This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Paul Williams, president and chairman of the board, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Like Norma Desmond, Paul Williams is back for a close-up.
But this time, he’s working the shadows.
Williams is a natural to be chairman/president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), one of the three major performing rights organizations in the U.S. that collect royalties on behalf of publishers, and songwriters.
He is a small—literally—businessman who has spent his career putting what has been in the center of his chest into his work.
These include such memorable songs as: "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born),” "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainbow Connection," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "I Won't Last a Day Without You" “Waking Up Alone,” and "Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song.”
Williams, who is also a celebrated actor, spent much of the '80s out of the spotlight while battling alcohol and drugs. He has been sober since March 5th, 1990. The documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive," recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, chronicles his road to recovery.
Key to his position at ASCAP is that Williams knows firsthand the daunting steps it takes for a songwriter to reach a wide audience while fighting to be paid fairly.
Williams is concerned that if music is not fairly valued or compensated, then a successful career in music will be increasingly out of reach for many young creators.
The viability of our industry, he tells you over and over again, depends upon insuring that these creators have the opportunity to pursue music as a profession, not just as a hobby.
However, after decades of occupying one of the most stable corners of the music business, performing rights organizations like ASCAP are now facing unprecedented competitive challenges.
ASCAP's annual revenue slipped 6% in 2010 to $935 million, down from a record-high $995 million in the prior year.
EMI Music Publishing announced in May (2011) that it will now issue bundled mechanical and performances licenses directly to online services for its EMI April Music catalog, assuming responsibility for functions previously handled by ASCAP.
It is a move that other leading music publishers are expected to follow.
As well the Supreme Court this month declined to hear an ASCAP appeal that may have resulted in increased royalties for digital music use.
The decision lets stand a lower court’s ruling that downloading a song does not constitute a public performance of it.
The case, originally filed by ASCAP in 2007, concerns the two types of royalties paid to publishers for the music and lyrics that underlies any recording.
Most forms of online streaming are considered a form of public performance, which allows publishers to be paid a royalty based on the performance right of copyright holders.
A download, on the other hand, incurs a different royalty as a “mechanical reproduction” of a song in a fixed format.
ASCAP argued that the digital transmission of a download was a public performance, in addition to its being a permanent reproduction. A federal district court had earlier ruled against ASCAP.
The Supreme Court decision effectively affirms the status quo.
As Irving Berlin once said to Hal David, “Why do you want to be president (of ASCAP) for? You are such a good songwriter.”
There’s this club I belong to of recovering alcoholics and addicts. One of the guys responsible for starting this amazing club said recovery is all about love and service. So, it’s about being loving, and about being in service. But I would take it one step further. It’s about finding something that you really love and are passionate about.
How can it be in 2011, and the runt of the litter--this old, out-of-work actor--has found a life beyond what he could have imagined? To have the opportunity to now take that gratitude into the position that I have today. So there’s a passion about being able to give back, and I can’t say enough about the feeling of being made to feel really useful. I have never felt more useful in my life.
For you, this is all happening at 71.
71 is the new 68. I feel younger now. I got sober when I was 49. I am in better shape and, having exited Maybeville in 1990, I am totally present in the world that I am living in today. Gratitude is the fuel that drives my life. You will be hard pressed to find a human being on this earth—certainly find another songwriter—that is more grateful than I am for the life that I have today.
It’s a stunning gift.
In a way, it’s two lives. There was the life before I went away; and there is the life after I came back. You ask why I would want to do this job. Part of the reason is just out of the pure gratitude for the life I have today. Don’t spread this around, but I have never had more fun.
ASCAP has such an amazing legacy.
It is an amazing legacy. To take it into the board room today, and for me to sit there, and l look over and there’s Jimmy Webb (as writer vice chairman), Hal David, and Irwin Robinson (as publisher vice chairman). Talk about a world-class publisher. I have had experiences there with (entertainment lawyer) John Eastman, and with all of these people around the room.
You will be hard pressed to find a gathering more passionate, and more giving to what they are working on than the ASCAP board. It is the most amazing collection of purely dedicated men and women that I have ever sat across from in my life. It’s beyond personal interests. The personal interests are left outside of the board room. What I observe is a deep, deep caring for the task before them. The love of the work, and the love of the music is so present in that room, even amongst the people from the conglomerates, and the new world publishers—even amongst them, the love for the music, I feel, is immense.
Songwriters are the unsung heroes of the music business. They are still in the shadows to some degree unless they are a performer as well.
I don’t know who hung that front door on the front of my house, but I use it every day, and I am grateful for it. The fact is that songs become a door to intense emotions. They become bookmarks to the human experience that are cherished. I can listen to songs ranging from 1956 to three days ago; and, as I go through the material, there are personal memories that are bookmarked by these beautiful songs, these wonderful songs.
What do you make of the music industry today with all of its changes and challenges?
First of all, the creation of the internet has to be equal to the creation of the printing press as far as having an impact on the world as we know it. The cultural access; the gift and the opportunities that come with it; and, of course, the challenges that come with it. There’s more music being played on more strange little devices, and in more places, than ever before in the history of the world.
The challenge is to make sure that, in the advancement of the technology, the music creator is not left behind.
The technology has always outrun the law. But it’s has never been the case before where there was ever a challenge, as far as the general public is concerned, to the music creators’ right to make a living with what they do.
We went through a really interesting period during the Napster days where we actually had to deal with that. I think that things have gotten much better about that. If you look at kids under 12 or so today, they have a much better concept of copyright and intellectual property.
There’s a certain age, 12 to 26, that slots into that Napster period, where the accessibility of music—because it was in a little rectangle on your computer, and because it was there and you could just take it—we had to go back to a certain point of educating. Part of the education process was legal accessibility, and the fact is there are now wondrous ways to legally access music.
iTunes must be credited for creating a legal digital market.
Still, the Supreme Court recently declined to hear ASCAP’s appeal in a case that could have resulted in increased royalties for digital music.
In history, as the technology evolved, there have been issues. You go back to radio, which turned to the music world, and said, “This is an electronic transmission; this is not a public performance.” So we fought that at radio, and we worked it out. The courts worked it out, and in the Senate we worked it out; and then through the legal system. Then we went through the same dance again with television; with cable; with satellite radio; all along the line.
We have always had to first establish a right and, once we established a right, we began to work on establishing a proper (tariff) rate.
Interestingly, the record industry first felt that both radio and television would destroy record sales.
Sure. There’s been a struggle as this whole thing evolved. I kinda get Jiminy Cricket about this whole thing. I think that people who make music are really magical. It is just stunning to me that somebody sits down and writes.
I had a really interesting thing happen at the Songwriter Hall of Fame when they were changing some sets for James Taylor. I was told to go out, and fill (time). This was right after I was elected president; in my first term at ASCAP. I went out, and I said, “You know, right now somewhere out there is a woman probably writing on an electronic keyboard with headphones on so she won’t wake the baby in the next room. She probably has to get up, and go to work in the morning. She’s putting what is in the center of her chest on paper, and recording it. Let’s not forget that is who we are working to protect--this future songwriter who is going to give us something. Who is brave enough to share something from the center of her chest that she feels strongly and passionately about in her own life that is going to match up to ours. Someday you might dance with your daughter to that tune.”
Larry, the response that I got was amazing. To this day I have people come up to me saying, “I have never thought of it like that. I never thought about who you really represent.”
To me, as I say, it’s a very Jiminy Cricket kind of thing. I just feel that there is something mystical, and magical about what we offer.
In some sense, I feel an almost universal support. There’s something about whether or not you believe in that moral right (for a copyright). The thing that pleases me the most about Canadian (copyright) law is the moral right. The thing with the Eaton Centre is just fabulous. To think that the legal system stepped up to the plate, and defended the moral right of the artist there is just a classic example that this thing can work for us. The law can work for us. We can take care of music creators, and make sure that they can make a proper living with their work.
[The case of Snow versus The Eaton Centre Ltd. in 1982 is a leading Canadian decision on moral rights.
The Ontario High Court of Justice affirmed the artist's right to integrity of their work.
Artist Michael Snow was commissioned to do a sculpture called “Flightstop” consisting of a flock of Canadian geese in flight in the atrium of the Toronto Eaton Centre. During the Christmas season of 1981, the Eaton Centre placed red ribbons around the necks of the geese.
Snow brought an action against the Centre to get an injunction to have the ribbons removed. He argued that the ribbons offended the integrity of, and distorted, his work.
The judge agreed with Snow. He held that the sculpture's integrity was "distorted, mutilated or otherwise modified" which was "to the prejudice of the honour or reputation of the author" contrary to section 28.2 of the Canadian Copyright Act.]
ASCAP is really trying to insure that the music of the fictitious woman you mentioned in your speech will be fairly evaluated and compensated.
Absolutely. I am spending so much time in D.C. these days. We don’t have a specific ask. We are not right now walking into a congressman’s office saying, “This is what we want.” But we have really solid bi-partisan issues that I can work with, and I can walk into a senator’s or a congressman’s office, and sit down and say, “This is who we are. We are 420,000 members of the music creators--composers and authors—and, at some point, we are going to come back to you. What we want you to know is who we are; what our issues are; and what we are dealing with in the digital world--that there is stuff to be dealt with.
We don’t have a specific task right now but, in the meantime, I am there creating relationships. I have to tell you, we have amazing friends on both sides of the (political) aisle.
ASCAP created the Legislative Fund for the Arts for lobbying in Washington.
