Paul Williams is a giant amongst songwriters. In the 1970s he composed a truckload of some of the most beloved pop tunes in history, including "The Rainbow Connection," "We've Only Just Begun," "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song," "Rainy Days and Mondays," and countless others. But unlike his faceless songwriting brethren, Williams became highly recognizable over the years, as his amazing, bizarre, multi-faceted career (which has seen him clock in as a jockey, a jokewriter, and the best simian in the worst Planet of the Apes movie) made him a TV and movie staple for years. While he never found much success with his band Holy Mackeral or as a solo recording artist, and though he never made it as a leading man (his star vehicle sitcom The Paul Williams Show barely lasted one episode), Williams' magnetic screen presence made allowed him to guest star in countless TV shows, make cameos in numerous films, and guest star, and an incredible comic run as Little Enos, partner to Pat McCormick's Big Enos, in the Smokey and the Bandit films. His hops Hollywood soundstages and songwriter's piano stool became shorter when he began composing for movies and TV, resulting in the music for the Barbi Benton fake rock band sitcom Sugar Time!, the brilliantly bad tunes Beatty and Hoffman perform in Ishtar (I still contend that if they never left their piano bench to go to Ishtar that movie would have been a smash), and the theme songs for such timeless classics as Love Boat, Boy in the Plastic Bubble and the Streisand version of A Star is Born. The latter earned his a composer Oscar, but the Academy Award he truly deserved was for his starring role in Brian De Palma's 1974 rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. Williams was fortunate to be where he was at a time when movie musicals were once again being produced, and certainly his most beloved score was for The Muppet Movie (and his most bizarre was for the all-child gangster musical Bugsy Malone). But myself, and countless Canadians and Parisians (a box office flop in the U.S., it somehow played to packed houses for 62 weeks in Winnipeg, and enjoyed a similar run in Paris, France) are devotees of his scoring/starring turn in the glam-esque, Faustian epic in which he plays the evil Swan. In the film Swan takes the girl, the soul, and consequently, the face (which gets disfigured in a vinyl record press) of a gifted songwriter, and uses his music to further turn the world into a decadent hellhole, where swishy rockers in KISS makeup are killed onstage for the audience's pleasure. Needless to say the flick is a lost gem in the States, but because it is so appreciated North of the border, we sent our Canuck cub reporter Robert Dayton to track down Williams in advance of his appearance at (of course) Phantompalooza 2006 (a Canadian Phantom of the Paradise festival). Having spent the bulk of the Me Decade yapping it up on the game show/Tonight Show/Fantasy Island circuit, it's no surprise that Williams is a great interview subject, but many of the revelations about his collaborations with DePalma, Felix Unger, Tiny Tim, Batman, and Kermit the Frog are actually quite revealing and insightful, far from the slick, packaged answers one might expect from a jaded showbiz veteran. Ultimately, despite being a somewhat kitschy onscreen icon of a plastic era, the true Paul Williams is revealed here to be the artist who labored in solitude, away from the spotlight, on countless pop masterpieces.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Ha ha, you've found him, ha ha ha.
I have some songs that I'd like to show you....
(laughter then composure)
I am a fan and I am a fan of some of the people you have collaborated with. For example, Biff Rose...
Biff was one of my first collaborations ever. The first person I found I could write words to somebody else's music. We wrote a song called "Fill Your Heart" which was the B Side to "Tip-Toe Through The Tulips" for Tiny Tim. The great moment was finding that it had been recorded by David Bowie. It was the first song that David ever recorded that he didn't write.
So Tiny Tim's version came before Bowie's.
I think David told me that he got it off of Tiny's record.
I love that Tiny Tim album.
It was a great album, wasn't it?
And you'd worked with Richard Perry, the producer of "God Bless Tiny Tim" with your group The Holy Mackerel, right?
