This week on the show, we pay tribute to the most important husband-and-wife songwriting team in American popular music history: Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Marilyn Bergman has just died at the age of 93 on January 8 of this year. They began writing songs together around the time of their marriage in 1958 and had a songwriting career that continued for many decades, earning them multiple Grammys and three Oscars. This hour, I will present several of their songs, like “The Windmills of Your Mind”, “What Do You Do the Rest of Your Life”, and others, sung by big names in jazz and pop like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennettand more.
Alan and Marilyn Bergman were both born in Brooklyn, New York in the late 1920s, both from Jewish families who both worked in the garment industry. However, the two didn’t meet until the late 1950s when they were each trying to break into the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
Alan was an aspiring songwriter, who had been encouraged by the lyricist Johnny Mercier. Marilyn (who was Marilyn Keith at the time) had been encouraged to do the same by the lyricist Bob Russell. By the late 1950s, they had each written song lyrics with the composer Lew Spence: Alan had written the song “That Face” with Spence for vocals Fred Astaire in 1957, and Marilyn had written “That’s him over there” with him for Peggy Lee in 1954. Perhaps coincidentally, these two songs had remarkably similar themes – faces and falling in love.
Lew Spence ended up introducing both. In 1958, Alan and Marilyn were married and their joint career as songwriters and lyricists began. One of their first hit songs they wrote together came back with composer Lew Spence, the song “Friendly and easy,” from the 1960 album of the same name through Frank Sinatra. It was the only swing tune on an all-ballad album, and even hit the Billboard charts as a single. They also wrote other songs for Sinatra around this time, including “Sentimental Baby” recorded September 1960 and originally released on the 1962 album Capitol Sinatra sings about love and thingsand “Sleep warm” recorded in 1958. “Sleep Warm” was later the title track of an album by dean martinwhich featured an orchestra conducted by Sinatra.
Alan and Marilyn Bergman continued to work with composer Lew Spence for a few years, writing songs like “I never left your arms” for Dinah Shore, and “The Wedding Ring” for Tony Bennett. In 1964 they had an unsuccessful affair on the Broadway stage with the composer Samy Faina show called Something more. (They would only write one musical more than a decade later, the 1978 musical Ballroom with music by Billy Goldenberg, who was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical.)
As the 1960s progressed and music culture began to shift towards rock music and the British Invasion, the husband and wife team found that their more traditional style of songwriting was becoming less common. But they forged their way, keeping alive some of the musical traditions of the Great American Songbook by turning their attention to movie songs, especially movie title songs. It is in this environment that the duo really shone.
One of their first hits was the title track of the groundbreaking 1967 film In the heat of the Night, featuring the late great Sidény Poitier. The song “In the heat of the Night” had music written by quincy jonesand became a hit for the singer Ray Charles.
The Bergmans quickly became the most in-demand theme songwriters in Hollywood. For at least the next decade, an Alan and Marilyn Bergman song was tied to a big movie, often hitting the pop charts and earning songwriting duo accolades in the process.
As an extension of “In The Heat Of The Night”, the duo teamed up with the French composer Michael Legrand, the beginning of a very fruitful partnership. Legrand once said of the Bergmans, and I quote: “Their words say exactly what my music says – always.” Their first collaboration came in 1968 with the theme for the new film The Thomas Crown Affair.
The song they wrote for the movie was eventually titled “The Windmills of Your Mind,” and the Bergmans paint an evocative image of a spiral, a wheel, an ever-turning wheel, while Legrand’s melody spins in circles. The tune was originally performed by Noel Harrison and later popularized by dusty springfieldwhich later earned the songwriting team an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
The couple continued to write with Legrand for much of the late 1960s through the 1980s, writing lyrics for some of what would become their best-known songs. This includes “What do you do the rest of your life” for the 1969 film The happy ending, “Pieces of Dreams” behind the 1971 film of the same name, “Summer Knows” for the 1971 film Summer 42, and “How Do You Keep Playing Music” from the 1982 movie Best friends, among others. “How Do You Keep The Music Playing” has become a bit of a calling card for the Bergmans because it’s almost autobiographical to their particular history and decades of work in the music industry. It’s a song about art and love, creativity and longevity, and keeping that spark of passion (be it music or a relationship) alive, year after year. To put it in their own words: “How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading too quickly?
They also wrote the English lyrics for the song. “You Must Believe in Spring” another film song by Legrand. This song originally comes from the 1967 French film The Demoiselles de Rochefort, with the original lyrics in French by the director of the film Jacques Demy. The Bergmans wrote their English lyrics to the song about five years later. All these Legrand and Bergman songs have become standards performed by Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, and dozens of other jazz and pop singers over the years.
The duo also branched out to work with songwriters in the 1970s and 80s, including johnny mandel (“Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams”), Dave Grusin (“It could be you”), Henry Mancini (“All His Children”), and Sergio Mendes (“So Many Stars”).
Their most successful partnership, in terms of cultural relevance, might be their collaboration with songwriter Marvin Hamlish on the tone “The way we were,” from the 1973 film of the same name. This song won the Oscar for Best Original Song and the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1975 (Hamlish also won the Grammy for Best New Artist that year). The song (and movie) launched the singer and actress Barbra Streisand into superstar status, and Turner Classic Movies once called “The Way We Were”, “one of the most recognizable songs in the world”.
Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s songs, especially their movie songs, have been performed by some of America’s most acclaimed singers – Barbara Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, the list goes on. One of their most famous is with the singer Tony Bennett. Bennett gave signature performances of a number of Bergman songs, including “You Must Believe in Spring” and “How Do You Keep Playing Music”. One of their last songs they worked on together was a commission from Tony Bennett. In 1998, while Bennett was recording a children’s album, he wanted to adapt a 1970 Bill Evans melody titled “Children’s Play Song”. He asked the Bergmans to come up with lyrics, which became the title track for that album. “The stadium.”