Paul Hamilton Williams came from simple means, becoming an icon in the music industry. Although he always aspired to be an actor he found that it was difficult to make a living at it. Unemployed with time on his hands he soon discovered other options. He seemed to possess certain instinctive song writing talents.
“I picked up a guitar and began plucking at it, writing simple melodies and what felt like much better lyrics”. He added “I never had the hand eye coordination to play piano, so once I’d written a song I couldn’t really play it. At least not well enough for anyone to want to hear it twice.”
It was the late 60s when Paul’s first collaborator Biff Rose was signed by A & M Records as a staff writer. Biff in turn introduced Paul to the publishers who would give him his first success as a songwriter.
Tiny Tim’s iconic recording of Tiptoe through the Tulips featured the song Fill Your Heart on the B side of the single. It would also be recorded by a young David Bowie.
Several years later Paul was approached to compose a song for a bank commercial. Of all the ways to become established this song was to put him on his way …The song We’ve Only Just Begun which he wrote and sang, was made most famous by singer Karen Carpenter.
Afterwards many artists were singing and playing his creations. If not familiar with his music, You and Me Against The World, Just An Old Fashion Love Song, rainy days and Mondays and we’ve only just begun are a few examples. In the 1970’s, known for his stout, hyper stature, shaggy blonde hair and tinted aviator glasses (this was the 70’s remember) he danced and sang enthusiastically. More like a caricature of himself then who he truly is. “Back then I was doing anything for attention”. In essence everyone knew when Paul was in the house!
Much of the behaviour came from another place. As the 1980’s rolled in Paul virtually vanished. He had lived fast and hard, a bit recklessly, having travelled the darker alleyways of the entertainment realm. He had entered the abyss of addiction and the once bright spotlight had faded. The addiction now had become the king with the crown, as the devil drove the bleak realities of Paul’s daily life. He conveyed “My turn around point was when I was in a blackout. I was in a blackout and called my doctor” his voice sounding a bit surprised and excited. It was then he began his way back with full sobriety”. It was not an easy task by any means however dealing with any demon is always a challenge. Now, twenty-eight years sober, he has reclaimed his life and has victoriously emerged with a second chance! Resurfacing in the 90’s, Paul, thinner, his hair spiked and cut short, donning round spectacles, no longer hidden behind long hair and dark glasses. His album Back To Love Again is brilliant! His latest recording, contributing lyrics to two songs and singing on Daft Punk’s album “Random Access Memories” earned the 2014 Grammy award for album of the year.
We spoke recently via phone in a two part interview from his home in California and his New York office. “So Mr. Williams” I began. He was quick to cut me off, “no, no, no, call me Paul”. I was immediately taken a back, and put at ease. No pretentiousness here! I was so at ease throughout our conversations. So Paul where are you today regarding interests, work and what is ASCAP all about?” He excitedly explained “ASCAP is American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers. I’ve been a member since 1972 and president and chairman of the board since 2009. It’s the greatest honour of my life. Currently with six hundred and seventy-four thousand members across the United States. It was established in 1914 so it is one hundred and four years old. ASCAP is a performing rights organization. Music that is performed on television, radio, bars and grills, anywhere on the internet, we license that music, collect the money and immediately send it to the song writers, composers and their publishers. There have been challenges for music creators. We’ve passed through a time where music was being stolen, downloaded illegally”. He took a breath and continued “We have reached a place where it seems that nobody wants to own music. Streaming has become the way almost everyone is receiving their entertainment.”
“For the last few years we have been working on an amazing bill called The Music Modernization Act. This will update the rules that we operate under making the world of licensing music more fair and giving publishers and song writer’s a better chance at fair payment for the music simplifying and improving the process for the businesses that use our music. It’s been on incredible collaborative experience with almost everyone involved in the industry participating, give me a little so we can all do better. We don’t want to stop the music. We want people to keep falling in love to it and dancing at their weddings.” I immediately knew what he meant, that music evokes happy memories. His group has been working tirelessly to get this bill passed. Thus far it has received seventy “Yehs” on the senate floor.
We spoke of his sobriety. “My last drink was in 1989 and my sober date is March 15th 1990. Since then every morning I get up I say “LEAD ME WHERE YOU NEED ME”. “I always talk to the Big Amigo which is a great way for me to live my life. I am having a third act which I couldn’t have imagined. The one thing I am most grateful for is my recovery. I am passionate about two things, recovery and music creators rights.”
We chatted a bit on his work in the 70’s.” I collaborated with Roger Nichols daily for many years. He was my music school, my friend and in those days drinking partner. Our songs were being recorded by many of the top artists of the day. I began recording as well. I had gone from out of work after living hand to mouth to successful songwriter… And lo and behold, making a living at it”.
Gravitating toward film and, having some prior acting experience he wound up collaborating with director Brian de Palma on the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, as well as, Bugsy Malone and A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand. “It was amazing, however at the time, my alcohol and cocaine use was taking me under. It’s a progressive disease you know.” He continued “One of the elements of alcoholism is isolation. Drug addiction is isolation. Combine this with celebrity. You tend to hide sometimes when you are not in front of the camera showing off. All of the time” (which he was, all of the time).
