Songwriter/ASCAP President Paul Williams Talks Muppets and Songwriting Rights

Paul Williams has accomplished much in life, but when it comes to his daily two mile run, he takes what he considers his tortoise-like his pace in stride. "As usual, there are people walking by me while I run," he chuckles, "I'm not the fastest out there, but it keeps me healthy."

Williams' life is full of contradictions, accomplishments, and finding a silver lining in what others would consider failure or disappointment. You may not immediately recognize his name, but the singer-songwriter and actor has left a huge footprint on popular culture. Among his long list of credits, he wrote "Rainy Days and Mondays" for The Carpenters.

"That song has one of my favorite lines I've ever written and also my least favorite," he says, beaming about "What I've got they used to call the blues" while cringing over "Hangin' around / Nothin' to do but frown." He has a lyrics credit for "Evergreen," the Academy Award-winning theme to the Barbara Streisand film A Star Is Born, and starred as Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit (Billy Bob Thornton told Williams that in the South they consider the movie a documentary.). Most famously, he co-wrote the songs for the classic film The Muppet Movie with Kenny Ascher.

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"The story I love to tell about working on The Muppet Movie with Jim [Henson] is the greatest example of what he was like," Williams recalls, "We talked about the story and what it was going to be about. ... Walking Jim to his car, I told him, 'We won't surprise you with these songs. As we start to work on them, I'll send stuff over to you so you can hear them and you can give the yay or nay.' He said, 'Oh that's alright Paul. I'll hear them in the studio when we record them.' I had never had that kind of total creative freedom on a project as important as that one, before or since. He trusted that he had the right people around him to work on this wonderful movie and he was right. We have songs that are still being recorded and sung. I've done duets of 'The Rainbow Connection' with Willie Nelson and Jason Mraz, and it's a tribute to Jim and the kind of man he was."

"The Rainbow Connection" has allowed the multi-hyphenate to influence and endure across generations, but it was his performance as the evil music producer Swan in the 1974 Brian DePalma film Phantom of the Paradise that won him fanboy cred and led to interesting collaborations in recent years, including co-writing the song "Touch" on Daft Punk's 2013 Random Access Memories and accepting the Grammy for the helmeted duo. He is also working on a musical version of the film Pan's Labyrinth with Guillermo Del Toro. He signed the film director's copy of the Phantom's Oscar-nominated soundtrack, for which Williams wrote the words and music. The film was a flop when it was first released, but has become a cult classic in the over 40 years since. Passionate fans, especially in Winnipeg, Canada and Paris, France, have been putting on conventions and concerts dedicated to the film.

"One of the life lessons for me is be careful of writing something off as a failure," Williams says, "If you feel good about the work you've done and you don't think anyone noticed it, you might be surprised a few years later. In retrospect, if it had been a hit then, it wouldn't be opening doors now."

While Williams' most popular work was created decades ago, the Songwriter Hall of Fame member is happier now then he's ever been. He's been sober since 1990 and has been a recovery advocate. While he's written music and appeared in film and television roles in the years since, the frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was the subject of a 2011 documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive. The film was about director Stephen Kessler's search for Williams and wondering why he seemingly retreated from the limelight. Williams has been able to let go of fame, which is an idea Kessler didn't really understand. "You start with being happy with who you are, and grateful," Williams says.

Williams is also thankful for his role as President and Chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), a title he has held for nearly six years while the music industry has gone through upheaval in the digital age. He's been working to update how songwriters are compensated now that the listening habits of the public have changed, representing over 520,000 publishers, writers, and composers, a duty he does not take lightly. Some small business owners have seen some of ASCAP's enforcement of copyright law as intimidation, sometimes when no rules have been broken.

"What you have to realize is that the songwriter is a small businessman," Williams states, "What a bar and grill is asked to pay to play the music that they play is totally reasonable. We're talking about the price of an adult beverage a day maybe. That money ends up being food on the table and gas in the car for songwriters who are barely eking out a living right now. The fact is that anybody who has a problem can come to ASCAP and have us look at the agreement...In those cases where [business owners] feel they've been overcharged, they have to remember that ASCAP is a member organization that is run by real people who are happy to look at that with them. I get mail from people who have a problem with something like that and I put them in touch with the right people and inevitably they write back saying 'We've straightened it out. Thank you so much.' People have to remember that the music didn't create itself. There's a songwriter behind it who's probably got a couple of kids."

Williams the performer will give the audience at the Chandler Center for the Arts a tour through his sizable and eclectic catalog and the stories behind the songs. Like that daily two-mile run, it took some work for the benefits of Williams' work to be noticeable. When pressed about what he considers his greatest achievement, Williams says with no hesitation that it's his recovery. He talks about it candidly in the self-help book Gratitude and Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life, which he wrote with screenwriter Tracey Jackson, who is not an addict, but feels that everyone can benefit from the principles it teaches.

"My greatest sense of accomplishment, oddly enough, feels like a gift," he says, "I was given the opportunity to experience this. It's kind of a conundrum because, while I am most proud of it, I lay less claim to it than anything else in my life. It was the gate that opened up the life that I have today, but it has given me a perspective on the work that I've done before. Success has come in ways I couldn't even have imagined."

Paul Williams is scheduled to perform at Chandler Center for the Arts on Saturday, March 28.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil