Boom,’ and it became a duet with Aretha and Michael McDonald,” Sager said. “Next thing I know, Aretha Franklin is on there, telling me she’s going to do another album, and do I have any songs?”

Sager with Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, left, and David Foster in 2000.
Sager with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, left, and David Foster in 2000.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times )

The two began texting, and this is where Sager launched into a nearly half-hour-long tale of her attempt to persuade Franklin to sing one of the few songs she’s written in the last few years — a would-be Hillary Clinton anthem called “Stronger Together” — at this summer’s Democratic National Convention.

After many demands from the legendarily hard-to-please singer, the deal was finally hinging on Franklin’s insistence that the air conditioning be turned off during her performance.

“ ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” Sager recalled being told by the convention’s organizer. “ ‘I’ll have 25,000 delegates dying of heat stroke. No!’ So the whole thing collapsed.

“But I saved all the texts,” she said with a laugh. “For the next book.”

Carole Bayer Sager's "They're Playing Our Song"
Carole Bayer Sager’s “They’re Playing Our Song”
(Simon & Schuster )

Coming up:

What: Carole Bayer Sager discusses her memoir, “They’re Playing Our Song,” with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds

Where: Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, New Roads School, Herb Alpert Educational Village, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Oct 26

Tickets: $45-$50 (includes book)


Twitter: @mikaelwood