A Conversation with Alan Bergman

Christopher Loudon talks with legendary lyricist

Marilyn and Alan Bergman image 0

Marilyn and Alan Bergman

How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Oscar-nominated query, as shaped by lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was raised in 1982 in the romantic comedy Best Friends starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn as, ironically, married writers. But in a larger sense, the question can be applied to the Bergmans’ entire career. Married for more than half a century, and collaborators for just as long, they have managed a show business near-impossibility by sustaining lifelong personal and professional partnerships. Only Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, who wed just a few months prior to the Bergmans, can claim greater longevity.

As has often been told over the years, Alan and Marilyn were born in the same Brooklyn hospital (four years apart, he is 1925; she is 1929) and grew up in the same neighborhood, but never met until the mid-1950s after each had relocated to Los Angeles. They have since co-written more than 500 songs and scores, regularly collaborating with the finest composers of the past 60 years, including Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel, Marvin Hamlish, Dave Grusin, John Williams, Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. They’ve earned 15 Oscar nominations – including an unprecedented triple-play in 1983 when three of the five nominations for “Best Song” were theirs – and have won three, first in 1969 (with Legrand) for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from The Thomas Crown Affair, then in 1974 for the title song for The Way We Were (with Hamlish) and in 1984, again with Legrand, for the Original Score for Yentl. Their sagging trophy shelf also boasts three Emmys and two Grammys. Sinatra, Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Fred Astaire, Maureen McGovern and Sting have immortalized their songs. Though both are too humble to admit it, their names shine as bright in the pantheon of great American songwriters as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Mercer and Loesser.

In early October, the Bergmans paid a weekend visit to Toronto, where Alan performed selections from their songbook with Gene Bertoncini (whom Bergman aptly refers to as “the Segovia of the jazz guitar”) for an SRO crowd at Hugh’s Room.

Prior to that triumphant performance, Alan spent an hour with JazzTimes, demonstrating that his magical storytelling skills aren’t limited solely to lyrics.

To paraphrase one of your finest lyrics, where did it start?

When I was a kid, 11 or 12, I knew I wanted to be a songwriter. The first piece of sheet music I ever bought was a song called “Lost.” There were three writers on “Lost” and one of them was Johnny Mercer. Years later, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, [Mercer] took a liking to me, and between the years 1952-55 he was like my mentor. I was writing both music and lyrics in those days, and he would listen to what I was writing and critique it and encourage me. I would not be here today without him. He was a great influence. He was fantastic to me. There’s a book out of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. There’s a song in there [“The Art of Conversation Has Declined,” from 1955] that I wrote the music for, during my mentor days, and Johnny wrote the lyrics.

How did the partnership with Marilyn begin?

I was writing with a composer in the mornings and she was writing with the same composer in the afternoons, and one day he decided to introduce his morning lyric writer to his afternoon lyric writer. We met, and wrote a song that same day. Not a very good song, but we enjoyed the process. That was in 1956, and we’ve been together ever since.

Is it true that you wrote “That Face” as an engagement present for Marilyn?

At that time, Fred Astaire was Marilyn’s favorite singer. You know, songwriting would be much poorer without Fred Astaire. All the greats wrote for him. He’s such a wonderful interpreter. I wrote “That Face” with composer Lew Spence. He and I somehow wangled an appointment with Fred Astaire. Astaire said, ‘You know, I don’t record anything that isn’t from a movie, but I love songs, so I’ll listen.’ He listened and said, ‘I’m going to record this song!’ He owned a record label, Ava, named for his daughter. And he recorded it! So, I took the dub home to Marilyn, and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ Luckily she did.

Over the years, have you and Marilyn established a set way of working?

The process is like pitching and catching. One is the creator and the other is the editor, and those roles switch from moment to moment. The words have to sit on the notes so that singers can sing them well. So if a word doesn’t sit on the note, we can’t use it.

Songwriting partnerships rarely, if ever, last so long. How have you maintained your professional relationship?

