Songwriting duo Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Part 2

The Bergmans reflect on writing the Good Times theme song and discuss the challenge of finding new ways to talk about love and the hip-hop generation’s influence on the next wave of writers.

With more than 50 years of collaborating on the music and lyrics for numerous TV shows, films and stage musicals, Alan and Marilyn Bergman are two of the most respected names in the Great American Songbook. During their careers, they've won multiple songwriting accolades, including Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes and several Lifetime Achievement Awards, and are responsible for many of Hollywood's classic tunes. They were born in the same Brooklyn, NY hospital, but their first meeting didn't take place until each had relocated to L.A. The Bergmans were inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980.


Tavis: We’re back with night two of our conversation with two of the greatest lyricists and greatest composers of our time. Barbra Streisand became their muse, but she was given a lot of good stuff to work with, thanks to Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

We’re honored to have them back again for a second part of our conversation. When we left this conversation last night, I’d asked you perhaps an impossible question. I didn’t want to put you on the spot too bad last night, so I wanted to give you some time to think about it.

But Alan made the point last night that the toughest part of your job is trying to find a new way to talk about love, a new way to define love.

So over the course of your careers, give me a few lines that you’ve written that speak to that condition that you’re really, really proud of.

Alan Bergman: Well, one I can think of because it’s recent.

Tavis: Okay.

Alan: Over the years, people have asked me and Marilyn how do you do it? You spend all of your time together. You write together, you live together, you love together 24 hours a day. What’s the secret? I said, “Four words.” They said, “What’s that?” I said, “One washes, one dries.”

Marilyn Bergman: It’s not very romantic, but it’s true.

Tavis: But I love it.

Alan: So after a while, saying that a few years, we looked at each other and said, “We have to write a love song, one washes, one dries, and we’ve just finished it.

Tavis: Wow.

Alan: So that’s kind of an original to put it…

Marilyn: I think that while you asked the question, I was thinking and I think “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” has got a couple of lines in it that probably…

Tavis: Good Lord, I caught one! I was waiting for you to say that. If you hadn’t said that, I was gonna say that.

Alan: [Laugh] You were?

Tavis: Mr. Bergman, nice response, but “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Good Lord.

Marilyn: “How do you lose yourself to someone and never lose your way,” I think, was the very lucky idea to have hit upon.

Alan: That too goes back to what Marilyn said before, that most of our songs come from a dramatic context. That was again from a movie and the same wonderful director, Norman Jewison.

Marilyn: A picture called “Best Friends.” I think the song has outlived the movie, fortunately. But, yeah, it was triggered by the movie certainly.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that because “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” from beginning to end is one of the best. Man, the lyrics on that song are just unbelievable.

Marilyn: Quincy.

Tavis: Quincy.

Alan: Quincy.

Marilyn: Quincy came to our house. I forget what it was about.

Alan: We had just finished it.

Marilyn: We’d just finished that song and he saw it sitting on the piano and said, “What’s that?” Eagle eye, of course. “What’s that?” [laugh]. We said, “Oh, that’s that song.” “Can I hear it?”

So we played it for him and he ripped the lead sheet from Alan’s hand and said, “That’s mine. What is this from? What is it for?” We told him and he said, “Who’s gonna sing it?” We said, “Well, we don’t know yet.”

He said, “I know. I’m producing the record and I’m doing it and that’s it.” He got up and he left and he did.

Tavis: And when we hear months later, years later, it’s Patti Austin and James Ingram, and they killed it [laugh].

Marilyn: Exactly right. They killed it.

Alan: We know Patti. There’s a lot of love involved in that song not only with Q, but Q, Marilyn and I and Patti went to Brazil in 1966. Patti was like 14 years old. It was an international song festival and Patti sang the song that Q, Marilyn and I wrote. So we go back a long time.

Now Frank Sinatra went to see the movie, “Best Friends.” He came out of the movie and he called Tony Bennett. He said, “I don’t have a recording date coming up, but I just heard a song from a movie.” He praised the song very nicely.

He said, “But you better go in and record it.” Tony went in the next week and recorded it and he’s closed his show with that song for the last 20 some odd years.

Tavis: I’ve seen it a trillion times, I think.

Alan: Yeah. So there’s a lot of love in that kind of song.

Marilyn: Quincy still views it as his song and well he should.

Tavis: It’s a great piece of work. Speaking of great songs and great compositions for movies and for television shows, my assistant Danny Davis could not believe me when he saw – he had never met you, of course, until today. He sees the two of you walk in the studio and I’ve told him so much about the Bergmans. He’s heard me talk about you for years.

He never met the Bergmans until today. He could not believe when he saw you that the two of you had written the theme from “Good Times” because every Negro in America knows and loves “Good Times.”

