Carole Bayer Sager writes the lyrics the whole world sings—from the 1966 goldie A Groovy Kind of Love in her teens to this spring’s When I Need You. The former was sung by the Mindbenders, the latter by Leo Sayer; the very thought of performing her own works was traumatically squelched early on when Carole’s collaborator in the ’60s, Neil Sedaka, ran out of their composing cubbyhole (in Don Kirshner’s sweatshop) every time she warbled a note.
Only now, at 30, has Carole begun to recover the courage to go public. She’s tremulously cut an album, played a few friendly cabarets and tentatively taken up offstage with Marvin Hamlisch, 32, the Oscar (The Way We Were, The Sting) and Tony (A Chorus Line) laureate. He teamed with her on Nobody Does It Better, the theme Carly Simon sings for the new James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and this summer Carole and Marvin rented the Long Island beach house of Tricia Nixon Cox’s in-laws.
As to whether the Queen of Pop Lyrics is about to link permanently with the King of Screen Scores, Carole points out: “If I were to say in Rolling Stone that I was sleeping with three Chinese midgets or having a simultaneous affair with Jackson Browne and Seals & Crofts, nobody would bat an eyelash—it might even help sell my records. But Marvin’s audience, his family and friends, they don’t need that kind of sensationalism.” Another obvious difficulty is that Carole has been married since 1970 (though legally and amicably separated for nine months) to record production exec Andrew Sager. And finally, there’s the overwhelming theme of nonpermanence to her oeuvre (sung by Andy Williams, Petula Clark, Helen Reddy, Johnny Mathis, et al). It celebrates flitting from lover to lover, gathering rosebuds before they die, inevitably, on the stalk.
Carole met Marvin three years ago while auditioning to put words to his theme for CBS’s late Beacon Hill. It never happened, but Hamlisch kept in touch, and their subsequent credits include Aretha Franklin’s Break It to Me Gently. The one genre they won’t combine on is Broadway. “I had one disaster,” laughs Carole. “Why should I ruin his career?”
She’s referring to the 1970 musical adaptation of the film Georgy Girl, on which she spent two years. It closed after five nights, she recalls, “but they kept the marquee up for seven months—it was the longest-running flop marquee on Broadway.” Screen Gems Music, which had socked $700,000 into the fiasco, lost interest in her, but Carole rebounded with some 50 tunes with singer-composer Peter Allen (Liza Minnelli’s ex). “None were huge hits,” Carole says, “but someday I feel some of them will be standards.” Next, at a Bette Midler concert, she was impressed by one of the backup Harlettes, and asked then arranger-accompanist Barry Manilow to introduce her to the unknown—Melissa Manchester, whom Carole helped become a solo performer. Sager worked on her first LP and later click single, Midnight Blue.
A prodigy of New York’s Upper West Side egghead ghetto (Henry Winkler country), Carole showed mixed indications of a musical gift. The only child of a thread manufacturer, she was pushed to the piano by her mother. “I studied for nine years and today I can barely get through the first 10 bars of Rhapsody in Blue” she confesses. “My attention span at the piano is that of a small puppy.” But verses were something else—she signed her first writing contract at 14.
“As a child and teenager I was shy and easily hurt,” she recalls. “I’m still vulnerable. Writing lyrics was my way of putting up a good front, my cover-up.” Like, for example, the song Sager wrote two years ago called Planes. “It told about thinking and drinking too much on planes while flying here and there. At that time I was terrified of planes. I was taking the Super Chief back and forth to California.” (Carole says her hobbies are reading, movies and “having car crashes.” She luckily escaped a flip-over without injury this summer.)
To boost her new singing career, Carole has overcome her fear of flying. Her co-manager, John Reid (who also represents Elton John), has cajoled her into jetting over for a London gig come fall. But the gaminesque Sager (5’1″ and 105 pounds) has vetoed his plans to push her as co-star opposite Peter Frampton in the movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The very thought was good for her ego, though. “Lyricists,” she says, “are always on the bottom rung of the music business. They have to constantly sell themselves to artists and producers.” And for not all that much. Carole says she collected only half a cent per copy for writing Leo Sayer’s million-seller, When I Need You—a paltry $5,000.
Yet Carole remains ambivalent about becoming a performer. She’s discomfited that Midler’s not speaking to her since Sager’s new rendition of their collaboration You’re Moving Out Today seems to be outselling Bette’s earlier version. “The fight should be just between our record companies,” says Carole. “We shouldn’t let our competitiveness enter into friendships. If becoming a star means total isolation, then I’ll have to consider retreating and hiding behind my lyrics again.”