The National Music Publishers Association president/CEO David Israelite has lashed out at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and other advocacy groups for pursuing an "extremist, radical anti-copyright agenda" in Washington, D.C.
ASCAP has criticized some of these same groups.
Of course, and I disagree with their agenda. The fact is that there are arguments on both sides.
Was ASCAP’s appeal petition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s part of a legal process to eventually clarify the way songwriters and music publishers are paid in the digital world?
Absolutely part of the process. Our petition was denied without comment which says a lot to me. What it says to me is that, “There is not time on the agenda for this right now.” There was no, “this is not an appropriate issue.” That was never related back to us. I think that it was all about the time that they had on the docket, and the availability of space. At this point, they simply denied our petition. We would like to be heard in the Supreme Court. The Court said, “We’re sorry we can’t do that right now.” That’s it.
Does ASCAP now have to start to go through a legislative process in order to bring about a change in the law?
I think that our options are probably legislative at this point. That’s why Paulie is flying to Tyler, Texas with my friend Louie Gohmert, who is a (Republican) congressman from Texas. I was down there when he was being honored by the Boy Scouts. I went down there to speak for him. Marsha Blackburn (Republican congresswoman for Tennessee's 7th congressional district) did a big fundraiser in Nashville, and I flew down.
Louie, who is very right wing, takes me and says, “I want you to meet some people.” He walks me in to meet (House Majority Leader) Eric Cantor, and Congressman Pete Sessions from Texas, guys that are in the epicenter of that (Republican) party, and says to them, “This is a guy you need to know. He’s a smart little guy.”
The fact is that I can talk to Leahy (Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont) and I can talk to (Orrin) Hatch (Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah), and I can have the same solid connection on points of view with both of them. I get very excited about that opportunity. I have actually written two songs with Orrin who is a member of ASCAP.
How did copyright protection end up being so associated with the Democrats? Does it go back to the late Jack Valenti, the long-time president of the Motion Picture Association of America, being close with the Kennedys, and later President Johnson?
I think that you have very good detective instincts. I have taken my own personal politics, and stuck them away. My own personal politics have nothing to do with my assignment. My assignment is to make sure that both sides of the aisle understand our issues at ASCAP. The Democrats understand that we are dealing with intellectual property and, with the Republicans, it’s a reminder that this is intellectual property. Did you hear that again? Property rights.
When I sit down with someone, whether it’s Leahy or Gohmert or (Republican congressman) Billy Long from Missouri, I can say, “Look, this is the kind of thing that we are dealing with. A guy sits down to write a computer code for streaming, and a guy sits down to write computer code for a download.
Let’s say the same guy writes the same codes.
The guy who writes the computer code for streaming puts in an auto play as part of the code. He doesn’t put it in the download. So based on this little click of computer programming, "I get paid or I don’t get paid?” That’s like saying there’s a guy on the street selling apples and if he brings the apple out with his right hand, you buy it from him; but, if he brings it out with his left hand, you get it for free.
You know what happens? A guy like Senator Leahy will say, “I can use that” or a light will go on when I say that we are a collection of small businessmen.
Metaphorically, I am the perfect president for ASCAP. I am a small businessman. When you make that connection, it is interesting that I own a 1949 Studebaker which I love, and I keep it parked out in the barn of my farm which I also love which has been in the family for years. I can leave the farm (in my will); and I can leave the Studebaker to my kids who can leave it to their kids who can leave it to their kids. But, by God, if you write a song today (it is with a term ending 70 years after the death). When ASCAP started, when you grabbed your chest and died, you said goodbye to that property. That’s not the case anymore. So there’s been amazing improvement. We should be able to keep our songs in perpetuity.
I was in Washington a few weeks ago. I met with U.S. Trade, and I met with the new register of copyrights (Maria A. Pallante, appointed the 12th Register of Copyrights, and director of the United States Copyright Office on June 1, 2011). We talked about the Caribbean, Russia and China. This is an ongoing process and part of my daily life now. At the same time, I am still dealing with my own creative life. But I am excited about the work. I think that we can make real headway and it feels like a really good fit. Marilyn (Bergman) was president (and chairman of the board) for 15 years. I don’t know how long I’m going to be doing this, but it feels like a good fit.
When I walk into one of these guy’s offices in Washington, they may not be overly impressed with the fact that I won the Oscar for “Evergreen” but, by God, they love “Smokey and the Bandit.”
[In the "Smokey and the Bandit” film series, Williams played Little Enos who had the memorable line, “I guess a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot alike, daddy.”
The U.S. has agreements around the world in countries which recognize a performance right. Under the reciprocal terms in these agreements, American songwriters and publishers are losing out on significant international income.
