Marilyn Bergman: One of the Most Successful Songwriters in History

Posted on February 17, 2022 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Memorial
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Frank Sinatra typically did not like to have songwriters attend recording sessions.  But, on April 13, 1960, he made an exception for lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The two were allowed to sit in the control room of Studio A at Capital Records in Hollywood for the cutting of Nice ‘N’ Easy, a song the Bergmans had written especially for Sinatra.

Marilyn Bergman, who passed away at 93 on January 8, 2022, vividly recalled that April evening.  Composing a song for Sinatra, she told The New York Times, was “like writing for a character.  He had such a well-defined persona:  sexy, smooth, a little rough and complicated, exuding a dangerous heat.”

The exacting singer already had copious respect for the Bergmans’ abilities.  Sinatra had commissioned them to write Sleep Warm, the title song for a 1958 album he conducted for his pal, Dean Martin.

The situation surrounding Nice ‘N’ Easy was entirely different.  Sinatra was putting together an album of ballads which featured a Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington title tune, The Nearness of You.  He was, however, dissatisfied with the overall direction of the project:  he wanted to add a fresh “lightly swinging” number.

Word hit the streets and it was like a zero hour call-to-arms.  According to Alan Bergman, “probably more than a hundred” creative talents assembled material for Sinatra.

The Bergmans worked with composer Lew Spence on a catchy melody and produced the polished result the Sinatra team was seeking.

As Marilyn Bergman explained, Nice ‘N’ Easy was about the fragile progression of a mature love affair, one that rushing could jeopardize.  It was classic Bergman writing:  silky understatement, dreamy quality, and definite subtext.

At Capitol Records, Sinatra skillfully wove the song with different intonations and phrasing until he completely nailed it on the 12th take.  The finger snaps on the second chorus was spontaneous enthusiasm emerging.

Nearness was dropped and the album was retitled Nice ‘N’ Easy.  Upon release, it spent thirty-five weeks on the Top 40, including nine at number one, and was nominated for a Grammy Award as Album of the Year.

The joint effort cemented the already blooming personal and professional relationship between Sinatra and the Bergmans.  It was during the recording session that Sinatra began referring to the couple as “the kids,” a nickname he used for them when the Bergmans were well into their 70’s.

In a 2019 posthumous release, Sinatra Sings Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Capitol collected 13 of the trio’s collaborations.  The Bergmans wrote touching liner notes.

“When you are young songwriters and Frank picked one of your songs to record, it was as if you were chosen to join a select group…” they wrote.  “It not only made us feel good but it gave us a measure of confidence to continue writing.”

And continue writing they did, mostly for movies and later, television. “Nice ‘N’ Easy was like a custom suit for Frank,” Marilyn Bergman explained.  “We preferred to write in a dramatic context.  That’s what we are able to do for movies.”

Very few songwriters have done it better.  The Bergmans won 3 Academy Awards, 2 Grammy Awards, and 4 Emmys.  Astoundingly, they were nominated fifteen times in the best original song Oscar category.

One career highpoint occurred in 1983 when they pulled the equivalent of the first triple play at the Academy Awards.  The best original song category contained five nominees, three of which were written by the Bergmans.  Since then, on four other occasions, songwriters have been nominated for three Oscars — but all for the same song.  The Bergmans’ three songs were separate compositions for three different films.

A list of their most famous songs would be too lengthy for this space, but here are a few:  The Way We Were, How Do You Keep the Music Playing?, That Face, What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?, The Windmills of Your Mind, and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.  The Bergmans also wrote a number of familiar television themes including ones for Maude, Alice, and Good Times.

The album which best showcases the breadth of the Bergmans’ talent is What Matters Most, Barbra Streisand Sings The Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman.  The 20-song, two-disc compilation includes many of their hits, as well as little known gems that leave the listener marveling at true songwriting brilliance.

Marilyn Bergman described her friend and colleague Barbra Streisand:  “She’s aware of the permanence when you write something or perform something.  She sees her responsibility as making something as good as it can be.”

The very same thing can be said of Marilyn Bergman.

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