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Remembering Oscar-winning lyricist Marilyn Bergman

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember lyricist Marilyn Bergman, half of the long-running songwriting duo with her husband, Alan Bergman. They wrote lyrics for the songs "Nice 'N' Easy," "You Must Believe In Spring," "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," "The Windmills Of Your Mind," "Where Do You Start?," "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" and "The Way We Were." Marilyn Bergman died Saturday at the age of 93. The songs she and her husband co-wrote won Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys and were popularized by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Fred Astaire and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few. The Bergmans also wrote the words to the theme songs for the TV sitcoms "Maude," "Alice" and "Good Times." The couple collaborated on songs for more than 60 years.

We're going to listen back to some of Terry's 2007 interview with Alan and Marilyn Bergman. They met through composer Lew Spence. At the time, Marilyn worked for Spence, writing lyrics in the morning. Alan also worked for Spence, writing lyrics in the afternoon. The three of them collaborated on a song that was written for Frank Sinatra. It became the title track of an album he released in 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NICE 'N' EASY")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Let's take it nice 'n' easy. It's going to be so easy for us to fall in love. Hey, baby, what's your hurry? Relax, and don't you worry. We're gonna fall in love. We're on the road to romance. That's safe to say. But let's make all the stops along the way. The problem now, of course, is to simply hold your horses. To rush would be a crime 'cause nice 'n' easy does it every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: How did you come up with the phrase nice 'n' easy, which became the title of the song and Sinatra's album?

ALAN BERGMAN: Yeah. Well, when you write for somebody like Frank Sinatra who has a definite personality, you try to write - it's easy to write a custom-made suit for him. You know, he's very theatrical. He has a definite character. And we felt because they wanted something that was easy swinging, that nice and easy, the phrase, that nice and easy does it every time would be good for him.

MARILYN BERGMAN: It also had a kind of subtext of - to be a little sexy, which certainly also was part of Sinatra.

GROSS: This is one of those many songs about sex that isn't literally about sex, but it's absolutely about sex, right?

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: Yes, it is.

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: Yes, it is.

GROSS: Did he ever ask - did Sinatra ever ask you to write for him after having such success with this song?

A BERGMAN: Yes (laughter). Yes, he did, several times. There was one time we received a call from him that said, I want you to write me a 10-minute number. And we said, about what (laughter)? He said, well, you know, boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl and so on. And we said to him, well, that's really been written. He said, you'll figure it out. He used to call us the kids. And he said, you kids, you'll figure it out. And he said, get Michel Legrand to be the composer. And Michel's father was very sick at the time, and Michel couldn't do it. So we called him and said, is John Williams OK? It was Johnny Williams. It was - he was not the, you know, well-known conductor-composer then. And we said, John, would you like to do this? And he said, yeah, let's do it.

M BERGMAN: So we wrote a 10-minute piece, which, incidentally, he wanted for his nightclub act. So we wrote a piece that talked about the fact that the protagonist of the piece - in this case, the singer - fell in love with the same woman over and over and over. I don't mean literally the same woman, but, you know, the same woman. And each love affair ended badly. And I think I remember the phrase the same hello, the same goodbye. And when we finished it, we called him and told him that we had finished it, and he asked us if we would come down to Palm Springs, where he had a home and play it for him. So the three of us drove down to Palm Springs and we got to his - I started to say house but it was more like a compound, actually. And he opened the door himself when we finally made our way to the house. And Alan sang the song for him. Alan, what was that experience? You tell it.

A BERGMAN: Well, he was sitting on an ottoman in front of me, and I sang for 10 minutes. You know, that's a long time. When I was finished, he was crying. And he said to Marilyn, how do you know so much about me, as if his life was such...

M BERGMAN: Such a closed book.

A BERGMAN: Such a closed book, you know. But it must have hit some nerve. And he said, I have to learn this. This is terrific. I love it. And - but he never learned it.

M BERGMAN: Every time we would see him, he would say, I'm going to do that. I'm going to do that.

A BERGMAN: Kids, I'm going to do that. Don't - you know.

M BERGMAN: But he never did. But it was a very nice experience, I must say.

A BERGMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you've written a lot of songs, or a fair number of songs, for movies. Some of your best-known songs are songs you wrote for movies. You haven't written that much for theater. How did you gravitate to writing songs for movies?

M BERGMAN: I think maybe movies made a deeper impression growing up, and we always knew that we wanted to write in a dramatic context. We were more interested in that than we were in just writing songs in limbo, writing for a - in a narrative with dramatic context when we were honing a craft. You can't write for a picture unless somebody hires you, you know? So it's like an actor not being able to act unless he gets a job or she gets a job. So we would do exercises. We would find short stories or scenes from plays or articles in the newspaper and pretend that they were assignments. And we wrote many, many, many songs that never saw the light of day but were exercises that we gave ourselves. So I like to think that when the first job came, we were ready.

GROSS: Well, let's listen to Alan Bergman sing. This is "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," which was written for the 1969 film "The Happy Ending." The composer was Michel Legrand. Why don't you tell us the story behind the song before we hear it?

M BERGMAN: Richard Brooks, who was a wonderful writer and director, directed and wrote this film called "The Happy Ending," which I think was well ahead of its time and occasionally will appear on very, very late night television, but really didn't find an audience. Anyway, he came to us one day and said, I want you to write me a song that is to appear twice in the film, early in the film. I want it to be - I want it to function as perhaps a proposal of marriage between these two young lovers.

But I want to hear the song again at the end of the film, at which time the wife - they were since married - 16 years later, the wife has become alcoholic and has left her husband and is in a bar and goes to a jukebox and selects a song and then sits down with a lineup of martinis in front of her. And he shot this beautiful montage of Jean Simmons, who played the wife, during which time she drifts into a kind of reverie while listening to the same song. And he said, I don't want you to change a note or a word, but I want the song to mean something very different when you hear it the second time.

So that was a very interesting, challenging assignment. And Michel Legrand, who wrote perhaps - I don't know - six or eight tunes, as is his want and for this spot. And they were all beautiful, but none really struck the three of us as being right. And we said to him - because while he was writing music, we were sitting trying to solve the dramatic question of what the song should be about - we said to him, what happens if the first line of the song is, what do you do in the rest of your life? And he said, oh, I like that. And he put his hands on the keys. And as long as it takes to play that song, that's what he played from beginning to end. And he said, you mean something like that? And we said, no, we mean exactly like that. And Alan said to him, play it again. And he said, oh, I don't remember quite what I played. Luckily, we had the tape machine going, so we had the music.

GROSS: So the first line of the song inspired the melody.

M BERGMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

A BERGMAN: Yes. But that happens sometimes. With Michel, we can't write lyrics first. We prefer not to write lyrics. We prefer to have the melody. We feel that when we have the melody that there are words on the tips of those notes, and we have to find them.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Alan Bergman singing "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?" that he and Marilyn Bergman co-wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?")

A BERGMAN: (Singing) What are you doing the rest of your life? North and south and east and west of your life. I have only one request of your life, that you spend it all with me. All the seasons and the times of your days are the nickels and the dimes of your days. Let the reasons and the rhymes of your days all begin and end with me. I want to see your face in every kind of light, in fields of dawn and forests of the night, and when you stand before for the candles on a cake. Oh, let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make. Those tomorrows waiting deep in your eyes...

BIANCULLI: That's Alan Bergman singing a song he wrote with his wife, Marilyn Bergman. We'll get back to Terry's 2007 interview with the Bergmans after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Lyricist Marilyn Bergman died Saturday at age 93. We're listening back to our interview with her and her husband, co-writer Alan Bergman, from 2007. But first, let's listen to a recording of their song "You Must Believe In Spring," performed by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) When lonely feelings chill the meadows of your mind, just think, if winter comes, can spring be far behind? Beneath the deepest snows, the secret of a rose is merely that it knows you must believe in spring. Just as a tree is sure its leaves will reappear, it knows its emptiness is just a time of year. The frozen mountain's dreams of April's melting streams, how crystal clear it seems You must believe in spring. You must believe in love and trust it's on its way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Marilyn, when you decided that you really wanted to become a lyricist, did you think, well, this is going to be really hard to do because there are so - first of all, it's hard to be a lyricist under the best of circumstances. But second of all, there were so few women who were lyricists at the time that you started writing. Did you think, this is going to be impossible?