It is reciprocal and that is what I share with them (the politicians). That needs to be adjusted, and that is a legislative adjustment. At some point, we will walk onto the Hill and say, “This is our specific ask.” We don’t have a specific ask today, but I am going everywhere I can to talk to anyone about preparing the ground for that.
The film composers and the television composers have an especially difficult time right now dealing with…
To look at the wireless industry right now that is willing to charge for texting, and will add music as an add-on. Wait a minute. You are wanting to give music away? Wait a minute. (As a songwriter) I have rent due. I’ve got to buy gas for my car, and I have to drive my kids to school, and feed them at the end of the day.
In the lawsuit ASCAP founder Victor Herbert brought to the Supreme Court of the United States against a restaurant playing his music, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision of the Court that the performance was very much for profit. "If music did not pay,” he declared, “it would be given up. Whether it pays or not, the purpose of employing it is profit, and that is enough.”
I will match Oliver Wendell Holmes' quote with a quote from (singer/songwriter) Bill Withers. Walking into a congressmen’s office, Bill said, “Congressman, if the law doesn’t protect songwriters, we are going have to do something else to make a living, and songwriting is going to become a hobby. And congressman, you do not want Ozzie Osbourne as your plumber.”
In an editorial statement in the June 11th, 2011 issue of Billboard, Roger Faxon, chairman and CEO of EMI Music Publishing, argued that music publishers must embrace new ways to license music to digital services.
He also noted that: "Services don't care what specific rights are called or which part of the value chain those rights sit within--they just want to get the permission to do what they want to do, in a timely and efficient manner. Rather than forcing services to adapt to our processes, it is incumbent on us to adapt to their needs, and only by doing so will we speed digital development.”
It certainly seems that many digital services don't care what the specific creator rights are.
Exactly. So our fight has to be to adjust that and be part of the education and be a big part of the legislation process as well. We’re in this unique world now with the digital word. We have a long and a continuing relationship with EMI, and it is one that was adjusted recently, and will continue to be very productive. I think it’s going to be productive in ways that people don’t even know about yet.
[In May, 2011, EMI Music Publishing announced plans to issue bundled mechanical and performances licenses directly to online services for its EMI April Music catalog, assuming responsibility for functions previously handled by ASCAP. Other leading music publishers are expected to follow this move.
EMI’s new licensing for the EMI April Music catalog doesn’t cover all online users.
There are huge hunks of online users that it doesn’t affect. There are some specific licensing areas.
If more publishers pull back licensing rights, if that trend continues, will that pose a danger to ASCAP?
No. Very simply, how would you like to try to process all of that data? Who can process that data better than we can? Is there anybody in the world that is better prepared? You look at the prep. You look at our system, and look at the way we are lined up to the rest of the world, and the way that we process data. We’re the best. We are absolutely the best.
What is evolving are new ways of using those skills. If you want to go out and direct license the rest of the world, you have the right to do that. But how are you going to collect the money? Who are you going to turn to in order to do that for you? I believe that ASCAP continues to be the absolute leader as far as being able to process all of this information, and deal with it.
[ASCAP recently finished the development of a new back-office distribution system, which now provides members with 24/7 access to the organization's database as well as increased transparency.]
You started out acting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An early A&M Record bio said that you were “on the verge of becoming one of Albuquerque’s hottest showbiz properties when you decided to move out of town.”
It probably reads better in the bio than it actually was. My life for the past 21 years has been infected with rigorous honesty. That career back in Albuquerque, as a summer stock actor or whatever, was not as successful as it was written in earlier bios.
A point in my life is that “no” is a gift. I didn’t get the acting career that I wanted. I got a major “no.” But, as soon as I started writing songs, I had that. There was something in the center of my chest that just went, “Okay, this is what I can do. This is what I can do.” It was like coming home.
You once wrote that you wanted to be Walter Pigeon. You dedicated an album to him, Roddy McDowall, and the cast and crew of the 1941 John Ford film “How Green is My Valley” in which they both appeared.
I actually said that, didn’t I? I have shared that with Roddy through the years. It was one of those weird things. They put this album out (in 1977) called “Classics,” and I was embarrassed by the title. I thought, “Let’s dedicate it to the film classic that have touched me.” I worked with Roddy. We did the “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” together (in 1973).
You once described the lot of A&M Records in Hollywood as the corner drugstore of your life. When they put your name up on the parking space, you must have felt like you had arrived in Hollywood.
To feel like old Hollywood, it’s a big leap from feeling different to feeling special. A dangerous leap. It is a classic example in my life opening a gift. I went to Hollywood to be a actor.
Your first big role was in Tony Richardson’s “The Loved One” in which you played a 14 year old genius in 1964. The next year, you were in the Marlon Brando film, “The Chase.”
I was in both of those pictures. I thought I was going to have a career. I looked like a kid until you put me next to a real kid. Then I looked like a kid with a hangover. So it was hard to cast me in films.
