Archive 1995 – Interview with Paul Williams

An Interview With Paul Williams By Jim Bennett

A picture of Paul Willians sitting

When Barbra Streisand stepped up onto the podium to receive an Oscar for Best Song from Neil Diamond, at her side was Paul Williams. It was Paul who provided the words for Barbra’s melody and turned it into Evergreen, a song that has been described as, “the worlds most perfect love song.”

Paul is an internationally famous songwriter who wrote, or co-wrote many great songs including, Old fashioned Love SongWe’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days And Mondays and the theme to the tv series The Love Boat. He has also written movie scores including, Bugsy Malone, The Muppet Movie, IshtarThe Muppet Christmas Carol, A Star Is Born. While pursuing a laudable, and much acclaimed career as a songwriter and singer, he has pursued a parallel career as a movie and tv actor.

He, brilliantly, played the role of Swan, in the movie, Phantom Of The Paradise. Though he is probably best known to film audiences for his hilarious portrayal of Little Enos in the Smokey and The Bandit series of films, he appeared to critical acclaim in the movie The Doors.


JB – You are a very successful songwriter and have enjoyed huge success in that field. What came first for you, acting or song writing?

PW – I came to California, being a realist, to become a movie star. My first movie, in about 1964, was called The Loved One. I played a boy genius, I was a twenty three year old playing a thirteen year old. A year and a half later I did a movie called The Chase, with Marlon Brando and Robert Redford. I worked five months on it, basically I had a small part, but it was throughout the picture. So I had ver limited success as an actor and began actually fooling around with a guitar on the set of The Chase. I bought a guitar and began kind of doodling. At the time I had no idea that I had a career waiting for me as a songwriter.

While I was doing this I actually wrote a couple of songs and went to a publisher, a man called Laseef, who had a company called Whitewell records. Their biggest act was a group called the Turtles. he signed me as a writer and after about a month he let me go and told me that he did not believe that I had a future in the music business. I was devastated.

About that time I got a very brief acting job and met a guy named Biff Rose who was writing comedy songs, he had a melody that he hadn’t written any lyrics to. I told him that I thought it was pretty and proceeded to write lyrics to about four of his melodies. I thought no more about it, but Biff Rose went to A&M Records, Herb Alperts company, and played several songs for them, they especially liked the ones that I had written the lyrics to. After he got an advance for the songs he got an attack of honesty. He went back the next day and said, “Look I’ve got to tell you I didn’t write these lyrics, I just wrote the melodies,” They said “Well we want to meet the man who wrote the lyrics. I’ve always joked that I arrived at A&M in a stolen car and found a career there.

JB – Where any of those early songs that you wrote with Biff successful?

PW – The only song that I wrote that had any success at al, as far as being recorded, is a song I wrote with Biff called, Fill Your Heart. It has been recorded to my knowledge twice. the first was by Tiny Tim as the B side to his hit record, Tiptoe Through The Tulips. But the recording of it that I was thrilled about was by David Bowie. it was the first outside song that he had recorded and it was on his Hunky Dory album. talk about a diversity.

JB – You started writing in the late sixties, and reached the charts in a big way in the early seventies after you teamed up with Roger Nichols. When you first started to write with him did you find it difficult to get your work accepted?

PW – No. Everything that Roger and I wrote, was recorded, it was a spectacular time. It seemed like we went through a period where everything that we wrote was being put on albums, but we simply weren’t having chart hits. After two or three years of writing together we wondered if we would ever hear anything of ours being played on the radio.

It all changed for us as a writing team with the Carpenters releasing, We’ve Only Just Begun and for me writing alone, or with other people, with the group Three Dog Night, who recorded a song that I wrote alone called Old Fashioned Love Song, and another called Family of Man, which I wrote with Jack Conrad that was also a top ten record.

JB – You have mentioned the song We’ve Only Just Begun. It has enjoyed a huge success, and has been recorded many times, including a cover by Barbra Streisand, which appeared on her For the Record set. For all of its success I believe that the song had a humble beginning?

PW – That song started life as a few verses in a bank commercial. Those verses Roger Nichols and I wrote to accompany footage of a young couple getting married, going to the reception and then driving off into the sunset. The copy read, “We’ve got a long way to go, we’d like to help you get there, the Crocker Bank.” So I sat down and realised that I had to describe a wedding in about three lines. So I came up with: “We’ve only just begun/ White Lace and promises/ A kiss for luck and we’re on our way.” Then they drive off and the song goes on, “Before the rising sun/ We Fly / So much of life ahead.” It was basically the first two verses and then we completed it. We didn’t think that there was very much chance that anyone would record it. it was very sentimental and a throwback to earlier times. I think a lot of stuff was. The number one album at the time that the Carpenters had a hit with it was In A Gadda Da Vita. So I suppose that in a sense the Carpenters, Roger and I were really alternative at the time.

JB – As well as writing songs for other artists, you recorded yourself. Over the years you have issued some beautiful albums. Where they at all successful for you?

PW – You know I had one of the most unspectacular recording careers as an artist in the business. I never sold a lot of records. there were some core fans who bought them, I don’t think we ever sold in great quantities, well maybe the album called, Old Fashioned Love Song, is close to gold now after twenty years.

I’m in recovery, I was drinking and using drugs for many years. In September 1995, I will celebrate 6 years of sobriety. One of the tasks we have when recovering is to be rigorously honest. So for me to maintain rigorous honesty with you, I would have to say describe my career as a recording artist as very successful, in the sense that it filled a niche in my career as a songwriter and entertainer, but certainly nothing to write home about. it was limited.

So, I was never a very successful recording artist. I think that the albums became kind of demos for the songs. Other people would pick them up and record them, for which I and my children are eternally grateful.

