A New York Times bestseller from Grammy and Academy Award–winning songwriter Carole Bayer Sager shares “a delightful and funny tell-all crammed with famous names and famous songs” (Steve Martin), from her fascinating (and sometimes calamitous) relationships to her collaborations with the greatest composers and musical artists of our time.
For five decades, Carole Bayer Sager has been among the most admired and successful songwriters at work, responsible for her lyrical contributions to some of the most popular songs in the English language, including “Nobody Does It Better,” “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and the theme from the movie Arthur, “The Best That You Can Do” (about getting caught between the moon and New York City).
She has collaborated with (and written for) a dizzying number of stars, including Peter Allen, Ray Charles, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Clint Eastwood, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Carole King, Melissa Manchester, Reba McEntire, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand.
But while her professional life was filled with success and fascinating people, her personal life was far more difficult and dramatic. In this memoir that “reads like a candid conversation over a bottle of Mersault on a breezy Bel Air night” (Vanity Fair), Carole Bayer Sager tells the surprisingly frank and darkly humorous story of a woman whose sometimes crippling fears and devastating relationships inspired many of the songs she would ultimately write.
“This exceptionally candid memoir” (Los Angeles Times) will fascinate anyone interested in the craft of songwriting and the joy of collaboration, but They’re Playing Our Song is also a deeply personal account of how love and heartbreak made her the woman, and the writer, she is. “Carole Bayer Sager is simply the finest….and this book is one of the best, most lasting songs she has ever written” (Carly Simon).
They’re Playing Our Song One 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 would never 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.
My mother, Anita Bayer, was pretty much afraid of everything, from flying on an airplane to being raped in her apartment to the idea that my father might love me more than her. When I was two months old she was giving me a bath when I slid out of her hands like a bar of soap and slipped underwater. Instead of lifting me out, she panicked and raced out of the bathroom, leaving me alone and submerged.
“Help! The baby’s drowning!” she screamed to her oldest friend, Sally Held, who, thank God, was visiting. She rushed in and pulled me out of the water. As Sally later told the story—and believe me, she told it often—it was she who calmed me down and laid me in my bassinet, at which point my mother put her face really, really close to mine, kissed me on my forehead, branding me with her bright red lipstick imprint, and said, “Never scare me like that again!”
MUSIC PLAYED ALL THE time in our Manhattan West Side apartment. My father, Eli Bayer, favored classical music and could pick out any song on our piano by ear—with one finger. My mother loved all the great divas. Her favorite, Judy Garland, blasted daily through our walls. We had records of all the top musicals, and I grew up knowing the lyrics and melodies from every show by heart.
Addie, who took care of me while my parents were at work, taught me to say my prayers every night. We would both get on our knees, clasp our hands in front of us, and, despite the fact that I was Jewish, recite the Christian child’s prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . .”
If I should die before I wake? Who thought to put that idea into a kid’s head? Now each night I had to worry about not waking up. The fear of death, so intuitively instilled in me in that bath, took an even stronger hold. Falling asleep was very high on my list of Things That Were Unsafe.
Oh, and my dad went to prison. Always the good guy, he helped his older brother by bribing an army officer friend to keep his nephew out of World War II. When I was two he spent six months in jail. Of course, I have no cognitive recollection of what his sudden disappearance from my life felt like, but I didn’t have to remember the feeling. It remembered me. It especially remembered me at bedtime when the panic would engulf me.
People used to say I was the image of my father. When I was a baby they said, “Put a cigar in her mouth and she’ll look just like Eli.” All I saw was that I had his hazel eyes and we both tanned easily, unlike Mom, whose skin burned in the sun. And my dad always carried some extra weight, so that’s another tendency I may have gotten from him.
Anita Nathan was five foot two and with a more than ample bosom. She happily passed to me her diminutive stature but withheld her big boobies. As an assistant dress buyer in the Garment District, she managed, with little money, to cut a fashionable figure. She loved when her more sophisticated friend Sally let her tag along to her uptown parties, where one night she met Eli Bayer, twenty-two years her senior. They began going out, and when he got her pregnant, he did “the right thing” and married her. Anita would have definitely been happier if I hadn’t come along so fast, but then, without me the deal would never have been sealed. She was still a child herself who wanted my dad’s complete attention, so I grew up feeling her resentment of his deep love for me. In truth, she would have preferred that I wasn’t there.
