Paul Williams – Interview With A Legend
It is rare in life to be in the presence of brilliance. I believe the greatest of men and women shine bright without even realizing it — without even trying. By God’s grace, it’s just a part of who they are.
Paul Williams is that kind of person.
Not surprisingly, the events of his life reflect that reality. He’s been on quite an adventure, to say the least. Here is a list of just a few of his accomplishments:
-He is the President and Chairman of the Board for ASCAP
-Golden Globe winner
-member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame
He wrote a book about his journey out of alcohol and drug abuse to sobriety called “Gratitude and Trust: Recovery Is Not Just For Addicts,” co-written by Tracey Jackson. The inspiring book describes how he became a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor through UCLA — a book that Oprah Winfrey endorsed.
Just a few of his songs in his repertoir include:
-“We’ve Only Just Begun”
-“An Old Fashioned Love Song”
-“Rainy Days and Mondays”
-“Let Me Be The One”
He’s had songs cut by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Kermit the Frog, and Daft Punk with whom he received a Grammy for his contribution to “Random Access Memories.”
(By the way, don’t you think Kermit the Frog and Daft Punk should do an album together? I’m being very serious. That would be a fun collaboration. Maybe Williams can make that happen. He’s got the rainbow connections.)
On the Daft Punk album, Williams co-wrote and sang on “Touch” and co-wrote the song “Beyond.” He and Nile Rodgers were the only two people to speak on behalf of “the robots” (the two members of Daft Punk who always wear robot helmets when they perform) at the 2014 Grammy Awards when they won the coveted Album of the Year Grammy. Paul, in my opinion, gave one of the most funny and memorable speeches, saying, very honestly: “Back when I was drinking, I would imagine things and I’d get frightened. Then I got sober and two robots called and asked me to make an album.”
Paul Williams and his band will perform at the historic Franklin Theatre on September 12 — a rare treat for middle Tennesseans such as myself. The man who has inspired and touched millions of lives through many generations, and who is still going strong, will be playing live and in-person to enjoy. (More information can be found at paulwilliamsofficial.com
And what a treat to interview Paul. He’s charismatic, funny, and not to mention one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time. I hung on to every word he spoke in hopes of being inspired and educated in some way, and I was not let down (and neither will you):
So you are very much involved with the country music scene in Nashville, being the President of ASCAP?
As President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP (I just got elected for a fourth term), ASCAP and BMI and all of us are shoulder-to-shoulder trying to make sure — I was elected in 2009 and as soon as I was elected, I started talking about this imaginary woman, a single mom who has got a baby asleep in the next room, and she is writing on her electric keyboard with headphones on so she doesn’t wake the baby — and that is the person we are trying to make sure can make a living with their music.
ASCAP is a big part of my life. Nashville is a huge part of my life because when I got sober I felt very very disconnected from the music and so at 49 years old — I didn’t have the best childhood but I had the longest [laughs] — at this point in my life, my life had changed my career, I had basically been gone for about 10 years where I had been hiding out and drinking and using, and I went to UCLA and I got my certification as a drug and alcohol counselor. I thought, “That is all I want to do, is work around recovery.” I was in financial shape that I could do that and that was kind of my goal, so I was very disconnected from the music and then probably, I guess ’96 or ’97, five to seven years sober, I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I was invited down for Tin Pan South [a phenomenal songwriter event in Nashville]. It was one of those great things where I walk into town, there is just something in the water in Nashville, ever other waiter is a songwriter and every other waiter is a pretty good one [laughs], and the way I was treated and the way I was respected, the general feeling of family that I got there, made me want to write again. So the first guy I wrote with was a guy named John Vezner. The first song we wrote together was called “Your Gone,” which was a song that Diamond Rio had a hit with a couple of years later, and all of a sudden I was back. So I credit Nashville with putting me back at the piano again and reconnecting me with the writing, and I don’t know how I will ever pay that back to the city.
Do you prefer writing and composing for other artists or performing your songs yourself?