I think those two pictures are a year and a half or two years apart. You can’t make a living doing that.
There’s an amazing moment in “The Chase” where I was sharing a dressing room with Marc Seaton, director George Seton’s son. He had a beautiful guitar. I picked it up, and I started plucking it, and he went nuts. He said, “No. No. That’s a Martin,” or whatever it was. It was a very expensive guitar. But I was fascinated by it. I went out and bought a cheap little guitar.
“The Chase” was shot in Los Angeles?
Most of it was night shooting on the Fox ranch or the back lot of Universal. We were also on the back lot of Warner Brothers.
Based on the story, there was a character named Bubber (Charlie “Bubber” Reeves played by Robert Redford) in it. Bubber is hiding out in this junk yard that we set fire to. And I, to myself almost, went, “Bubber Bubber, come out wherever you are” (on guitar) with three chords or whatever. It is probably the first song that I’d ever written. Robert Duvall was walking by, and he asked, “What’s that?” I went, “Nothing.” He said, “Come here” and he walked me over to (director) Arthur Penn, and said “play that for Arthur Penn.” Arthur said, “C’mon here, and stand by the fence.” He brought the Kodak (camera) around, and they fired up the fire in the background, and it’s in the movie.
It’s almost as if it’s my birth as a songwriter as its most shallow, obnoxious, and untalented is actually caught on film.
Marlon Brando playing a sheriff must have been intimidating on the set.
Oh my God. I just walked around following him like a puppy. Just watching him. He never talked to anybody. He never talked to anybody. People would walk up and say, “Hey Marlon, I’d like you to meet my wife” or whoever, and he would just ignore them, and walk away. He was so brilliant.
It must have been great working with some of your heroes as a kid.
One of the stories I tell onstage when I do “Ordinary Fool” from “Bugsy Malone” is that I wrote the song in the styling of an Ella Fitzgerald (performance). In my lifetime, Ella Fitzgerald recorded it. That’s the miracle of my life in a sentence. I started out as nothing but a fan to movies and music, and wound up in a place where I could pay tribute to the things that I love; and wound up having those people honoring me by recording the songs.
You came into showbiz at the end of what I call the Ring-A-Ding Era.
Finally it has a name. Larry, that’s perfect because I have been saying that onstage for years. I caught the third act of all of those brilliant careers.
You worked with social comedian Mort Sahl in the mid-60s.
Mort had a local television show in L.A. where all he would talk about was The Warren Commission (The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and about (New Orleans D.A.) Jim Garrison, all this (conspiracy) stuff that was going on. Mark Lane (author of “Rush to Judgment” and “Plausible Denial”) was his constant guest.
I went on as an improvisational actor/writer for a few episodes. I met Biff Rose there. I was playing a boy scout who President Johnson…he was going to pin a badge on me, but he drafts me on the spot. In the same sketch, Biff Rose is playing a Chicken Delight delivery boy delivering chicken to the White House and he gets drafted. Biff and I ended up writing songs together.
This was an era in which booking agents would have pictures of Liberace on their walls, and they told performers, “You could be as big as Jackie Gleason.”
Gleason used to call me Hardly. When we were doing one of the “Smokey and the Bandit” movies, I got some kind of an honor, and I won an Oscar. He said, “Ahhh, you’re getting all of these awards, I’m going to call you Laurels and Hardly.” He dropped the Laurels, but whenever I would see him he would go, “Hardly, c’mon here. We’re going to make this fucking script work.” I loved him. I just loved him.
["I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people," quipped Williams in 1977 on receiving his Oscar for Song of the Year for co-writing "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” with Barbra Streisand. He and Streisand also won a Golden Globe award in the category of Best Original Song.]
Who signed you at A&M’s publishing house, Irving Almo Music? Chuck Kaye?
Chuck Kaye, yeah. I still go to the lot once in awhile because it’s the (Jim) Henson guys there today. I stand on the lot and I think, “There were 28 of us.” I have a picture shot from a helicopter when they just painted A&M on the parking lot. Only 28 people had offices at A&M; 28 in all, when I first got on there. Isn’t that amazing?
One of your earliest covers was Claudine Longet’s recording of “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye” which you wrote with Roger Nichol.
She was Mrs. Andy Williams. I had two releases at the same time (in 1968). I also had the B-side of Tiny Tim’s “Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips With Me” (with “Fill Your Heart” co-written with Biff Rose).
I said, “What kind of writer am I? This is insane. Claudine Longet and Tiny Tim?
It’s funny because from that point on almost everything Roger (Nichols) and I wrote got cut. It was just an amazing time to be a staff writer there at A&M. Our stuff was going out. We’d write it, and it would get cut. It was on albums, B-sides. But we went three years without having a song on the radio. When you are that age, three years is a long time. I was convinced that I was never going to hear one of my songs on the radio. Then everything changed.
