An interview with Paul Williams

Paul Williams never learned to take no for an answer.

After briefly pursuing an acting career in the mid-60s – he once had a bit part in a movie with Brando – he was told by his agent, “The offers have dried up and you should look for a different profession.”

The Nebraska-born Williams, who’d grown up adoring great American composers like Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart, started to tinker with songwriting. On the set of The Chase, Paul used his downtime to teach himself acoustic guitar. With a handful of demos, he soon got signed by White Whale Records to an artist deal.

“After about two months, the label called me into the office and said, ‘We don’t think you have a future in music,’ and they tore up my contract,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Undaunted, Williams kept writing songs and within two years, he became a staffer at A & M. By the early ‘70s, he and writing partner Roger Nichols landed cuts by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and of course, the Carpenters, who turned exquisite ballads such as “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” into standards. Paul’s streak continued through the decade with hits such as “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” “Rainbow Connection” and “Evergreen.”

As his songwriting star rose, he returned to the two pursuits he’d left behind. As an actor, he did memorable comic turns in Smokey & The Bandit, Battle For The Planet of the Apes and The Muppet Movie (he was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and variety shows from The Muppets to Sonny & Cher). As a recording artist, he made seven fine albums for A & M. But along with success came excess. Lots of it.

“You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade,” Williams says now. And for him that decade was the 80s.

“I think it was always self-medicating for me,” he continues. “The confidence booster. Life is scary and I found something that made the boogey man manageable. Until I went too far and became the boogey man.”

Before he got clean, he did manage to write the wonderfully bad-good songs for Ishtar. Forget the cliché about Ishtar being the worst movie ever. It’s not. It’s funny. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Dustin Hoffman sing “I’m Leaving Some Love In My Will.”

These days, the 61-year old Williams is back in the game in a big way. In the past year, he’s written songs with the Scissor Sisters and Jason Mraz. Lily Allen and Dizzee Rascal recently cut a duet based on a song from Williams’ Bugsy Malone musical. He landed another song from Bugsy in a new Coke commercial. He has four stage musicals in progress, including Happy Days (“Yes, the Fonz sings,” laughs Williams) and the cult film Phantom of the Paradise. He’s acting in Georgia Rules, a new film with Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan. And he’s been performing around the world, from Vegas to Manila.

“But the best part of my life today is that I’m playing again at writing as opposed to working at it,” Williams says. “I’ve really fallen in love with the whole process again.”

Your first two records were by Tiny Tim and Claudine Longet – a quirky couple. At the time, did that make you wonder about where your songwriting career might lead?

I was thrilled to have somebody singing my songs, and totally confused about what kind of a writer I was. One of the real gifts of my career and my life is the timing of the whole thing. My career as a writer began as some huge iconic careers were winding down. So, I could catch a cut with Elvis, Crosby, Sinatra. What you might call calendar luck.

Any Tiny Tim stories?

Tiny always called me “Mr. Williams.” He was very sweet, a gentle spirit and very strange. I remember a period when he’d only eat baby food. According to Richard Perry [Tiny’s producer] he’d buy a case of baby food, open a jar, smell it and if he didn’t get a good feeling he’d toss the whole case.

Can you describe a typical day as an A & M staff writer?

I’d get to the studio around 10 in the morning. So would Roger [Nichols]. We’d get the word on who was looking for songs, write a few hours, have lunch, a few drinks, write a little more, have more drinks. We’d trot over to the Etc., a club across the street. Eventually, Roger would go home and more often than not I’d go back to the office and write, either by myself or with other writers. I loved the security of the lot, and the history of the old Chaplin Studio. For an out of work actor it was a wonderful feeling to have finally found that thing I could do. Long before making a living with music, music gave me life, a kind of healthy outlet for whatever was stirring in my chest or unconscious.

What was your writing process with Roger Nichols like?

Roger always gave me a finished melody to write to. And he expected a note-for-note lyric. They usually came pretty quickly. And more than once we were driven to an office by our publisher to play something new even before it was demoed. I finished “Rainy Days & Mondays” in the back of a car on the way to play it for Bones Howe, who was recording the 5th Dimension. He turned it down.

When you get a melody, what are your first steps in setting a lyric to it?

I gather materials. Play it over and over again and write down what I hear. I’m like those United Nations interpreters who hear Spanish and then translate it to Vietnamese. I hear words in the music. Sometimes I come up empty. But usually I hear stuff, and just start writing down what I hear until it begins to take shape.

You’ve said, “When I write, I intentionally let myself sound vulnerable.”

I don’t remember saying that. I did write from the center of my chest though. I joke about being the master of the co-dependent anthem. The fact is I wrote about my own fantasies and neediness and longing. And other people relate to the emotions sometimes. It’s what we have in common that makes a song work. Not the uniqueness of the lyric. Honesty and authenticity are key to writing.