That was actually after. I'd met Richard through Tiny. They were looking for songs for Tiny. The head of publishing at A & M played some songs for Richard and he liked "Fill Your Heart" very much. He was kind of fascinated by my writing and my voice. He said to me, "How'd you like to record?" The idea terrified me so I said, "Let me put a group together." I basically put The Holy Mackerel together to record for Reprise. I think the group broke up before the album had been released. They picked me up as a solo artist and that was kind of the beginnings of stuff for me. An out of work actor finds a home in music. Once again 'no' is a gift in my life. If I don't get something that I think that I have to have I usually get something that is better that I really need.
So Tiny Tim sort of kick started it?
My first two recordings were released the same day. One of them was "Fill Your Heart" by Tiny Tim and the other one was "It's Hard To Say Goodbye" by Claudine Longet. I remember thinking, "Tiny Tim and Claudine Longet. What kind of a writer are you?" These opposite ends of the spectrum of recording styles. I still ask myself that question every now and then.
The lyrics have a late 60s vibe but it also sounds like another Tiny Tim number from the 20s.
Thank you...I think. If ever there was a song written by two hippies "Fill Your Heart" is a song written by two hippies, that would probably be a fair and accurate description of Biff Rose and I then and probably on some level now of me, I'm not sure what Biff Rose is like these days.
He's got his own website and he seems to march to the beat of his own drum. (Editor: zap to www.biffrose.com - a must visit, as it contains Biff's brilliant poetry, philosophy, Hitler comedy, and an mp3 of the Tonight Show appearance that got him blacklisted from Johnny's couch)
He's a unique individual Biff is.
His albums have been reissued recently.
Do you know his song "Molly's Letter"? That is up at the top of my 'wish I wrote' list. It's one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of music, it's like literature, it's beyond just a pop song, it's an amazing short story and so touching. "Son in Moon" would be another one that I just go, "Oh my God!" Just a wonderful, wonderful song.
I'd like to ask you for crazy stories about Tiny Tim.
I remember Tiny buying cases of baby food. He was living on baby food, like vanilla pudding. Richard said he would open up and smell one jar of baby food, decide it wasn't good, that it was contaminated, and throw the entire case out. I could never get him to call me Paul, it was always, "Ohhhh, Mr. Williams!"
Your song "We've Only Just Begun" was originally a bank jingle.
It had all the romantic beginnings of a bank commercial. Roger Nichols and I were approached by Crocker Bank to show a young couple getting married, riding off into the sunset, it was gonna say "You've got a long way to go, we'd like to help you get there, The Crocker Bank." They didn't want a sales pitch, they wanted a pretty little love song over this wedding scene. In a sense it was like a little video. Roger and I wrote the first two verses for the commercial and finished it as a song because that's what we did. We thought it might be an album cut or something, it certainly wasn't going to be a hit record. The number one album, I think, in the country at that time was "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," so "We've Only Just Begun" was not going to be a hit. Then an angel sang it and changed our lives.
You collaborated with The Carpenters for quite a while.
They cut a bunch of our songs. We wrote from about '67 to maybe '73 or so.
How did you feel about the heavy rock?
I love all kinds of music. One of the great things about Phantom Of The Paradise is it allowed me to satirize a bunch of different styles of music that I really loved that I wasn't associated with. I was a huge Beach Boys fan so "Carburetors" was a natural. The stuff I was writing with Roger was very Middle Of the Road, we were getting the Jack Jones cuts. My favorite bands at that time were The Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, of course The Beatles, the original Delaney and Bonnie and Friends was I thought the best rock 'n' roll band I ever heard in my life, I was a big Leon Russell fan. I was 27 when I first started writing songs. When Phantom came along it was a great opportunity to combine two loves: my love of film and my love of music.
You also satirized yourself with the song "Faust" by turning it into "Carburetors."
Absolutely. At one point Brian De Palma had talked about me playing the character of Winslow and becoming The Phantom, this creepy little guy in the rafters of the theatre. I never thought I would be frightening as The Phantom. I also didn't want people to see me playing somebody whose music was stolen. I was more comfortable playing the thief, stealing my own music, so nobody would think I had a hidden agenda against the music business.
I see all the different characters in Phantom as being molded on certain people. I see Winslow as being Randy Newman-ish.