“My addiction to drugs and alcohol superseded the attention I was getting. What eventually happened was… I disappeared.
And then I did rehab. Twice.
I was so relieved when I became sober and the drugs were out of my system, no longer a victim to the cravings , all I wanted was to stay sober and be a part of that world. I attended UCLA for a year and got my certification as a drug and alcohol counsellor. “He travels and lectures on this as well. “We get to keep the miracle by giving it away!”
He and his friend, Author and screenwriter Tracey Jackson penned a book together entitled Gratitude & Trust. Basically it is a book based on the concept that recovery is not just for addicts. In fact that was part of the original title. Personal addiction stories and six positive affirmations on becoming ones better self. It is a fun and informative guide for anyone. The conversation flowed and I queried “Have you a best-loved song you have written?” He replied “Of course it is going to be Rainbow Connection although there are a couple of other songs that are meaningful to me. For a lot of years it was a song entitled, That’s Enough For Me, from The Old Fashioned Love Song album. Kenny Asher and I wrote all of the songs for The Muppet Movie. My dearest character is Gonzo the landlocked bird and I believe we are all landlocked birds. His song, I’m Going To Go Back There Someday, is a song about returning to the sky … The heavens actually. A metaphor, I think, for a spiritual awakening.” He states.” I think there’s a great power … a higher power in the universe. I also believe that we are given a tool to use, that what we dwell on we create. If I think I am not going to get that job then I won’t. However if I say I am going to get that job I believe the universe hears that prayer and I will. Or something better is waiting. It is all in positive thinking.”
He also has a sensitivity to writing movie scores. He explained “There have been offers to write songs for movies where I felt that a song would detract from the story. Sometimes it is better left alone”. I agreed with him. I asked “is there anyone you have not yet worked with that you’d like to?” He answered,” I was able to work with the group Daft Punk on the album Random Access Memories and was thrilled to receive a Grammy for that. I had never won for album of the year before.” Paul has two other Grammy awards as well. One with the song Evergreen written with Barbra Streisand and another for The Muppet movie.
We continued on in verbal exchange. We shared a common ground on a human level. I explained that there was something I wished to ask but was a bit hesitant. I shared it, a bucket list wish so to speak. I felt a bit uneasy, however Mr. Williams put me at ease. “Let me share a story with you,” he said. A few seconds of silence and then he began. “When I was nine or ten years old I had an enormous crush on actress Susan Hayward. Sometime in the 70’s I had finished my gig on The Midnight Special and wandered over to a restaurant to get something to eat. I entered and sitting at a table eating was Susan Hayward! “his voice in excitement. “I did not want to bother her while she was dining so I did not go over. Some years later after her passing, I was touring with The Fifth Dimension. At a table a group of us were talking and it had come up about loves and crushes and I responded “Oh Susan Hayward I loved her”. At that point a young man’s voice from the end of the table said “she loved you too”. Paul then responded “What?!” The man replied “Susan Hayward was my mom. She saw you eating in a restaurant one night but did not want to bother you”. There was a split second of silence. Paul then quietly, yet firmly said, “You have to ask for what you want”.
I asked “Will you ever tour again?” His reply, “I don’t want to say no, but am loving my life currently.” Most recently Paul has been working with Billy Bob Thorton on the show Goliath. He has only accolades for Mr. Thorton. Paul states “I feel so lucky and blessed with this opportunity and am having such a good time”!
He was able to take a cruise recently, on the Baltic Sea. Relaxing. Time for reflection. He shared, “I love where I live, my family and friends, however I have no real attachment to a place, wrapping my heart around things. I think that I was a sailor in another life, as I find true contentment being around water. Any body of water. It does not matter the size, ocean, lake, I will always live by the water.”
I asked, “What three words best describes Paul Williams?” I could hear a large sigh, a bit of silent contemplation and ever slowly, equally with earnest and fore thought replied, “Grateful, trusting and adventurous”. “I go back to the core of character traits and people, heart of kindness and feeling safe. Love and service, I will repeat again and again.” My next to last question was, if you could leave one thing in a time capsule what would it be and why? Another patch of quiet. I interjected, tough question? He said “yeah you are asking me things I have not been asked before”. His answer, the book Gratitude & Trust. This answer really did not surprise me, as he truly is grateful to have survived and been afforded a second go round. He has a loving wife, two grown children, and has tried to make continuing amends, while being a positive and productive counterpart to those around him, no matter the forum or venue.
He frequently shares on Twitter and Instagram, so is up on the latest world events. Constantly being busy, and involved is all part of his sobriety. It is all in the giving back and sharing. Always moving. Whether music, acting, or lecturing, he is contributing, making the world a better place. My final question I posed was, what do you hope to be most remembered for? He asked me to repeat this. A bit of a sly giggle, “I have a sentimental side to me, so it has to be kindness. I always go back to this.” Having turned seventy-eight on September 19th he remains steadfast in his efforts to make the world a better place.
For me, I know it is, as that happened the day he was born.
As of October 11th 2018 the bill ( that has been so diligently worked towards for years) The Music Modernization Act has been signed into law, by the president of the United States, Donald Trump!