You know, if I were the only one who sang my songs I’d be out walking horses right now [laughs]. I have to tell you that I listened to the recordings of my songs I made in the ’70s, and I do not love the way I sound. I actually like the way I sound a lot better these days. It’s all the years that have lowered the voice to a place that is a little more pleasant for me to listen to.
Anyway, you know, the great gift is in the people who recorded my songs. I was an out-of-work actor, I was 27 years old, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and I started writing songs just as my own [entertainment], you know, I couldn’t afford to go to the movies or go out to eat, and I had a little guitar so I started writing, kind of as my own therapy, and when other people started recording those songs I made a poetry deal with A&M records. And other people started recording my songs and for the first time in my life I knew what I was supposed to be doing and I had a direction, and the journey was its own reward.
Every time I wrote a song there was something to be learned about myself, something in the process that was just a gift. The first gift of songwriting was how it made you feel. The second gift is that it has allowed me to make a living and feed my family. But to me, I could not get a date in high school, and to all of a sudden
me holding an Elvis album with this tiny, tiny little font under the title “Where Do I Go From Here” — words and music P.Williams — I can’t even tell you what that felt like, to have this feeling. I wanted to run back to my high school and go, “Now will you go out with me?” [laughs] — or going and getting an advance album of a Sinatra album that I had a song on, or going to my mother lying on her death-bed and playing a cut for my mother, who was basically on her way out with cancer, and smiling when she hears Frank Sinatra sing “Dream Away” that I wrote with John Williams. My mom said, “Now you’re a songwriter.” So the gifts I have been given, beyond the hits, beyond the recognition, which is wonderful and we all love that, the love and recognition from your fans and your peers — but it’s those moments in the beginning years of songwriting, I felt, at those similar moments, that I kind of belonged in this world.
You gave one of the most memorable acceptance speeches at the Grammy Awards with Daft Punk in 2014. What was it like working with Daft Punk?
[laughs] It was fantastic. What was amazing about that evening was that first of all, at my age, being up there accepting a Grammy with the incredible collection of artists that was involved in that album, Nile Rogers — incidentally, Nile and I are not the same age but we are born on the same day, we were both born September 19th — so all of the sudden Nile and I, to be up there, accepting the Album of the Year award with Pharell Williams and the Daft Punk guys, it was an amazing thing.
It was interesting because one of the big things I learned is that you can’t write off something as a failure too quickly. In the early ’70s I made a movie called “Phantom of the Paradise” that nobody went to see. I joke that I made albums that even my family didn’t buy and movies that they didn’t go to see — one of them would be “Phantom of the Paradise.” Turns out that Daft Punk, those guys were huge fans of the movie, that they actually met at a screening of the movie over in Paris, and those many years later they were in the studio doing a piano overdub with my music director Chris Caswell, and Peter Franco their engineer had just been on the road with me on a tour that Melissa Manchester and I went out on, and basically Chris and Peter are in the room and the two Daft Punk guys talked about wishing they could find Paul Williams, and Peter just looked up and said, “Are you kidding? We just came off the road with him. Here’s his information. Here is his email address.” So if you have done something and no one is paying attention today, don’t throw the towel in on it being a success. If you are proud of the work, hang in there, somebody will probably discover it.
Could you discuss your podcast and book?
I started doing a podcast now. I wrote a book called “Gratitude and Trust: Affirmations that will Change Your Life,” with a friend of mine, Tracey Jackson, she is a screenwriter. We became friends; we met in Robert Mitchum’s bedroom in 1982. I was rude and sexest and arrogant, and I said something nasty to her, and she was a big fan of mine, she was only about 21 years old, and she kind of spun on her heels and walked out of the room — a big Neal Diamond fan [laughs] — as she puts it. But she always listened to my music, and we became friends when I was about 11 years sober. She said, “You know what, why doesn’t the rest of the world have something like you guys in recovery have?” She heard me speak at a screening of one of my movies “Still Alive,” and I said my future runs on the two wheels of gratitude and trust, and she said, “There is a book there, why don’t we try to write a book to people who are not in recovery, people who are not addicts, but people who can have something to make their lives better?” So we wrote a book and got it published and went on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah and, God bless her, she held the book up and said this is the perfect Christmas or Hannakuh present and everybody should read this book, and, God bless her because we ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Based on that, we are now doing a weekly podcast for PodcastOne. So the first of the month, every month, we tape four or five guests and record them, and every Tuesday we post them on “Gratitude and Trust.” We started out with Chris Hardwick, who is as successful a podcaster as anybody, and second week we had director Judd Apatow. We just had Billy Bob Thornton and Jason Mraz, Gloria and Emilio Esteban. Buck Henry is going up tomorrow. We just had Gary Marshall, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist. We got a really interesting collection, and I want to come down and nail some great singer-songwriters while we are in Nashville one of these times too, ’cause there is some great wisdom on the country charts in the songs that are written in Nashville — not just country, but all music [that] is involved in Nashville.