I'm not sure what he (De Palma) had in mind. I know he always said that for the Swan character it was Phil Spector. There was a definite similarity.
Would you have known if Spector had seen the movie?
I don't have a clue. I met him during the A & M years just to say hello.
I also see Beef as being like Jobriath.
In a way we kind of invented the whole glam rock thing.
To me it is the greatest glam rock musical of all time. It's an amazing marriage of your music and De Palma's film making.
It's a high point for me. There aren't very many times in your career when you really feel that you're given a great creative freedom to just roll but also something just as archetypelly juicy as Phantom was. Writing songs around a story that is essentially about the devil, all the Faustian themes, there was a wealth of material to write about. Also the music business that takes itself sometimes so seriously was really ripe for a good poking.
It's so darkly funny and larger than life. Were you listening to any glam rock? Glam rock would often satirize and pastiche musical genres.
No, I don't think that I even knew that what I was creating was glam rock. It was just kick ass rock 'n' roll and heavy guitar work. I tried to take it as far away from Winslow's delicate presentation of the tunes. When I listen "Life At Last" or "Somebody Super Like You" I'm really proud of it, it's a pretty good rock 'n' roll record.
And I don't think The Rolling Stones (who De Palma originally wanted) would have done it as well as that, so...
Robert, you're in my will!
Well, the songs had to be diverse with different characters and voices to work with.
I often used improvisational actors. Archie Hahn was a writer for The Groundlings. I used Archie in Phantom Of The Paradise then turned right around a couple of years later and used him as the voice for Bugsy Malone. He was really a flexible actor who could do a lot of different things. Jeffrey Comanor was one of The Juicy Fruits, he was a crazy songwriter buddy of mine for A & M Records. He had a great album called "A Legend In His Own Room, A Rumor In His Own Time."
I was wondering about some of those names on the soundtrack. Craig Doerge I recognized as having played in the group Rosebud.
Craig was a member of The Section, which was James Taylor's back up band. In the 60s it was The Wrecking Crew, the heir apparent to the Wrecking Crew was The Section. Craig's never forgiven me because I gave him a lyric that he wrote a melody to and we went out and had a hit record with it for Bobby Sherman. He said, "I've got a hit record ...with Bobby Sherman." He wasn't a big Bobby Sherman fan I don't think.
Was he part of the ultra hip Laurel Canyon scene?
He was exactly that. Joni Mitchell, JD Souther, Jackson Brown. If you look at my "Life Goes On" album alot of those names are in there singing background on my album. I was around those guys but I was also writing for anybody and everybody and with anybody and everybody.
So, you really wouldn't say no? What was your criteria for working with a singer?
I wouldn't work with a singer. I'd work with somebody else and I'd write a song and then the publishing company- I'd write a song that was just perfect for a kick ass rock 'n' roll group and the publishing company would send it to The Harmonicats and they'd record it! The interesting thing about the time of my career as a songwriter, as a contract writer at A & M records, is I was writing so much material that it was being sent to everybody. It was kind of like throwing it up against the wall and it'd stick where it would stick. But it was also the time where I caught the back end of some amazing careers. So all of a sudden I've got stuff being cut by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley and David Bowie. You're looking at a career for me as a songwriter that got hot during the third act of some amazing careers that began back in the 40s but also some amazing careers that were just getting started. Consequently I can write a song like "Rainbow Connection" that Kermit The Frog sings in 1979 and in 2005 Willie Nelson sings it. It's a great accident of the ages that I was born when I was and started writing when I did that I caught so many amazing careers.
With "Rainbow Connection" I read in your bio that you said it was the greatest song you've ever written.
