Paul Williams Talks About His Great Career, Classic Songs, And Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert

Paul Williams
Paul Williams

Update: Congratulations to Paul Williams, who won a Grammy Award for his contribution to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album, which won the Grammy Album of the Year.

Hit songwriter Paul Williams has had one of the most impressive, multi-faceted careers in the music & entertainment industry. A Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee who is known for writing pop standards for Barbra Streisand, the Carpenters,Three Dog Night and other artists, Williams has also been a successful recording artist, movie & TV actor, film & TV composer and music executive. Notably, he has served as President & Chairman of the Board of ASCAP since being elected in 2009.

On January 23 (2014), Williams joined a star-studded cast of music artists who performed at the Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Beverly Hills, CA. This was a special event produced by The Grammy Foundation, and this year’s show is titled “A Song Is Born,” and it’s centered around songwriters and the impact that their songs have made on the music industry. In addition to Williams, the list of performers included Joy Williams of the Civil Wars, Kris Kristofferson, John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, legendary Blues Brothers guitarist Steve Cropper, Skylar Grey, and hit songwriters Dan Wilson (known for his work with the Dixie Chicks and Adele), J.D. Souther (Eagles, Linda Ronstadt) and Allen Shamblin (Bonnie Raitt, Randy Travis).

The Legacy Concert highlights the Grammy Foundation’s year-round activities in support of its mission, from preservation grants to its Living Histories archive. The Project also draws the attention of a wider audience to its efforts, and to the imperiled condition of many of significant recordings and other music materials. The Grammy Foundation was established in 1989 to cultivate the understanding, appreciation and advancement of the contribution of recorded music to American culture. The Foundation accomplishes this mission through programs and activities that engage the music industry and cultural community as well as the general public. The Foundation works in partnership year-round with its founder, The Recording Academy.

Paul Williams granted this new interview to talk about the Legacy Concert, and to briefly discuss his hit songs and recent projects. Before we start this Q&A interview, please find below a list of his hit songwriting credits and other career highlights.

Williams is known for writing the following hits: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Rainy Days And Mondays” and “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” for the Carpenters; the Academy Award-winning song “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born) for Barbra Streisand; “Old Fashioned Love Song,” “Out In The Country” and “Family Of Man” for Three Dog Night; “You And Me Against The World” for Helen Reddy, and “You’re Gone” for Diamond Rio.

This past year, Williams co-wrote two songs (“Touch” and “Beyond”) for Daft Punk’s acclaimed album, Random Access Memories, which has become a worldwide hit and was recently nominated for Album Of The Year by the Grammy Awards. On “Touch,” he contributed a lead vocal performance. And for his most recent project, Williams is currently collaborating with director Guillermo del Toro to create the stage musical of Pan’s Labyrinth.

Paul Williams and Neil Portnow
Paul Williams (right) with Neil Portnow, CEO of The Recording Academy. (photo credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Williams has also written famous songs for movies and TV shows. He co-wrote the children’s favorite “Rainbow Connection,” sung by Sesame Street creator Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie. He also co-wrote the popular theme song for the long-running TV series, The Love Boat.

In addition, Williams has been a successful actor, portraying lead and supporting roles in both films and TV shows. He starred in the Brian DePalma film, Phantom of the Paradise, and was a supporting actor in the three Smokey and the Bandit movies, plus Battle for the Planet of the Apes. On TV, he had a recurring role in the CBS daytime drama, The Bold and the Beautiful.

In his personal life, Williams is open about his previous addiction to alcohol and cocaine. He has been sober since age 49 (he’s now 73), and he’s become a certified drug & alcohol counselor. He is very passionate about helping people recover from substance abuse.

Here is the Q&A interview with Paul Williams:

DK: For the Grammy Legacy Concert, do you know which songs you’ll be performing, and will you be singing duets with the other artists?

Williams: I’m not sure yet what songs we’ll be performing. I have some great friends who will be performing, such as Kris Kristofferson and J.D. Souther. There will be many excellent performers; songwriters Dan Wilson, John Rzeznik, Allen Shamblin and, of course, Darrell Brown all have been amazing friends to ASCAP, helping to support creators’ rights.

DK: Have you worked often with The Recording Academy to support their programs?

Williams: I have a great relationship with Neil Portnow (President & CEO of The Recording Academy). I will show up whenever I’m asked by Neil or MusiCares (a Recording Academy organization which provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need; services and resources cover a wide range of financial, personal and medical emergencies).