For those who did not know, these are the folk who wrote the song that we all sing all the time to “Good Times,” which is a strange sort of thing because you look at all the other stuff you’ve done and all the stuff we’re talking about and “Good Times” is in the middle there? How did that happen?

Alan: Let’s not forget Dave Grusin.

Marilyn: He wrote a great melody.

Tavis: Great melody, absolutely.

Marilyn: Probably because Norman Lear called us up and said, “I have this television pilot I’d like you to look at and it needs a theme song.”

Alan: And it didn’t have a title.

Marilyn: I was gonna say, not to sound too self-serving, but I think the title came from the song.

Alan: Yeah, it did.

Marilyn: But if not for the television show, we would have never written the song. It’s interesting. We were talking to Danny in the lounge before and he mentioned “Good Times.”

We said, “What’s interesting about that song, there’s a website where people are translating what they think one of the lines in particular of the song.”

He said, “Yeah, I spent a lot of time over the years trying to figure out that song. Then I figured out that the line had to rhyme with survivin'” which was the line before. So it’s “hanging in and jivin’. People do think it’s “hanging in the chow line.” No, that doesn’t rhyme.

Tavis: My camera guy just said he got it!

Marilyn: He did!

Tavis: After all these years, he just figured it out [laugh]. But Danny was thinking and others were, what do Alan and Marilyn Bergman, these two white folk from Brooklyn, know about that kind of experience?

Marilyn: White folk from Brooklyn know a lot about it [laugh].

Alan: Poor white folk [laugh].

Marilyn: Poor white folk [laugh]. Poor Jewish white folk!

Tavis: Poor Jewish white folk!

Alan: And you know who made the demo to show Norman? Q sang it.

Tavis: Quincy?

Alan: Yeah.

Marilyn: We can’t find it.

Alan: We can’t find it.

Tavis: Quincy sang the demo?

Alan: Yeah.

Marilyn: Quincy sang the demo and it’s lost somewhere.

Alan: Well, we had a fire.

Tavis: Quincy’s from Chicago, as you well know.

Alan: Oh, yeah. Well, we wrote it. You know we wrote it.

Marilyn: And Donny Hathaway recorded it, I think. Was it Donny Hathaway?

Alan: That was “Maude.”

Tavis: The “Maude” thing, oh, yeah.

Alan: You know, we wrote…

Tavis: “Maude,” “Alice,” “In the Heat of the Night.”

Alan: Yeah, that’s with Quincy.

Marilyn: There was another one.

Tavis: A whole bunch of other ones.

Alan: “Brooklyn Bridge,” I loved that.

Tavis: Speaking of singing, “Lyrically,” Alan Bergman?

Alan: Yeah, how about that?

Tavis: I mean, you’re writing this stuff all these years. This is 2007 maybe?

Alan: Yeah, somewhere in there.

Tavis: Somewhere on it, you decide you want to sing now.

Alan: No, I didn’t decide. You know what happened; we did a concert in New York.

Tavis: Yeah?

Alan: And a fellow from Germany who won the record company came to me and said, “May I talk to you?” I said yes and he said, “I love the way you sing. I’d like to make an album with you.” I said, “You don’t want to do that.” [Laugh] He said, “What do you mean?” He was from Germany.

I said, “My singing Alan and Marilyn Bergman songs, I don’t know how commercial that is for you to make some money.” He kept after me for three years and finally I said okay. He flew us to Berlin and had an orchestra and he brought in some…

Marilyn: 60 pieces.

Alan: Yeah, and he brought in some wonderful people from here. Jeff Hamilton, a great drummer, and Chris McBride, a fantastic bass player, because he said we don’t have a good rhythm section in Germany.

Marilyn: He never had good rhythm [laugh].

Alan: And there was a wonderful piano player there. We made this CD and what I feel wonderful about is I hear from jazz musicians all over the country. They just love it and tell me how much they enjoy it.

Tavis: I think it’s cool that, at your age then, you decided to take him up on this offer.

Alan: We tried to get me nominated for the best new artist [laugh] a few years ago, but nobody cared. But I’m gonna make another one.

Marilyn: I wanted him to do one with a small jazz trio, yeah.

Tavis: A small trio, yeah.

Marilyn: Yeah, small group.

Tavis: How do the two of you stay young? I mean, I know you’re a tennis player.

Alan: Yeah.

Tavis: You still hitting every day?

Alan: Every day. I play every day.

Marilyn: Hitting? He plays with three guys whose ages put together are not as old as he is.

Alan: No, no, that’s not quite right.

Marilyn: Well, poetic license.