I don't think I said it was the greatest. I might have said that it was my favorite. I think there's an element of hope and I think there's an appreciation of mystery in the song. I romanticized my collaboration with the Henson clan. Jim Henson was an amazing man. I've had some unpleasant collaborative experiences in film and otherwise but I'd have to say the best ones that have offered the most creative freedom with people that would play at their music and their movies, that had great focus and great drive but never got that fever to control you. We literally sat down with Jerry Juhl, Jim Henson, myself, and Kenny Ascher and a bunch of guys in a room. It was kind of like, "What're we gonna write about for The Muppet Movie? What're we gonna do? Why don't we do a road movie? Okay. Like how they all get together. We'll start in the swamp. Who comes along? How about an agent in a rowboat? Wow! What a great idea! Dom Deluise." And that's how it played out. It was just such fun. I love Gonzo. Gonzo's my favorite Muppet. I think he's a landlocked bird. I think in a lot of ways, we as people are these weird little birds that are longing to go back to the sky on some level. There's a scene in the movie as we were writing it where they break down in the desert. I said to Jim, "They're sitting around a campfire, there's all these amazing stars in the heavens. Why don't we have Gonzo sing about this longing to go back." And Jim took it literally, "Why don't we let him experience flight during the earlier part of the film?" And he wrote this entire fairground scene just so that Gonzo could buy a bunch of helium balloons for Camilla, his chicken girlfriend, he buys too many and he goes floating off into space. They shoot the balloons one at a time to bring him back to earth safely but he loved it while everybody's so scared for him. So in that scene he's looking at the heavens and he's singing about "I'm going to go back there someday" with a philosophical overtone about life, when life ends do we go back there some day? The amazing thing is when Jim died they sang "I'm Going to Go Back there Someday" at his funeral. It was like full circle. I don't know. It's just really special to me. "Rainbow Connection" and "I'm Going To Go Back There Some day" are both favorites. I have other kinds of songs that are favorites.
I didn't know The Muppet Movie was written around the songs.
The first thing Jim Henson and I did together was an HBO special called Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas.
Now from that special there's the dark sounds of The River Bottom Nightmare Band...
Once again a chance to play some kick ass rock 'n' roll.
Now do you think a song like "The Hell Of It" from Phantom would be too mean spirited for even bad Muppets like The River Bottom Nightmare Band?
Well, I'm not sure. I've been writing a bit with this group called The Scissor Sisters and they are a band I would not have any difficulty showing that song to and saying, "You know what? You should cut this." Do you know the story of that song in the movie? It was for a scene that got cut.
It is one sour sour nasty song. And it closes the whole movie!
Paul Williams (quoting his lyrics): "Good for nothing, bad in bed, nobody likes you, you're better off dead, good bye..." I'll tell you what it was originally written for. After Beef was killed there was supposed to be a funeral scene where you see this snowy graveyard with a casket over the open grave and these people around in a circle singing about Beef. While they're singing the song "The Hell Of It" you follow through all these microphones and cables back into a hearse. In the hearse was Swan recording the funeral live on the Death label.
I can just picture the De Palma tracking shot.
What I wanted to do was a very kind of Fellini-esque thing of everybody in a big circle, "Dun dun dun dun da dun, dun dun dun dun dun da dun..." Very circus-y. And a little girl, whose mother is a stage mother who brought her, she runs in as they're lowering the casket into the grave, she jumps on it and begins tap dancing to audition for Swan. I don't know if we ran out of money or if we tried to find a snowy graveyard and couldn't find one...It was Brian's idea to just grab the song and cut to the end credits before that.
What were the working methods with you and De Palma?
Originally it was Phantom Of The Fillmore and he wanted to use Sha Na Na as the group in the opening. We just started working. As we wrote the whole Faustian theme really developed more and more throughout the whole piece. To me the heart of the movie is in one great line: "An assassination live on coast to coast television...that's entertainment!" There's the whole thing where these kids have seen so much theatrical violence in the show with The Undead that when they see someone murdered onstage they think it's part of the show. They cannot tell the difference between what is entertainment and what is real. It's 1973 when we're shooting this, so it's from the 60s where people are eating their TV dinners watching the war news from Vietnam. We've begun to slide into that place where the dividing line between reality and entertainment and fantasy has begun to diminish. It's a fairly accurate prophecy of where we are today. As Brian points out on the French DVD with all the reality shows people are literally living their lives on camera as Swan was.