AND THEN THERE WAS the real world outside of apartment 10-A, with all of its dangers. For one thing, there was polio. Millions of kids worried about catching it, but I was certain I already had it. I lay in bed at night imagining myself becoming paralyzed. In an attempt to allay my fears, my mother had bought me a walkie-talkie so I wouldn’t feel so afraid.
I buzzed. “Mommy, are you there?”
The walkie-talkie crackled. “It depends who’s calling.”
I knew this was her being funny, but this was no laughing matter. “It’s me. Carol. I’m scared.”
“Polio again, I’m guessing?”
I heard my mother get up from her comfy bed and dutifully come into my bedroom. She took my plump leg and bent it backward and then forward. She did the same with the other one.
“See! They both bend. If you had polio, they would not bend. Now, get up and walk around.” I walked once around my small room.
“If you were paralyzed you would not be able to walk. You’re fine.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek and left. Unfortunately, her reassurances only lasted until she was out of sight. I counted backward from a hundred, and then, still awake, I got up and hurried into their room.
“I’m still scared,” I announced.
“Eli,” my mother said, “tell me what’s wrong with her. Why can’t she just go to sleep like a normal child?” How could I tell them I didn’t feel normal?
Some nights I got lucky and they let me sleep in between them. As I got a little older and it became less appropriate, I would tiptoe back into their room after Mom was asleep. I’d tap my father and he’d get out of bed, point for me to sleep on his side, and shuffle off to sleep in my room. I’d pull his blankets way over my head so if Mom woke up she’d think I was him. In the morning, he would wake me up and I’d quickly run back to my room, trying to shake off the humiliation from my bizarre nighttime ritual. I would go off to school showing no signs of the crazy drama each night held. I was one of the popular kids. I was happy by day, so none of my friends had any idea of the other Carol.
When Jonas Salk came up with the polio vaccine, I escalated seamlessly to fearing leukemia, which was not only incurable but harder to diagnose. I always had black and blue marks—what kid didn’t?—but it was a symptom, and I thought I had lymph nodes sticking out in my neck. How many eight-year-olds knew the words lymph nodes? Yeah, I was a piece of work.
And then, of course, there was the bomb. Like millions of other pre–baby boomers, I spent most of my early school years worried about Russia wiping us out. This fear established itself in grade school, when air raid drills were a part of the fabric of the Fifties. On no notice, sirens would blare, and we were sent scrambling under our little wooden desks with their attached seats, the protective qualities of which I always questioned. Plus, with my extra pounds, it wasn’t such an easy fit.
And the bombs didn’t only have to come out of the sky. This was the era of the tabloid-dubbed “Mad Bomber,” George Metesky, who for sixteen years cut holes in movie theater seats and left explosives in them, turning the normally pleasurable experience of moviegoing into, for me, yet another exercise in terror. Many a subplot was lost on me as my eyes scanned each row in search of crazies with paper bags.
MY WEIGHT WAS ONLY perfect once in my life, when I was six pounds seven ounces at the age of a minute. I was always either putting on pounds or on a diet. I loved food, but eating it—at least the foods I desired (carbs and more carbs)—had terrible consequences. While I was definitely plump, I was never obese, though if you believed my mother I was always just a doughnut away. On the other hand, my father would say, “Don’t worry, Anita, she’s beautiful. She’ll lose the baby fat.”
So shopping for clothes, as you can imagine, was a nightmare. One afternoon, walking down the street, completely out of nowhere, my mother said, “Walk behind me, fatty. You’re embarrassing me.” That hurt. It felt awful. It still does. I understood even then that my mother only saw me as a reflection of her own narcissism. I didn’t know the word yet, but I knew how sad it made me feel. I was afraid to feel the anger so I stuffed it down with more food.
After failing to find a birthday dress to fit me at Macy’s, off we went to the plus-size store. “Welcome to Lane Bryant,” the slim hostess said, as she held out a silver tray of big freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. “Would you like one?” she asked. As my hand leapt to grab one, my mother just as swiftly pushed the woman and her tray away from me.
“They should be ashamed of themselves!” she said emphatically to no one in particular. “What a racket! God forbid they should lose their chubbies.” We never went back there again, though we did buy one ugly pink party dress (think plus-size and that’s a lot of pink coming at you) that I would wear at family occasions where my mother and her sister Lucille—whose daughter, my cousin Joan, was also a “fatty”—would commiserate, eyeing us and shaking their heads as if to say, “I can’t believe this happened to both of us.”