Alan: You know, it’s great, the camaraderie. All these fellows, they don’t care whether they win or lose. They don’t give you a bad call. Everybody’s having a good time. We’re out there for fun.

Marilyn: Does he look like a tennis player?

Tavis: He’s in great shape. Speaking of singing your own stuff, how did it feel to have this project come out?

Alan: Oh, wow.

Tavis: So Miss Streisand, we talked about last night, who you mentioned everybody knows has been your muse. When she produces this project, “What Matters Most,” Barbra Streisand sings the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, an entire project of nothing but your stuff.

Marilyn: Thrilling.

Tavis: It had to be, it had to be. What a tribute.

Marilyn: Looking at the CD in your hands, I still get a thrill every time I look at it. It’s funny; we were doing something at the Motion Picture Academy. We were on a panel with Quincy and Barbra, music probably.

In the course of the panel conversation, she said to Quincy or to the audience, “My next project is going to be all of Alan and Marilyn’s songs.”

Tavis: She hadn’t told you this yet.

Marilyn: No.

Alan: No.

Tavis: Oh! Wow.

Alan: We had no idea.

Tavis: How is that for a surprise?

Marilyn: I almost fell through the floor.

Alan: It’s thrilling.

Marilyn: You know, to have this great, great artist, probably one of the greatest singers of songs ever…

Tavis: When you get asked questions by budding songwriters for advice, what do you find yourself saying to them consistently?

Marilyn: It’s interesting because it’s a similar answer, I realize, to the questions that elicited reading. I think listening and studying the great songs that came in the past, came before you, why they last, why they still touch people or amuse people or excite people or whatever songs can do.

What is it about a song that’s 30 years old that still speaks to people and sometimes can say something better than any essay, any speech? Anything can rally people to causes, can speak love songs to people. I think you have to know the literature just as before you write a novel.

I have a feeling that once it’s down and reads novels that came before, it should be the same thing with song literature, I think. So I think aspiring songwriters had better know what came before them.

First of all, they don’t rewrite what’s been written already. Sometimes better, they can do it. I don’t know. Or if they know what the challenges are to find new ways to say things, to explore new musical areas which they’re doing.

I think the hip-hop generation has really opened up again what the next wave of creative writing is.

Tavis: Take that, Mikey.

Marilyn: I think it’s absolutely stunning.

Tavis: Marilyn Bergman gives thumbs up to hip-hop.

Marilyn: I don’t think that’s new from me.

Tavis: I think it is for a lot of people.

Marilyn: Yeah, but I think, talk about storytellers, talk about love of words, talk about experimentation with sounds. I don’t know of anything else that’s being written in popular music.

Tavis: That’s that innovative and creative.

Marilyn: Nothing.

Tavis: What do you say to young songwriters?

Alan: Well, I think there are two books that have been written recently. Stephen Sondheim.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.

Alan: Now he’s the best there is.

Marilyn: That’s why I said pop music.

Alan: Yeah, he’s the best there is.

Tavis: Right.

Alan: In the creative process, in the writing. Even though he’s talking about the theater, his methods and so forth, they are so wonderfully instructive, so important for young songwriters.

Marilyn: Or any writers.

Alan: Or any writers.

Marilyn: Or actors.

Alan: Well, look where he comes from. I mean, he is…

Marilyn: It’s the New and the Old Testament, those two volumes [laugh].

Alan: Yeah, that’s true. She’s right about pop, but the thing that we have to get back to is, you mentioned it, is melody. Melody is not where we should have it. You know, it’s gone for the most part and we have to have that back.

Tavis: Whenever I’m in town anywhere, even at their home, but whenever I’m here and I see them, I will run past everybody else to get to them because I can’t wait to give them a hug and just kiss them on their face and tell them I love them and how much I appreciate them.

But part of the reason for that is not just your gift, but it is so rare in this town or anyplace else, but certainly in this town, it’s so rare to meet people who are still so in touch with humanity and exudes such humility.

I mean, I just don’t know a whole bunch of folk who’ve been nominated for all the Academy Awards and won them and who are firmly ensconced in the American Songbook. But your humanity and your humility is so profound.

How do you hold onto that kind of humility in a town like this or an industry like yours when you’ve achieved just about everything? I mean, not just about. I think you have achieved everything. Where does the humility come from?

Marilyn: I don’t know. I don’t know that it’s humility. You talk about times. You said something about times like this. Can we talk for the remaining minutes about the times we’re in right now?

Tavis: Take it away.

Marilyn: I am frightened. There is an election coming up. I have to talk about this, Tavis.

Tavis: Go ahead.

Marilyn: There’s an election coming up in five months? That’s scary how soon. But I think maybe I have had a long life.