I’m often asked that, and I have an answer. It is that it’s effortless because one washes and one dries. I’ve said that often over the years, so we figured we’d better write a song about it. We just finished it. Marvin Hamlish wrote the music and it’s called “One Washes, One Dries.” Hopefully, it will be recorded.

What was the hit that first put you and Marilyn on the map?

In the late 1950s there was a huge calypso craze. Norman Luboff had a marvelous choir. Norman called us as said the people at Columbia had asked him to create an album called Calypso Holiday, with 12 original calypso songs. So, he said, ‘I need you to write me 12 original calypso tunes this week, because we’re scheduled to start recording.’ We did it, and one of those songs was “Yellow Bird” which paid the bills for quite a while. That was in 1958, and then we wrote “Nice ‘N’ Easy” in 1960 for Frank.

Frank was wonderful to us. He called us “the kids.” We had dinner with him about six months before he died and he was still calling us “the kids.” He presented us with our first Oscar for ” The Windmills of Your Mind.”

The majority of your songs have been written for movies. What do you enjoy about film work?

It’s wonderful when you have directors like the marvelous Norman Jewison. We worked with him on six or seven pictures – In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, Best Friends, Gaily, Gaily and a movie called Bogus. He’s one of the few directors who really understands how to use songs. For In The Heat of the Night, for instance, we had to write the title song for Ray Charles. But there are four other of what we call “source” songs. They’re heard on the radio or the jukebox in the background. [Jewison] wanted them all to be original. He felt that using a well-known song would take the audience out of the drama. In the film, the person who was the killer ran a diner. And he played the same song every time he went to the jukebox. So we wrote a song called “The Foul Owl” which was a reflection of his character. And the cop on the beat listened to the radio down South, so we wrote a funny country song – a sort of Roger Miller thing – that he would be listening to.

In The Thomas Crown Affair, in that scene where Steve McQueen is flying the glider, Norman said ‘ I want you to write a song there that underlines the anxiety the character is feeling at that moment.’ That’s how “The Windmills of Your Mind” came about. Before you go to sleep it’s tough to turn your mind off, and that’s where that came from. The circles going around in your mind; also the flight of the glider is circular. Everything in that song is circular. We wrote another song for The Thomas Crown Affair called “His Eyes, Her Eyes” which reflected that great scene where [Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway] are playing chess.

Film, for us, appeals to the subconscious. There was a Barbra Streisand picture, and the score we wrote for it was not used. But there was a melody in one of the cues that really appealed to us. So we told the studio and Barbra that we felt there was a melody in the score that could make a song. We got their permission to use it, and Barbra recorded it for one of her albums. She said to us about five years later, ‘Do you remember the scene you originally wrote that melody for?’ And we said, ‘No, we have no recollection.’ And she told us the cue was behind the film’s abortion sequence. And the song we had written was called “When A Child Is Born.” So obviously we’d subconsciously made the connection between that melody and a child.

Apart from the film songs, you’ve also written some of the most enduring standards of the past half-century.

We don’t usually write [one-off] songs. But, when we get a great melody we will. “You Must Believe In Spring” is a good example. Dave Grusin is a fantastic composer. He’ll come over to the house and play us something and say, ‘What do you think?’ And we say, ‘Leave it here.’ Or Johnny Mandel, with “Where Do You Start?” He came to the house and played it, and we said, ‘Just leave it here.’ We play them over when were not working on an assignment. We believe that words are at the tips of those notes and it’s our job to find them. That’s the adventure.

Even people who are well familiar with your songbook often don’t realize the depth of your TV work, including the themes for Maude, Good Times and Alice. It must be quite a challenge to capture the entire essence of a show in such a short piece.

You’ve got 45 seconds, and you have to set up the characters and the series. Lyrics are an economic way of expressing an emotion. So, it’s hard, but fun. For Maude, for instance, we wrote a couple of things and weren’t happy with them. And Dave [Grusin], who wrote the music, said ‘what if we write a gospel song for her?’ Luckily Norman Lear got it, and allowed us to do that.