JB – Paul, you have written songs in collaboration with quite a number of people over the years, are there any particular problems with writing with other people?

PW – Well you know collaboration requires an amount of trust. I just got back from Nashville where I wrote a song with a fine writer named Gene Nelson. It’s the first time that I’ve sat in a room with somebody in ages and just let the ideas roll out. When I was drinking and using I got very isolated, and I got very isolated at work, and they kind of went hand in hand. I would stay up all night, and lock myself into my office, and work, it became a kind of habit. Part of what has changed in my life in sobriety is that I am rediscovering, how to get out and live amongst people, and how to trust. So my goal, if I have a goal as a writer, is to put the fun back into writing and that is what I am kind of experiencing right now. I’ve been writing with a guy named Kenny Herch as well, we’ve just sent a tune to Luther Vandross.

PW – Even when I write both words and music, I generally write in my head. Then, eventually, after I have got the song started I will go to a keyboard and find the chords and write them down. I find I also have this whole orchestra in my head. I can imagine Garth Brooks, or Justin Hayward or Steve Winwood singing, anyone I want. When I have the song, then I have to cut a demo that matches it.

JB – It’s interesting to hear you say that you can imagine the artists singing the song. Do you write with a specific artist in mind?

Pw – Sometimes I do quite the opposite. most writing has been directed towards specific projects, like films. when writing the Muppet Christmas Carol, I don’t think I was writing songs thinking about a pig and a frog singing them. you kind of write for the character and then adapt.

JB – Do you have a favourite song among those that you have written?

PW – You know I wouldn’t pick amongst the hits for my favourite songs. Amongst the hits, my favourite would be, The Rainbow Connection, – from The Muppet Movie. I feel that it is very representative of something Jim Henson – who created the Muppets – stood for. It is a very spiritual message that I am very proud of. As far as my favourite songs are concerned, they are usually not really the hits. I wrote a song that Ray Charles recorded, called A perfect Love. I am really proud of that song. A song that Sinatra recorded called Dream Away, that I wrote with John Williams. There’s the song That’s Enough For Me, one of my favourite love songs that I wrote but not a well known song. There’s another song from Phantom of the Paradise called Old Souls.

JB – Most of the songs that you mentioned are thoughtful songs with a spiritual message, is that important to you?

PW – It is. You know, recovery is about finding a spiritual life, and its interesting for me to look back on my work before I got sober. I can see that I had a spiritual connection and I feel in a lot of ways that’s what saved my life.

JB – Travelling Boy was another beautiful song.

PW – Well thank you Jim, I like it also. Did you ever hear Art Garfunkles version? I saw Art about two months ago and we were talking about that. I told him that I close my stage show sometimes with Travelling Boy , and that I had totally ripped off his arrangement.

JB – It’s nearly twenty years since you were involved, as musical supervisor, with the film A Star Is Born. How did you come to be involved in it?

PW – Its interesting because Barbra Streisand called me, and I didn’t know it was a matter of my own grandiosity, or ego, or what, I heard what I wanted to hear, rather than what she said. She had recorded a couple of songs of mine, I Never Had It So Good on the album Lazy Afternoons, and I Won’t Last A Day Without You – on the album Butterfly – so she knew my work. When she phoned, the ending of the picture – after the Kristofferson character had died – was to be where she found a song that he had written for her, and she was going to sing it. so what she was saying to me on the phone, was that she would be interested in me writing that song. What I heard her say was, I’m going to send you the script, and I want you to write all of the songs for this movie.

Later I went in to have a meeting with Barbra, and Jon Peters I walked in and sat down, and before either of them could open their mouths, I had started this diatribe. OK this is where the first song should go, This is what it should be about. I went through the entire script, showing them where the songs would go, and what they should be about. I told them what I thought Kristofferson’s style should be as a writer – in the movie – and what I thought hers should be like, I said how the two of them would effect each other’s writing, and possibly the one big love balled. I just went on and on.

They just kind of looked at me like I was stoned or something. Then asked if I could step out of the room so that they could discuss it. So I stepped out of the room, they asked me back in and Barbra said, “You are not intimidated by this at all are you?” I said “No. It’s what I do for a living. It’s what you asked me to do.” They were impressed by that and they hired me as music supervisor for the movie. I said that I would like to bring Kenny Asher in to write, – we were writing together at that time – I felt that he would bring a quality of composition that the piece required. Then we set off with only nine weeks to write all of those songs. One of the most exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating experiences of my life. Ending with winning the Oscar.

JB – It has been well documented that there were tensions between you and Barbra during the making of A Star Is Born. What sort of terms are you on now?

PW – I’ve had a very little contact with her, and only since I have re-emerged, have I cleaned up some relationships. I wish her the best, I think that she is a brilliantly talented lady.Paragraph

Through the years I have had to make amends to various people. I called and made amends to Barbra about things that I had said about her, that weren”t very kind. I though that they were very funny, at the time, – in fact they were – but they weren’t very kind. She was very sweet about it, a terrific lady.

JB – In the aftermath of the movie the soundtrack was released. At the time it became the biggest selling soundtrack album of all time, selling in excess of 6 million copies. Evergreen has been recorded by over a hundred artists, it was a world-wide hit for Barbra as a single and it earned you and Barbra an Oscar. looking back at it now, in spite of the problems of trying to score a movie in nine weeks are you pleased with the end result?

PW – We have both been very fortunate, and Barbra has recorded it again and again. The song has made us both a lot of money and I am very grateful.

I always joke that I think Barbra got bored with songwriting quite quickly because she got the Oscar first time out. Where can you go after that?

c Jim Bennett 1995

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