Maybe the most important election of my life, I’m afraid what can happen if the voices of division and the voices of hate are drowned out, the voices of everything that we’ve really been talking about tonight, of humanity, of literacy, of society, everything we care about.

I just am terrified. I think people don’t read. We go back to reading. I don’t know where they get their news from if they don’t really read a broad spectrum of what’s out there. If you just watch one television station…

Tavis: That tells you what you want to hear.

Marilyn: Yes, exactly. It’s an echo chamber.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Marilyn: And it reinforces whatever bad stuff there is to be reinforced. I don’t know how we move off this place that we seem to be stuck on right now. I think it consumes me more than anything else right now.

Tavis: I love the fact that artists at their best, lyrics at their best, tap into our humanity. That’s why I so love what you two do and other great writers do. I think you made this point earlier tonight.

I can’t say it as beautifully as you said it, but sometimes it takes a song to speak to us in ways that a speech or some other presentation will not. Does that make sense?

Marilyn: Yes, of course.

Alan: Oh, yes.

Tavis: That’s why I love music so much. That’s why I love music.

Marilyn: But don’t you feel that we’re on kind of a shaky place right now?

Tavis: I’d go further than that. I’d go further than that.

Marilyn: Tell me.

Tavis: As you both know, I just came off of a book tour. Our friend, Dr. Cornel West, my dear friend, and I have written a book together, love him.

We’ve written a book together called “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” a poverty manifesto. We were on tour for four weeks and I kept making this point everywhere. As a matter of fact, I haven’t said this to anybody, so I’m saying it now.

I got called by the U.S. Senate the other day, specifically by the Senate Finance Committee. They’ve decided now to finally hold hearings on poverty in America, which I think is a beautiful thing.

Marilyn: About time.

Tavis: Exactly. They were calling me to ask me if I was available to come back to Washington and testify, which I can’t do, but they did ask me. I’m on the phone now with the leading ranking Democratic committee person and the Republican committee person.

We’re on a conference call together and they’re both asking me what I would say. They wanted some crib notes if in fact I would come to Washington. To your question, I was saying that more than just being a little scared, we are on the precipice of losing our democracy.

Poverty threatens our democracy, by extension, illiteracy and all the other issues that you raise, but this divide between the rich and the poor, this divide between the have gots and the have nots, is not just a scary thing. It’s threatening to our democracy.

It’s a matter of national security and that always throws people because we think of national security as some outside terrorist threat. What this country is up against is not an outside terrorist threat as much as we are from internal rot.

What’s gonna get us is the internal rot in this country, the lack of quality education, the lack of housing, the lack of jobs with a minimum wage.

Marilyn: Healthcare.

Tavis: Healthcare. This is a national security threat and poverty and these other issues are no longer color-coded. Too many Americans are struggling with all of these issues that you just raised.

I’m not just scared. My read of history says there’s no empire in the history of the world that at some point did not falter or fail. As Americans, we don’t want to acknowledge that because we’re all that and then some. But every empire has its day.

I don’t think we want to wrestle with how dangerously close we are to the edge because it scares us to even think about that.

Alan: And add to that the Supreme Court decision.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Marilyn: Well, that Supreme Court decision is a lot of money.

Tavis: It’s vulgar, it’s just vulgar, the money in our politics.

Marilyn: I think that this Supreme Court decision that says that corporations are people? I don’t know a person who writes a song, a corporation who writes a song.

Tavis: If they did, I wouldn’t want to hear it, yeah [laugh].

Marilyn: But it terrifies me. It terrifies me. We sit and write checks every day to people who, if they don’t find their way into the Senate or back to the Senate or into the Senate – the House I don’t even discuss.

But I know that it doesn’t mean anything, what I’m doing, because they’re talking about such floods and a lot of money that has nothing to do with democracy, nothing.

Tavis: Here again, we come back to Alan and Marilyn Bergman and we’ll close the show on this note.

Because when we get terrified and we get frightened and we get anxious, there’s nothing like a good Alan and Marilyn Bergman song to bring you back to center, to bring you back to the north star, at the very least to remind you about what really matters in life, and that’s why I so love you both.

I’m so honored to have you on this program.

Marilyn: It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Tavis: The delight was all mine, trust me. “Lyrically” by Alan Bergman is the project from him, the latest project from him where he’s singing the best of their stuff. You got to get this added to your collection.

Miss Streisand, Barbra Streisand, in tribute to the Bergmans, her project is called “What Matters Most.” She sings the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Again, I love you both and am glad you finally made it here not for one night, but for two. Thank you both.

Alan: It’s our pleasure.

Marilyn: A great honor.

Tavis: Glad to have you. That’s our show for tonight.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

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Last modified: July 31, 2012 at 7:55 pm