EXCLUSIVE: Carole Bayer Sager Recalls How Whitney Houston Was 'Lost' in Her Own Addiction
By Andi Rocco
Photo: Matthew Rolston
GRAMMY Award-winning lyricist Carole Bayer Sager is no stranger to the music industry, and after nearly five decades collaborating with numerous recording artists, composers, and musicians, she is sharing her story -- both inside and outside the biz.
Sager, 69, has written some of the most notable songs of our time, including "The Prayer" sung by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. More recently, she co-wrote "Stronger Together," which played after Hillary Clinton's speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
In her new memoir, They're Playing Our Song, the Oscar winner (for 1981's "Arthur's Theme") shares some of her inspirations for writing songs -- including the one she wrote for the late Whitney Houston.
It's no secret Houston battled with drug abuse throughout the course of her career, and the songwriter reflects on Houston's many missteps, referring specifically to 2002's Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, in which Houston repeatedly claimed sobriety, and how Houston was infamously "fired" from performing at the 2000 Oscars. In an effort to "empower" Houston from her current state of mind, Sager penned the song "Try It On My Own."
Read the lyrics Sager wrote for Houston in the excerpt below:
After years of fighting an often-losing battle with drug addiction, 2002, and the aftereffects of her cigarette and cocaine use left her voice not quite as brilliant as it once was.
I knew Whitney through her aunt, Dionne Warwick, who had collaborated so closely with Burt [Bacharach]. Whitney was still a young girl when I first met her, and she was in awe of her famous aunt. Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston, was one of Dionne's backup singers for many years.
With over 170 million sales of albums, singles, and videos combined, Whitney's success had eclipsed every other female artist ever. But that was then. The last ten years had been all downhill and her life was chronicled weekly in the tabloids.
With this as background, Kenny Edmonds called me about writing a song for Whitney. What was her voice like now, and what was she like physically? I asked. He said she was clean and really sounding very good.
Two years prior, she'd shown up late and disoriented at the Academy Awards rehearsal. She was to sing "Over the Rainbow" and didn't know the words. Burt, who was the musical director that year, met with Lili and Dick Zanuck, who were producing the show. They told him to fire Whitney. "No one will remember who won Best Picture," they said. "They will only remember that Whitney was a train wreck." They replaced her with Faith Hill with only twenty-four hours before the show went on the air.
That was the last I'd heard about Whitney until Kenny's call.
I loved her voice. To me, she was one of the greatest singers of our time.
Like millions of other viewers, I was heartbroken watching her disastrous exchange earlier in the year when Diane Sawyer interviewed an anorexic-looking, clearly stoned-out Whitney who denied using any drugs at the time -- yet another tragic moment in a career that was spiraling out of control.
Believing, or wanting to believe, that she was better, Kenny and I began working on a song for Whitney. She was separated from her husband Bobby Brown at the time, and her family was helping her stay sober and clean. I thought a lot about what Whitney might want to say if she was writing her own song. I gave Kenny my title, "Try It On My Own." I wanted to write a lyric that would empower her. He liked it. I wrote the following to his melody.
And I am not afraid to try it on my own
I don't care if I'm right or wrong
I'll live my life the way I feel
No matter what I'll keep it real, you know
It's time for me to do it on my own
Kenny produced the record, and Whitney did sound great. I also loved the video, which parodied her being fired from the Oscars, spoofed American Idol, and had her pushing Bobby Brown away, and then singing the song her way with a large gospel choir in front of a live audience at the Lyric Theatre, one of the oldest black-owned theatres in Miami. I don't know if the video was Whitney's idea or the director's, but as with Michael's Invincible, not outstanding, and nowhere near what she did at her height.
The problem was that Whitney was not truly recovered, and every time she sang live, her performance got worse. Her pitch was off. She struggles for notes that were once easy for her. She was lost in her addiction, and her rail-thin appearance was difficult for audiences, including me, to see. This might have been what prevented the song from being a much bigger hit on the scale of some of her others. But for me, as her fan, the sight of her unraveling was the worst part.