We write extra choruses for most of the TV themes. The odd example again involves Norman Lear. He called us and asked if we’d write a theme for a new series with Neil Diamond. We wrote the theme, and betwixt the original script and the final pilot, the song no longer fit. We told Norman the song wasn’t useable and we’d have to write another one. So Marilyn and I wrote what would be the forerunner of a rap. It was a talking blues. Shelly Manne and Ray Brown played drums and bass, and Kenny Rankin did the vocal. Neil called up from the road, and said ‘I love this song, I’m going to record it.’ And we said, ‘You can’t, it’s only 45 seconds long!’ We told him to wait until we could build it into a full song. And the result was “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”

Barbra heard Neil’s recording [of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’], and called and said, ‘You never play me songs like that.’ Well, you don’t play songs for Barbra; she has to ask. So she said, “I love that. I’m going to record it, too.’ Which she did. Then some disc jockey in Kentucky put Neil and Barbra’s versions together. They were in the same key. The phones went crazy. Neil and Barbra were both with the same record company, Columbia, and the label said, ‘You guys have to record this together,’ which of course they did.

You’ve also provided English lyrics to several fine Brazilian standards.

We’ve worked with such wonderful composers – Dori Caymmi, Ivan Lins and so many others. But we never want to know what the original Portuguese lyric says. For instance, “Like A Lover” was originally a political song, I think. For “The Island,” Quincy Jones called and said, ‘I’ve got this great melody and I want you to write the sexiest lyric you can.’ That’s all he said. And Patti Austin, a great singer, recorded the very first version.

You worked with composer Billy Goldenberg on the TV movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom in 1975, and it was subsequently transferred to Broadway as Ballroom. But it seems surprising, given you’re extensive film and TV work, that you’ve done so little stage work.

There was one before Ballroom. It was a show we wrote with Sammy Fain in 1963 called Something More. It was something less! That was our first experience on Broadway. Now they’re reviving Ballroom with Tyne Daly, and Jerry Mitchell is the director. Billy Goldenberg, the original composer, didn’t want to [work on the revival], so we’ve just finished seven new songs with Marvin Hamlish. It opens in San Diego next August, and will then go to Broadway.

But, over the years, you’ve surely had many invitations to write for the stage.

We have, but we never found anything we felt we had to do. But about four years ago we got a call from Billy Taylor, who is in charge of jazz at the Kennedy Center. He asked us to write a jazz song cycle. And we said, ‘Yah! What’s a jazz song cycle?’ And he said, ‘Whatever you’d like.’ We said, ‘With whom would you like us to write it?’ And he said, ‘With whomever you want.’ Well, we’d always wanted to write with Cy Coleman, and he with us. Cy has great jazz roots. He was a terrific piano player. So we called Cy and asked him if he wanted to write a jazz song cycle with us. And he said, ‘Yah! What’s a jazz song cycle?’ So we sat around for a week and discussed, ‘What is a jazz song? Is it “All the Things You Are,” is it “How High the Moon”?’ And we decided it’s a great melody with great changes and a wonderful lyric. So, we sat down and wrote 18 songs about the people who play jazz, the people who sing it, the people who go to clubs to listen to it – the whole jazz milieu. We did it for one night only at the Kennedy Center. There were 2,000 people there. At the end of the evening, Cy said ‘We have to make this into a theatre piece.’ So we got Larry Gelbart to write some material, and we performed it at a limited engagement in Los Angeles, with an 18-piece big band on stage. It was sold out every night. I picked all the players because I knew all the best studio musicians in town. Hopefully, it too will get to Broadway. I think it’s some of our best work, and it’s some of Cy’s best work. We had a wonderful time writing with him. It was originally called Like Jazz, but we changed it to Up Close and Personal.

You made the decision early on to focus on lyrics and have, as a result, collaborated with many of the finest composers in modern music.

There are so many marvelous composers we’ve worked with – Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, Marvin Hamlish. Each has his particular style. Marvin, for instance, is a theatrical genius. Johnny is a wonderful melody writer, and wonderful to work with. Dave Grusin is a wonderful editor.