When I was first sober (after recovering from substance abuse) I met a musician named Buddy Arnold, who co-founded the Musicians’ Assistance Program (aka MAP), a nonprofit drug & alcohol treatment program. He said I should go to UCLA and get certified as drug & alcohol counselor. I then worked with MAP patients at the hospital. MAP has been a great organization, providing treatment to over 1,500 musicians and other music industry professionals. God bless Neil and MusiCares—they acquired MAP (in 2004) and merged it into MusiCares. Neil has done great work in building the Grammy Foundation. Now there’s hope for the hopeless. You can turn to MusiCares if you have an addiction.

Paul Williams with his wife Mariana Williams
Paul Williams, with his wife Mariana, at the 2013 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala honoring Bruce Springsteen. (photo credit: Lester Cohen/WireImage.com)

DK: This year, you’ve had a terrific connection with the acclaimed, electronic duo Daft Punk. How did you hook up with them?

Williams: I’ve been incredibly lucky throughout my career. At age 73, I get to have this amazing connection to Daft Punk and current music. Daft Punk are wonderfully non-ageist, to hire a 73-year-old. I’m grateful that current artists come to me, because they feel a connection to songs I wrote 30 or 40 years ago. I believe that if you create music which is authentic and comes from the heart, it may not get attention now, but it may bear fruit 30 years later.

DK: You are known for writing hit standards, particularly love songs. How did you write the classic “We’ve Only Just Begun”?

Williams: When I first started, I desperately wanted to write a rock & roll hit. I loved listening to Delaney & Bonnie, David Bowie and kick-ass rock bands. But what was coming out of me was Hallmark card lyrics and love songs! In the midst of that, Roger Nichols and I wrote a song for a Crocker bank commercial which turned out to be “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The commercial showed a young couple getting married. We decided to write something bigger, a full song (not just a commercial jingle). Then Richard Carpenter heard me singing it in the commercial, and we played him the full song. Karen Carpenter did a wonderful job of singing it for their record.

DK: You also wrote several rock hits for Three Dog Night. Was “Out In The Country” the first hit you wrote?

Williams: “Out In The Country” was my first hit (in 1970); “We’ve Only Just Begun” also came out that year. For Three Dog Night, we also wrote (the hits) “Old Fashioned Love Song” and “Family Of Man.”

DK: You won the Academy Award for writing “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand. How did this song happen?

Williams: I had a meeting with Barbra and (producer) Jon Peters. They said, “we would like you to write a song for this scene.” But somehow, I got the idea to come up with several songs—I read the script and made a lot of notes. So then I had another meeting with them and I had a lot of ideas. They said “no, we just wanted this one song,” but I ended up writing seven songs for the film, including “Evergreen” with Barbra, who did a tremendous job.

DK: You’ve also written classic songs for TV shows. How did you write the Love Boat theme?

Williams: Producer Charlie Fox called me and said he had a new TV series about a cruise ship…it didn’t sound too exciting. We watched the pilot and we worked on a song, but we honestly didn’t think the show would last five weeks! We called Jack Jones, who sang the theme song. To our great surprise, The Love Boat series ended up running for 11 years and the show is still getting played.

DK: Your writing credits seem to be more diverse than any other writer—you’ve also written country hits for Diamond Rio and Neal McCoy. As a writer, how have you managed to be successful in so many genres?

Williams: The fact is, it’s about the energy and emotion we bring to the music. For the Diamond Rio song, we wrote about our life experiences. The key message for every songwriter, is that the closer you can keep to your own life and emotional spectrum, the more people will relate to it. Be authentic.

DK: You’ve also had major success as an actor. Was it easy or difficult to make the transition into acting?

Williams: For my acting roles, I felt like I was a guest in someone else’s media, For a songwriter I guess I’m not a bad actor, and for an actor I’m not a bad songwriter.

DK: For the past several years, you’ve also held a very important position in the music industry, as President/Chairman of ASCAP. Has it been difficult to fully protect the rights of songwriters & publishers, with such current issues as streaming?

Williams: I want to make clear that I love the internet, and the modern technology of how music reaches people. We all love it at ASCAP, but we must build a future that will allow songwriters and composers to thrive alongside the businesses that use our music. With every new platform there’s been a process to achieve fair payments. That’s the beauty of ASCAP and collective licensing. Part of our success has been our ability to adapt and evolve in a way where everyone wins – creators, our licensees and music lovers everywhere.

From radio, to television, to cable, to the Internet and so on – ASCAP has worked hard to make sure our members’ music can reach new audiences and that they’re paid a fair rate for the value of their music. One of our challenges now is that while innovation has revolutionized the entire music landscape, some of the rules that govern the PROs haven’t kept pace. That’s why we’re urging policymakers and other music industry stakeholders to join us in an effort to reexamine those rules. If we’re going to preserve America’s ability to create and export the world’s greatest music, we have to modernize the music licensing system in a way that enables innovation and increases consumer choice and still protects and nurtures songwriters, who after all, are the foundation of the entire music eco-system.