Tell me about writing “We’ve Only Just Begun”

It had all the romantic beginnings of a bank commercial . Roger and I were approached by Crocker Bank. They were going to show a young couple getting married, their first kiss, the wedding reception and then riding off into the sunset. No voice over, just copy at the end that said, “You’ve got a long way to go. We’d like to help you get there.” We wrote the first two verses of the song in the studio while we were working on something else. I remember writing the lyrics on the back of an envelope. It came together very quickly. We slapped it on the commercial. We added a bridge and 3rd verse just in case anyone ever wanted to cut it. It was never going to be a hit. Then Richard Carpenter heard it and cut it. An angel sang it and everything changed. Crocker Bank never had any of the publishing, so there was no problem with them wanting a cut of it. Quite the opposite, our publisher then went around and licensed the song to other banks for commercials all around the country. I meet a lot of people who’ve been married to “Begun.” That’s heart payment for a songwriter. To have been a part of something that important in someone’s life. It makes you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile.

There was a time when you were living in Montecito between Jonathan Winters and Robert Mitchum. Can you tell me a story about the three of you?

I never saw them both at the same time. Winters I met in the early 60s when we did The Loved One together. He’s brilliant. We have the same business manager. Now there’s a man with some patience (laughs). Mitchum was a hero. A dark star. He loved music and drinking and storytelling and he never compromised his outlawness to work in the business. He was a great actor and it kills me that he never got real recognition from the academy before he died. He was a great rebel. He was busted for dope that he swears was planted on him. He’d already smoked all his own (laughs). Trying to keep up with him put me in rehab twice!

When did you realize that you had a drinking problem?

It’s a progressive disease. I don’t know when I crossed the line from use to abuse to addiction, but I sure as hell did. By the 80s I was hiding out on the spread in Montecito, peeking out the window at 3 in the morning, looking for the tree police. Cocaine and Vodka. I didn’t want to leave the room because I was afraid I’d miss what I was saying. I missed the infancy of my kids because of my drinking and using. And the career took a big break. I had my last drink in 1989 and have been continuously sober since March 15th, 1990. I’m 17 years sober. Extra innings! The best years of my life.

What’s the most satisfying part of your work now as a counselor?

Sharing the truth. Alcoholism is a disease. And there’s real hope for the alcoholic if he wants to get sober. There’s hope for the hopeless.

Like many of my songwriter friends, I love Ishtar. It can’t be easy to write bad songs that are that good.

Thank you. I’m very proud of my contribution to Ishtar. I wanted to do more than just write bad songs. I wanted them to be true to the characters. I wanted their pure love of writing and the process to show. I think those bad songs are some of my best work.

Did you make yourself laugh when you were writing?

All the time. The overworked metaphors. The song that starts out pretty good that they’d screw up. “Dangerous Business” starts out pretty good – “Telling the truth can be dangerous business / Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” Then it comes, the classic Chuck and Lyle line – “If you admit that you can play the accordion / No one will hire you in a rock and roll band.”

Was there a soundtrack album?

Yes, complete recordings of the entire score. Great musicians playing with the boys singing. Jim Keltner, Waddy Wachtell, Lawrence Juber. But the album was shelved when the press began reviewing the budget instead of the picture. They’re trying to do a major documentary on Ishtar right now. I don’t think the soundtrack release will happen unless Warren goes along with it, but I’d love to see it come out.

I’d like to mention a few names of people you worked with just to get your brief response. . . Karen Carpenter

She gets better and better the older I get. I owe so much of the life I have today to her brilliance.

Johnny Carson

He made me feel at home in front of millions of people. A great laugher, a great entertainer, he was as good as late night TV will ever get.

Jack Klugman and Tony Randall

Just like their characters on the Odd Couple. Jack is so easy going you forget what a great actor he is. Tony was very emotional. On Hollywood Squares he’d get very weepy talking about his pal Wally Cox. I like weepy people.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about songwriting?

Avoid waltzes. They produce 3/4 of the sales. I didn’t really listen. My favorite song is probably “Rainbow Connection,” a frog waltz.

After writing songs for so many years, what about the process still mystifies you?

All of it. You sit down with someone, or alone, and you talk and you poke around at the piano, and all of a sudden you’re writing down words and music that are pouring out of you. Sometimes you stay up all night and get all zippy about something you’ve created you’re convinced is gonna be a rock and roll classic, then you listen the next day and it sounds exactly like “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” But sometimes you find a phrase or a verse or a whole song that’s just too good, too important to have come from you alone.

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One Response to An interview with Paul Williams

  1. colter says:

    Little Enos from Smokey and the Bandit? I had no idea!

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