What happened at Reprise Records where you recorded with Holy Mackerel?
Well, it started with my voice on the demos that I sent over to (producer) Richard Perry. He liked the way that I sang, and what I wrote. He said let’s make an album. I went, “Whoa, I’m not going out there alone.” I had been fooling around with a little group. It wasn’t quite an official group. He said, “Okay, do it with your group. What are you going to call it?” I don’t know why I came up with the name Holy Mackerel. It was just like, “Okay, the Holy Mackerel.” I think that it was almost like camouflage or something. It never occurred to me to record as a single (performer). By the time the album came out, the group had broken up because it wasn’t really a group. It was sort of put together for the purposes of the project. My brother (Mentor Williams) was in it.
I still have the Holy Mackerel album.
You’re the one that bought it. Nobody bought that album. Then when Reprise dropped the group, they kept me, and they wanted to do an album. That’s the “Someday Man” album (in 1970).
You were so involved with Irving Almo then.
Well, I was at Irving Almo as a writer, but I did the “Someday Man” album (as an artist at Reprise). More than 40 years later, as it comes up with the occasional accolade, I have to just hand it back to Roger because that was a Roger Nichols’ album. It was songs I wrote with Roger. It was his production, and his arrangements. Everything just felt like it was Roger’s album.
You didn’t see yourself as an artist?
I think that there was part of me that, maybe, didn’t love the way that I sang; and wasn’t sure that I wanted it (a career). My taste wasn’t getting on record is what it felt like.
Then Herb Alpert sent me over to France to do this album (“Wings”) with (French composer) Michel Colombier that included Billy Medley, Lani Hall and everybody--first trip to Europe--an eye-opening experience and all. It was amazing. Then Herb said, “Make an album with A&M. Make any kind of album that you want. You can design your own album cover, if you want to. This is an artists’ label, and it has to completely reflect what you want to do.”
It was just an amazing freedom.
At the time, I had become friends with (producer/engineer) Michael James Jackson. He said, “I’d like to present you just really stripped down, really intimate. Really vulnerable as you are when you sit there and sing them in person and the way that you are on the demos.”
[Michael James Jackson produced Williams’ A&M albums, “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song” (1972) as well as “Life Goes On” (1972)].
Meanwhile, the Carpenters had come into your life.
The longer I live, the more I realize that crossing paths (with Richard and Karen Carpenter) was a huge gift into my life. When you think about it, they were a true alternative act. When we had a #1 record (in 1970) with “We’ve Only Just Begun” they were as far away commercially from what was going on as you get it.
A little girl playing drums and singing?
You listen to Karen’s voice; you listen to the depth and all the purity of the sound of the voice. There was this amazing intertwining of innocence and honesty and sensuality. It was such a wonderfully sensual voice. The longer I’m alive, the more precious she becomes.
The thing that was interesting about the Carpenters was that when Chuck Kaye brought them in—I was working in the office with Roger; we were sitting at the piano—nobody knew who we were. We had all of these album cuts but nobody had a clue of who we were. We were not famous writers. There’s a knock at the door and Chuck said, “I want to introduce you to Richard and Karen who have just signed with the label. They will be recording for us.” Then Richard is mentioning some of our cuts. He mentioned the Steve Lawrence cover (“The Drifter”) or the record ("Trust”) with the Peppermint Trolley Company.
He had this awareness of us as writers that nobody did. It made us feel like big shots. It was like, “Wow, these kids are wonderful.”
Of course, the first thing that they recorded of ours was “I Kept On Loving You” which I thought was going to be a single. We went over to hear it (at the studio), and it sounded great. Then they played this other song they had just cut called “Close To You” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). I just went, “My God, that’s such a monster. That’s huge.”
A&M put “I Kept On Loving You” on the B-side of “Close To You.”
In those days, you could be a 30th of an inch or whatever was the width of a 45 was, close to greatness, and get paid for it as well. The B-side was one of the joys of making music in the ‘70s.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” was written for a Crocker Bank commercial. Was it an Irving Almo song?
That started out at Irving, exactly. Years later, you look at your first publishing deal and ask, “Was it a straight deal?” Well, it was. I built a career there. I walked into Irving Almo, and I have absolutely no regrets because, first of all, I was at the foot of a master with Roger Nichol. He became my music school. The guys I wrote with are where I learned about song structure.
And listening to the music of people like Hal David and Burt Bacharach.
For me, when I was a kid, it was Cole Porter. When everybody else was listening along to rock and roll in high school, I was listening to (Frank) Sinatra and listening to what I now identify as the Great American Songbook. It was, in fact, the music that just reached out, and grabbed me.