M BERGMAN: As a woman, you mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

M BERGMAN: Well, I didn't think it was going to be impossible. I knew that I would be, you know, the odd woman out. I would go to ASCAP meetings, membership meetings. And it would be me and a lot of the widows of songwriters who were there representing their husbands' estates, you know? In New York, there was Betty Comden and Dorothy Fields. And they were, you know, a couple of famous women writers.

GROSS: Marilyn, did you have a mentor in the way that Alan had a mentor in Johnny Mercer?

M BERGMAN: Yes, I did. When I was in high school in New York, I went to the High School of Music & Art. I was a music major. And I was lucky enough to become friendly with a girl named Marilyn Jackson, a very good singer who unfortunately is no longer with us. But she introduced me to her aunt and uncle. And her uncle was a very successful songwriter, lyric writer named Bob Russell. He wrote a lot of the Duke Ellington songs - "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." He wrote lyrics to "Brazil" and "Ballerina," a lot of songs - very, very gifted.

And I used to play the piano for him in the afternoon after school. This was the olden days before tape recorders and stuff like that. So a lyric writer who didn't play the piano used to have somebody sit and play tunes for them. And I became very interested in what he was doing, though I never dreamed that someday that's what I would do. This was just an afternoon exercise for me. And then - oh, well, do you want the story? I'll give it to you quickly. I fell down a flight of steps.

GROSS: Oh.

M BERGMAN: And I broke my shoulder...

GROSS: Oi.

M BERGMAN: ...And dislocated the other. And so I could no longer live in New York. And I had to come out to California, where my parents had moved while it was in high school, college - I don't remember. And the only person I knew here was Bob Russell, who with his family had moved here in the years since my high school day. I was in college when this happened.

And I came out here in, you know, practically a body cast and looked him up. And we were visiting, and I said, what am I going to do out here for all these months? I don't know anybody, and I can't do anything. And he said, well, why don't you write songs? And I said, I can't play the piano. I can't even turn the pages in a book. He said, so write lyrics. You can dictate them into the now-invented cassette player or reel-to-reel, whatever it was. So I said, oh, and I wrote a lyric. And he introduced me to a young composer named Lou Spence. And that's how I became Lou Spence's morning lyric writer...

A BERGMAN: No, afternoon.

M BERGMAN: Afternoon lyric writer. Forgive me.

A BERGMAN: P.m.

M BERGMAN: And Bob functioned very much the same way that Johnny did with Allen. Bob used to critique what I'd written. And he was a taskmaster, I'm delighted to say. And so I was - I don't think - there's no question - I was studying political psychology at NYU. Why would I write songs...

A BERGMAN: (Laughter).

M BERGMAN: ...If I hadn't fallen down a flight of steps?

GROSS: Well, I love stories about catastrophe that have happy endings.

(LAUGHTER)

M BERGMAN: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: I'm glad to hear how it worked out. Yeah, it's kind of amazing, you know, that you've stayed together as a couple and as partners for so long. It's sometimes - for so many people, it's so hard to work with a spouse and to work as closely as you have to as a lyricist. And to have kept a marriage up for so many years is pretty incredible.

A BERGMAN: Yeah, we've been writing together for 51 years.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on not having had to sing "The Way We Were" in your own lives.

(LAUGHTER)

A BERGMAN: Hardly.

M BERGMAN: I can't imagine it any other way.

BIANCULLI: Marilyn and Alan Bergman, recorded in 2007. She died Saturday at age 93. We're going to end with a song, Alan wrote as an engagement gift to Marilyn with music by Lou Spence. The song, "That Face," was first recorded by Fred Astaire. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT FACE")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) That face, that face, that wonderful face. It shines. It glows all over the place. And how I love to watch it change expressions. Each look becomes the prize of my possessions. I love that face, that face. It just isn't fair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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