It's so crazy seeing people talk about the most shameful things they've done on camera, or that they'll snitch on a family member just to be on TV.
Tomorrow I'll be sixteen years sober. It's my sober birthday. When I was newly sober I went to U.C.L.A. and I got my certificate as a drug and alcohol counselor. I got very active and remain very active in recovery. I remember flying back to New York because Geraldo wanted to do a thing on heroin use and recovery. He asked me if I'd come in and share in my story, not that I'm a heroin addict, I'm an alcoholic and a recovering cocaine addict. But for me to come back because I'm a counselor and he thought it'd be good television and that I could share some of my experience, strength, and hope and that we could help reduce the stigma of the disease a little bit. I went back and the next thing I know while we're shooting the show they're doing a remote to somebody in rehab, I won't say whose name it was, it was a famous son of an actor. When they cut to the commercial I went over to Geraldo and said, "You can't do this. This is somebody who's trying to save their life right now." We never cut back to that person in rehab. It's amazing that that's where we're going, as you say, the most horrific personal inside material as far as the networks or as far as the production people are concerned, that's good television.
Phantom is so layered with its commentary and it is also very self referential in that it starts with a character writing music about Faust then the whole thing becomes a Faustian bargain. And let's not forget the well-choreographed split screen explosion sequence. That's why I am very curious about your's and De Palma's working methods.
I think that in any picture that is a true musical, and Phantom Of The Paradise is really a musical, the process has to really be collaborative. You don't write a finished script and say, "Here's where the songs are going to go." When I got on board there was a finished script but it was very different from what we wound up with.
How much say did you have with the singers? Such as Jessica Harper...
I was involved in the casting of Jessica. The song that I had everyone sing for the auditioning of Phoenix was, "Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you before the second show..."
Was the audition process like it was in the movie with Swan?
No, darn it. I remember walking up behind Jessica and she was singing to herself and she was wonderful. We went inside for her to sing for Brian and I and she sang out, "Long ago!" in a very different quality. I said, "No no, sing it to yourself again" and Brian just looked at me and went, "Yeah" and she was wonderful.
What about Ray Kennedy, the voice of Beef? Who is Ray Kennedy?
Paul Ray Kennedy is a singer-songwriter. I actually wrote and recorded "Life At Last" before we had this cast and loved Ray's voice and thought, "That's it. That's the perfect voice for Beef." The one thing I might do a little different, I've since apologized to Garrett because when Garrett sings it in the shower scene he sounds pretty good and he definitely could have done it but I was really knocked out by Ray's voice and that was it, there was nothing to discuss.
You're going to Winnipeg at the end of the month, right?
Paul Yeah, we're going to do Phantompalooza.
Phantom was extremely popular in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Paris, France! What's the deal?
Because the cities are so much alike. It's very bizarre, isn't it?
It ran for 62 weeks straight in Winnipeg!
And it did the same kind of thing in Paris. And I couldn't even begin to tell you why.
And people have latched on to the movie more now.
The picture was not a hit in the United States. People thought it was a horror film, they thought it was a concert film. They weren't sure. But the intensity of the fans for this picture has just been wonderful.
I see this movie as being done as a stage show.
It almost happened then it fell apart. It's one of those things where I hope one day it will actually happen.
So there's stuff written for a stage show version?
At one point I wrote some additional material but I think if we did it as a stage show we'd start at letter A again. I'd certainly use all of the stuff that's in the picture but I'd add to it. I'd love to see that happen.
Rocky Horror started out as a stage show. It became a movie in 1975, a year after Phantom. Is there any connection between the two?
The only connection is that years later Tim Curry and I were both voice over actors on the Batman animated series. He was the voice of The Joker and I was The Penguin. Then he went on to do something else and he was replaced by Mark Hamill as The Joker. So midnite shows would do double features of Phantom and Rocky Horror. When they made a DVD about those people who are addicted to The Rocky Horror Picture Show they asked me to narrate it, which I did.
Did you have a type of voice in mind when you did the voice of The Penguin?
I just used me at my most arrogant. "You flying rodent!"
Kind of like Swan?