Do you consider yourself a Christian or a spiritual person?
I can say absolutely I consider myself both. The first thing I did while I got sober at 49, I called my friend Nacho, who is a Methodist minister, and I said, “Nacho, I have got to get baptized,” and he said, “Well, sure we can do that someday,” and I said, “No, I got to get [laughs] baptized today,” and he said, “Really, okay, well, get a couple of witness and we will do it.” I had my last drink on September of ’89, and I celebrate my sober birthday [on] March 15, 1990. So here it is, it’s Christmas time in 1989, and my friend Nacho the minister says, “Come meet me at the church, at the church in Hollywood, a big Methodist church with a couple of witnesses to be baptized,” and that afternoon there was the children’s choir and they were rehearsing for the Christmas pageant. So I go into an empty church except for all these kids singing Christmas hymns, and I am baptized. And I am thinking, “Boy oh boy, this will make a great scene [laughs] in a movie someday.” That is just one of the most touching moments of my life. I am being baptized while children are singing “Silent Night” and “The Little Town of Bethlehem.” So that is something I will always remember. And for me I just give it up to the Big Amigo. I call my higher power the Big Amigo. And I say, “Big Amigo, lead me where you need me.” I get up in the morning and I say basically two sentences to start my day in the morning. I say, “Surprise me, God,” which implies complete trust. I am handing the reins of my day to the Big Amigo: “surprise me, God.” My second sentence is, “Lead me where you need me because if I am some place where I am needed I’m not in the way. And if I am not in the way I am actually comfortable, and if I am comfortable I am liable to learn something, I am liable to do some good. My life is a lot easier if I am thinking about other people instead of about myself all of the time.”
Speaking of Christmas earlier, I learned you are responsible for “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” my personal favorite Christmas movie of all time. Thank you so much for that. Would you discuss?
Yes, I did, I wrote words and music to that. It was the first thing I did with Jim Henson. It was a labor of love, and hopefully set sometime in the near future you will see it performed regularly on stage. Fabulous! I love hearing that you loved it. That is what I call a heart payment. That’s a heart payment, having a conversation with Josh in Nashville, and he knows my “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” — that is very cool. That is one of the best things that happens to a songwriter or a writer is that we throw something out there and somebody comes up and says to you, for exampl
e, my mom was a single mom, and “You and Me Against the World” was a really important song to us. Saying that “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” was part of a Christmas tradition in your family is really fantastic. I really appreciate that, Josh. That is truly a heart payment.
In your opinion, what do you think you will be remembered for the most?
Oh, good Lord [laughs], it’s not something that I really think about. I hope that if, and I have never said this before, but one thing that I hope that comes out of it is that maybe in a world where kindness is mistaken for weakness, if people came to look at something like the “Rainbow Connection” or the sappy love songs that I wrote and find real strength in it — strength and being comforted — that is what I hope. I think probably if I am going to be remembered for anything it’s probably going to be playing Little Enos in “Smoky and the Bandit” [laughs] or the “Love Boat” theme. But the fact is I would hope that it is what’s found in “Rainbow Connection,” which has the most important line that I think I have ever written in a song and that’s, “Who said that every wish would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star, / Somebody thought of that and somebody believed it, / Look what it’s done so far”: follow your faith to a better life and be good, you know, you give a little love, and it all comes back to you.