ONE NIGHT AFTER DINNER, my father began to have chest pain. Really bad pain.
“Dr. King is on the way,” my mother announced, hanging up the phone. “I have to run down to the drugstore and get Daddy some medicine. You wait up here with him.” Before I could suggest that maybe I should go down to the drugstore, she was out the door and I, a scared ten-year-old, was left to stay with my seriously ill father.
The pain was so great he could hardly breathe. I hoped that my interrupting his sleep every night hadn’t caused him to take ill. “Please, Daddy, don’t die,” I prayed silently. It became a mantra. He was pretending to be calm, but I could see he was as scared as I was. I could barely breathe as I watched him turning blue. Please, Daddy, don’t die. Please, Mommy, come back with the medicine. And, through it all, the most terrifying thought: What if he dies before the doctor gets here? But the doctor did come and an ambulance took my father away to Mount Sinai Hospital. He was having a heart attack.
I never slept in my parents’ room again. And I began saying my prayers before trying to fall asleep. I would end them with “Please let my daddy live a long life,” always repeating the word “long” exactly fifty times. If I lost track, I had to start again.
Thankfully, he did recover, and came home a week later. But now my fears had a solid foundation to build on.
Carole Bayer Sager has written more than four hundred songs. Nominated for over fifteen awards, she has won an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and a Grammy for Song of the Year. She recorded three solo albums and with Marvin Hamlisch wrote the hit Broadway musical, They’re Playing Our Song. With Peter Allen she cowrote half of the songs used in in the Broadway musical The Boy From Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman and told the story of Peter’s life. She is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and was awarded a Star on Hollywood Boulevard. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Robert Daly, and shares their bed with three unruly dogs who are unimpressed with their accomplishments.
“Reads like a candid conversation over a bottle of Mersault on a breezy Bel Air night.” —Vanity Fair
“Engaging...hilarious and heartrending account...memoir as very good chick-lit.” —Wall Street Journal
"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....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." —Los Angeles Times
“'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....she captures beautifully the mood of each song, the relationship with each collaborator and how that song impacted the public."
—The Washington Times
"Tenderly illustrates an insider’s account of life behind the music....Sager’s writing is comfortably conversational, and her stories are lovingly told.” —Publisher's Weekly
“From the hit-prone Carole Bayer Sager comes this delightful and funny tell-all crammed with famous names and famous songs. Every few pages you'll say to yourself, ‘I didn't realize she wrote that.’” —Steve Martin
"Carole Bayer Sager is simply the finest. Having lived, loved and worked alongside gold standard major hitters like Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, David Foster, and Peter Allen, she has had to be. Carole braids together lyrics the way Venus and Serena spin aces – repeatedly, miraculously – and this book is one of the best, most lasting songs she has ever written." —Carly Simon
“I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is genuinely funny, and Carole’s voice – bright, self-deprecating, but fearful and searching – comes through wonderfully well. The writing on Burt Bacharach is a highlight – really keenly observed – and the treatment of the depth of her despair over losing him is terrific.” —Bette Midler
“Carole gives us a front row seat on the piano bench as she knocks out hit after hit with Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach, sits down with Bob Dylan in his barn, Michael Jackson in his studio, and Elizabeth Taylor on her bed (no, they didn’t churn out a hit, just a deep friendship). This is a funny, fast paced, heartfelt book by an accomplished and glamorous woman who openly shares her journey with us.”
"Many women struggling in a man's world will enjoy the author's stories about her early family life and the challenges she faced growing up." —Library Journal
Before Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, there was They’re Playing Our Song, Sager’s musical based on her real-life relationship with composer Marvin Hamlisch. She recounts that story and much more in this honest, heartfelt, and often humorous memoir....Music lovers will enjoy getting to know the talent behind all those memorable songs." —Booklist
“Her voice has an honest vulnerability that keeps you turning pages.” —Buffalo News
“While sensitively chronicling her numerous ups and downs, the author is generous in her sharing of the anecdotes behind the music. The narrative is breezy and accessible, with writing that plays to the strengths of her crisp sense of humor, deep attachment to music, and resonant lust for life.” —Kirkus Reviews
"With more than 400 writing credits to her name, it's no surprise that Carole Bayer Sager's memoir, They're Playing Our Song, is as captivating, thoughtful and memorable as her lyrics.” —Shelf Awareness