Swan is The Penguin with better hair.
Your first movie role was when you were a kid in The Loved One. Do you have any stories about that?
It was my very first movie so I was walking around like a kid in a candy store. I followed Jonathan Winters around like a puppy.
I have just a few more questions. I won't keep you too long.
We've been at it at it a little more than an hour. Although, Robert, we are talking about my favorite subject: me.
I am in a song and dance duo called Canned Hamm and one of our inspirations, well, I should tell you our names- Big Hamm and Little Hamm, I'm Little Hamm, and we've worn matching denim outfits.
Ahhh perfect. Sounds like there's a little bit of Smokey And the Bandit in there.
Well, when I was about eleven I remember you and Pat McCormick were on a talk show in your Little Enos and Big Enos denim outfits and you were saying that you were going to do those characters a lot more.
We did. Glen Larson and I wrote an ABC Movie Of the Week called Rooster which was about two insurance investigators and and there was a pilot for a series. The movie aired but the pilot never made it on the air. We played those characters in two or three episodes of The Fall Guy and three Smokey And the Bandit movies.
How could I ever see Rooster?
Good luck. If you find it, send it to me. Somewhere in storage I've got Rooster.
Pat McCormick must have been fun to work with.
He was an amazing friend, a really, really bright guy, and a great character. He was one of a kind.
Do you have one story about him?
Yeah. Our first conscious memory was coming out of a bar together across from NBC. We'd been in the bar all night and I don't think he'd ever seen me off of a bar stool before. He came towering over me and he looked down at me and he said, "You know what you look like? You look like an aerial photograph of a human being." Any mind that would think like that you'd just have to love it. So he said, "You know, you're going to have to help me find my car. I don't know where I put it." I said, "Okay, what kind of a car is it?" He says, "Oh no. That would be cheating." Just a funny, funny guy, really quick mind. I think Burt saw the two of us at the craft service table for The Tonight Show one time and went, "Those guys are funny together." To make three movies with Jackie Gleason... alot of times I've said that those movies were a vacation to make and a job to watch.
They're just movies to get with some people and have a laugh.
They're pure Americana.
A friend of mine has been looking for years for the Ishtar movie soundtrack and he can't find it.
It was never released.
But it says at the end of the movie, "Soundtrack available..."
I know. And at the end of the movie you were supposed to hear fully produced rock 'n' roll tracks of those songs with great musicians but Warren as producer and the entire Columbia team has never allowed it to be released because they were overwhelmed by the negative response to the picture. At least that's how I remember things playing out. Be great to get it out now...I think 'Chuck and Lyle' (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman's characters) deserve their shot...even if it's twenty years overdue.
Those are great songs!
If somebody loves those songs, if they mention Ishtar, it's a guarantee that they are a songwriter or a musician because they get it, they get the humor.
They are great songs that are supposed to be bad songs but are actually great songs.
It would be very easy to write obviously bad songs but to write believable bad songs where they actually sound like they actually were trying to be good was the hard part and that's what I had a great time doing.
How much say did you have in The Odd Couple TV episode where you played yourself?
I did what I was asked to do. The only thing was Garry (Marshall, the show's producer/director) said, "I want you to write a song at the end that Felix writes for his daughter. Take that note and write a song around that." They kept changing the end of the story and never got around to writing the note so they gave me the note the morning of the shoot. I wrote that song that morning. One of the great moments of my life was sitting on the foot of my bed one day watching television. My daughter walked in the room, she was seventeen or eighteen at the time, she says, "What are you watching, Dad?" I said, "Oh my God, come here" and she sat with me and we watched that song play and that scene. It was an amazing experience.
You were all over TV. Just switch the channel and you'd be there. I don't know how you did it.
I became a lot better at showing off than showing up. In a way I think celebrity becomes an addiction in a certain sense. I think my career as a writer was greatly impacted by me running off to do The Gong Show instead of paying attention to the opportunity I'd been given to write. We learn by doing in life so I've learned and I've changed in a lot of ways and I'm a real grateful man for the life I've been given.