The writings of a lyricist like Larry Hart—I just went, “Oh my God.” He wrote, “If they asked me, I could write a book about the way you walk and whisper and look. I could write a preface on how we met so the world would never forget.”
That must have done something to my heart, and to my head that lead me to the path of where I wanted to write.
When I first started writing, I was told to write with Roger, and not waste my time (with other writers). “Just write with Roger and you two are going to have great success.” I was writing alone. Then I had great success with “Old Fashioned Love Song” which I wrote the words and music to. So it was, “Okay, write with Roger, and write by yourself, but that’s it.” Then I wrote “Family Man” with Jack Conrad, my bass player. Chuck Kaye then said, “Okay write with whoever you want to write with. Just keep writing.”
You co-wrote “Rainbow Connection” with jazz pianist Kenny Ascher.
You know, again, a great music school. Writing with Kenny was great.
One of your most powerful lyrics is “That’s Enough For Me” from your first A&M album.
Thank you. “That’s Enough For Me,” when you think about it, that’s a pretty vulnerable lyric. For me, to write really honestly about my own vulnerability—or my own tenderness or whatever which is, perhaps, against the machismo model—got a wonderful response from the listener. That’s enough for me. For a long time, that was my favorite love song that I ever wrote.
Was being tagged “The Hobbit Crooner” personally hurtful?
After my first deal with Irving Almo I got into my own publishing situation. My publishing company was Hobbit Song Music. I loved the (J.R.R. Tolkien) Hobbit books. My Bugatti’s license plate was “HOBS 1.” My corporation today is Hobbitron Enterprises.
In interviews in the ‘80s, you talked about different projects, everything from writing a novel to directing, and working on the film “$1.98” with Charles Bronson.
I never directed. I wrote (TV) episodes. I wrote “Baretta” and other things. I also co-produced, and did “Rooster”(in 1982) with producer Glen Larsen (for 20th Century Fox Television, and broadcast as a two-hour movie on the ABC-TV).
There was a period in the ‘80s where as soon as we had something on the books we would announce it. A lot of things that we announced never got done. “$1.98” was with Charlie Bronson and his wife Jill Ireland. I was supposed to play Jill’s brother in that. I went over, and met with Charlie, and we became friends with him but the picture never got made.
One of the biggest disappoints was that I had two studios involved, and we were going to do “The Wizard of Id” as a feature film (based on daily newspaper comic strip created by American cartoonists Brant Parker and Johnny Hart) with me playing the King. It was a hilarious script. It was during the whole (David) Begelman thing, and it fell apart with both studios, Universal and Columbia.
Johnny Hart and I spent some wonderful afternoons working on it, and we were having too much fun.
This was in a period in which your life was unraveling.
This was a period where the influence of drugs and alcohol began to roll into how I conducted my business. I think that some of the things not getting done turned out to be, if not a gift to the world, might have been a gift to the investors because at the end of the ‘80s I was in no shape to be spending other peoples’ money doing projects.
I did 48 “Tonight” shows. I remember six of them. I went on ”The Tonight Show” website, and don’t remember interviewing some of these people.
There was an amazing response at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year to the documentary “Paul Williams Is Still Alive.” A knuckle biter in a few places. Like you guest hosting on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
To me, the film is about recovery. When I looked at the footage of me watching that widescreen, and I was joking about marital infidelity, I turned to Stephen Kessler, the film maker, and said, "This is the most grandiose, vapid, arrogant little bastard that I have ever seen in my life. How could anyone be a fan of that? You cannot put this in the film. There’s no way that this can be in the film.”
But the segment stayed in.
The film turned out to be about recovery and to get the arc of where my life is today from where it was, he had to put it in there. I finally agreed to it, and it feels like one of the more dangerous things I have ever done. The wonderful thing about the response to the film is that he started out to make a film about where I was, and he ended making a film about where I am now.
I’m an advocate for recovery. I believe (being a) celebrity was as large of an addiction as anything in my life. The fact is that I was flat-out addicted; I was flat-out addicted to that camera. I loved the attention.
My addiction to alcohol and cocaine outran that addiction. I started hiding. Then I just quit. I left.
Do some of your issues go back to your father dying in an automobile crash when you were 13, and your family moving around a lot? You were always the new kid.
Always the new kid on the block, always the littlest kid. Absolutely. I say that I began acting like an alcoholic long before I drank like one. I remember being in the car with my dad and he was driving very drunk in a horrible rain storm. It was dark out. He was going to take me to see the Cleveland Indians play baseball. We drove through this rainstorm to Cincinnati. He drove to the wrong city. But we are driving through this rainstorm, and the car is all over the road. I remember thinking that my concentration was keeping the car on the road. I just kept thinking, “Stay on the road. Stay on the road.”