And Michel Legrand…

With Michel it’s like turning on a faucet. We were working with him on a picture called The Happy Ending [1969]. It was an interesting assignment, because the writer/director [Richard Brooks] told us that there was a spot for a song in the picture. It would be heard twice. The first time it would be behind a love montage. These two characters were just graduating college and were very much in love, and the song would play behind them. The second time you hear the song it is 16 years later. The wife is an alcoholic, and she leaves her husband and daughter, never to come back. She goes to her favorite bar, lines up several martinis and goes to the jukebox, puts the money in, and you hear the same song. [Brooks] said, ‘You can’t change a word or a note, and it has to mean something entirely different.’ Michel was living with us at the time. He came downstairs, and said ‘I have some melodies.’ He played them, and they were all beautiful, but they weren’t right. We said to him, ‘What if the first line is “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”‘ He said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ And as long as that song is, that’s how long it took him to write it. His fingers never left the piano. When he was through, he said, ‘Something like that?’ And we said, ‘#Exactly# like that!, play it again.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what I played.’ But, knowing him, I had the tape recorder going. And that’s how that song came to be.

The story just recently surfaced that Streisand is planning to record an all-Bergman album.

That’s true. She’s already sung over 50 songs of ours. She doesn’t want to do any of those. But there are many she hasn’t yet sung that she likes. We’ve just finished four new ones for her, and hopefully she’ll like them! She is wonderful. She has a way of bringing out elements in our songs, finding things we didn’t even know were there. For instance, on her new album [Love Is the Answer] she sings “Where Do You Start?” Now we’ve heard many singers do that. After the bridge it comes back to the line “Where Do You Start?” She’s already sung the line once previously, so the second time she changed the emphasis, putting the accent on a different word. Instead of singing, ‘Where do you start?’ as she did the first time, she sings, ‘Where do you start?’ It gives the song a whole new dimension. She is such a great actress and storyteller that she adds something every time.

You made your recording debut at age 82 with the wonderful Lyrically (Verve). How did it come about?

There is a series at the 92nd Street Y in New York called “Lyrics & Lyricists” and we did it about three times. The last time we did it, a German fellow came up to me and said, ‘I love the way you sing, and I want to make an album with you.’ And I said, ‘You don’t want to do that. Look at the music people are selling and buying in America. I’d love to do it, but I don’t think it will be worth your while.’ He kept after me for three years, and I finally said okay. He flew Marilyn and me to Berlin. He organized the orchestra with a lot of instrumentalists from East Berlin, but said, ‘The rhythm sections are not good here.’ So he flew over Christian McBride and Jeff Hamilton. And the piano player is incredible. He’s Dutch – Frank Chastenier. Fantastic. And there’s a wonderful jazz trumpet player – Till Brönner. I had such a good time. And I’d like to make another one, with a smaller group and with various piano players. Bill Charlap is a good friend, and I’d love to work with him and his wife {Rene Rosnes], and also with Tamir Hendelman, who is so wonderful, and the marvelous accompanist Mike Renzi, who plays for me whenever I sing in New York. And there’s a wonderful piano player who plays with Herb [Alpert] and Lani [Hall] called Bill Cantos. He plays for me when I’m on the west coast.

After so many years, and so many extraordinary songs, is there one that resonates most strongly for you and Marilyn?

The pat answer is the one we’re working on at the moment. But there are certain ones that changed the direction of our lives. “The Windmills of Your Mind” was, at that time, a very different type of song. It was very satisfying for us. Then there are songs that are very personal to us – “A Love Like Ours,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life.” We have rich memories about how they were written, and what and who they were written for. I can’t pick out just one. We love what we do. To do it with someone you love is a beautiful thing, and to be doing it for so long, and still doing it, is wonderful. As long as those great melodies keep coming our way, we’ll keep at it. We always look forward to that next empty page.

[Editor’s note: Alan Bergman and Gene Bertoncini’s performance at Hugh’s Room was the first in a three-part Songwriters Series organized by Toronto’s JAZZ-FM. The series continues at Hugh’s Room in 2011 with Bob Dorough (January 19) and Dave Frishberg (April 4). For more information about the series visit www.jazz.fm or www.hughsroom.com. ]

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