To me that feels like was almost like the head waters or the birthplace of my grandiosity. You are confronted with such a horrible fear that you are going to die that you replace that fear or you calm that fear. You treat that fear with absolutely fantastical thinking. Magical thinking.
You are now a certified drug and alcohol counselor.
Buddy Arnold was the one who sent me to U.C.L.A. to get my certification as a drug and alcohol counselor. He told me, “It won’t do you any harm and it might actually keep you sober.” We started at Brotman Hospital with me working a few hours there in the morning. He had a bed there for musicians. The fact that MusiCares stepped up to the plate after Buddy died, and picked up the reins for MAP (Musician's Assistance Program) for the musicians is a blessing. Buddy’s funniest line was, “Musicians are always underinsured and overmedicated. You got to help them.”
[Tenor saxophonist Buddy Arnold’s career was compromised at times by prison terms and drug abuse. He played in bands led by Joe Marsala, Georgie Auld, Herbie Fields, Buddy Rich, George Williams, and Claude Thornhill in the 1940s. After studying music and economics at Columbia University, he toured with Buddy DeFranco, Jerry Wald, Tex Beneke, Stan Kenton, and Neal Hefti. In 1958, he was imprisoned for attempted burglary. After his sentence ended, he played again with Kenton, as well as with Tommy Dorsey.
In the 1980s, Arnold was again imprisoned. Following his release, he and his second wife, Carole Fields, established the Musician's Assistance Program (MAP) in 1992, dedicated to helping performers seeking drug and alcohol treatment. In 2004, MusiCares acquired the Musicians Assistance Program in 2004, following Arnold’s passing the year earlier of complications following open-heart surgery. He was 77.]
Many writers think they are hacks or they will never write again.
When I got sober, the first thing that I got asked to do was to do songs for “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (in 1992). I was scared to death. At the same time, I was on this pink cloud that I had found a way to live. For the first time in my life I was feeling normal; feeling part of a larger community. There was something wonderful about that.
The first song I had to write was about (Ebenezer) Scrooge. The scene is that you are looking at Michael Caine’s feet, and he’s going through the mud and the snow. You are watching these little creatures, and it seems to be getting colder as he goes by. I thought, “I’ve read the Dickens novel; read the screenplay; I have 40 years of writing in my subconscious; it’s up there.”
I basically said, “Let me know when you have an idea--whether it’s the big amigo (God) or the creative unconscious or whatever it is up there; let me know when you have an idea and we know what the song is about.”
I picked up a Lawrence Block novel, and I started reading a bloody mystery. About two pages into it, I set it down, and went, “Boody boom boom boom, Boody boom boom boom; when a cold wind blows it chills you. Chills you to the bone. But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone.” I went, “Hell, that’s not bad. That’s not bad at all.” It is like I wasn’t there when it was written, but I wrote it from the place that it comes from. What I realized at that point that was huge for me that is trust. If I don’t stand on the hose; if I don’t work at it; if I allow whatever this magical mental thing to occur that happens inside; the lesson is that we are more powerful than we imagine we are.
Stay out of the way, and just celebrate what you write.
If I am going to write a lyric for whatever I am working on, if I look at what I am supposed to write, and start writing right away, then it’s a struggle. If I forget about it for two days, and sit down again, it comes.
At a certain level, a writer never falls down below a certain quality level.
I totally co-sign that. I wish I had the balls to say it but I totally co-sign that.
Writers also suffer creative dry periods and sometimes have to go away.
That’s part of the writing process. You need to go away. Part of my success as a writer was writing unedited what was in the center of my chest and never stopping to go, “This is schmaltzy.” Just writing it. Then in the late ‘70s, and really in the ‘80s, I got into a period where it was, “Okay, you’ve got to top what you’ve done.”
That’s when I started intellectualizing and, instead of being authentic, it became unauthentic; trying to out-intelligentsia myself. At a certain point, I had to go away. When I got sober, and after I wrote “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” I went away. In ’97, I went down to Nashville, and there’s something in the water in Nashville. All of a sudden, I wanted to write again.
Your life seems on an even keel today.
I feel intensely passionate about three specific areas.—of course, music creators’ rights; and recovery. I am a huge advocate for recovery, and I will always be willing to speak at a public level about that.
The third one (passion) is golf. I know that somewhere in there is a mediocre golfer. (Actor) Harvey Korman was a buddy, and whenever Harvey would see me, he used to say, “Hey, Paul, it must be lonely at the middle.” What I long for in my golf world is to someday hit it up the middle.
This year there was the release of “The Green Album” with bands like Weezer, My Morning Jacket re-recording your Muppet songs.
I have six songs on there. I listened to these kids performing these songs, and hearing a band like My Morning Jacket that I wasn’t aware, and all of a sudden I have started listening to their music, and saying “Oh my God, this stuff is fabulous. It’s wonderful. This deserves to be heard.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
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