’70s hitmaker Paul Williams on having his songs sung by The Carpenters and The Muppets 

’70s hitmaker Paul Williams on having his songs sung by The Carpenters and The Muppets 

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: As the title of the new documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive, reveals, the songwriter who wrote top-10 hits for the likes of Barbra Streisand, The Carpenters, and Three Dog Night is still hard at work, fending off the advances of prying filmmakers while soaking up the love of Filipino fans. Although a performer in his own right, and an unlikely star in the ’70s, Williams is best known for his lyrics, providing heartfelt sentiments to performers as diverse as Helen Reddy and Kermit The Frog.

The Carpenters, “We’ve Only Just Begun” (from 1970’s Close To You

Paul Williams: I actually went to Paris to work on a project with Michel Colombier and Herb Alpert, and when I came back, I had two songs in the top 10: “Out In The Country” by Three Dog Night, and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” “We’ve Only Just Begun” had all the romantic beginnings of a bank commercial. You know, there was a great lyricist named—there is a great lyricist named—Tony Asher. Tony Asher wrote “God Only Knows,” great lyrics for the Beach Boys. He had a job writing a commercial for Crocker Bank, and he had a skiing accident. He said, “Look, I can’t write, I’m on pain pills and screwed up. Why don’t you call [composer] Roger Nichols and Paul Williams and see if they want to do it?” So they dropped it in our lap.

They were going to show a young couple getting married, driving off into the sunset after the ceremony, and it was going to be something new; instead of having a sales pitch over it, it was just going to show what we now call a music video. And then at the very end, with just copy, but no voiceover: “You’ve got a long way to go. We’d like to help you get there. The Crocker Bank.” In an afternoon, Roger and I wrote the first two verses.  He wrote the music, I wrote the words, and we slapped it out there and finished it. I don’t know if we finished it because Richard [Carpenter] called and said, “Is there a full-length version of it?” or if we had already finished it, just in case we got a call. But we did get a call from Richard Carpenter saying he’d like to have a copy of the song. There was no way in the world that was ever going to be a hit song; it was this very sentimental, sweet little wedding song, and I think the No. 1 album at the time or around then was In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. So bizarre that all of a sudden Karen [Carpenter] sings it, and it’s a whole new ballgame. As time passes, whenever I hear her sing, it’s just really—what an amazing gift it was, for me and for the world, that she was around to sing. 

The A.V. Club: There aren’t a lot of voices like Karen Carpenter’s, period, but especially not on the radio at the time.

PW: She just—it took it to a whole new level once she sang it.

AVC: Someone’s been posting the isolated vocal tracks from some of the Carpenters’ songs on YouTube, without all the strings and the orchestration, and the emotion in her unaccompanied voice is startling.

PW: When I get back to the hotel this evening, I’ll Google that, for sure, because that would be lovely to hear. I’ve never heard that.

Kermit The Frog, “The Rainbow Connection” (from 1979’s The Muppet Movie)

AVC: You wrote the song for The Muppet Movie, and it was in last year’s The Muppets as well, introducing it to a whole new generation.

PW: Isn’t that amazing? That what I’ve always referred to as “The Frog Song” has a life you couldn’t have imagined. I think you have to throw back a lot of that to just the brilliance of [Muppets creator] Jim Henson and all. But from Sarah McLachlan to Willie Nelson to the Dixie Chicks to Me First And The Gimme Gimmes—[Laughs.] All these people that have cut the song. It has a life of its own, it seems.

AVC: So many people—performers and listeners—find their way of relating to songs you wrote. You write “We’ve Only Just Begun” for a bank commercial, and it becomes a huge hit, and then you write a song for a felt frog…

PW: [Laughs.] My life is beginning to sound like a blessed life, doesn’t it?

AVC: It doesn’t seem like you thought, “This song’s just for a bank, or a puppet. Maybe I don’t need to put so much into it.”

PW: You know, I’ve always believed that the reason a song is a hit is not what’s unique about the songwriter or unique about what the songwriter is feeling or expressing, but what we have in common. So if I write about this sense of wonder about the mystery of life, you know, “Who said that every wish would be heard and answered / if wished on a morning star? / Somebody thought of that and someone believed it / Look what it’s done so far.” If I write about what is actually going on in the center of my chest, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll match what’s going on in somebody else’s. It’s what we have in common, I think, that makes the song work. 

Helen Reddy, “You And Me Against The World” (from 1974’s Love Song For Jeffrey)

PW: The ancillary benefit of being a songwriter is, you begin to have this sense of family with your audience, especially at this point in my life. You know, I go and do a concert, a lot of people my age and their grandkids show up, and they respond to the song. It’s like there’s a comfort level for an old performer to go, “You know what? This is my family. These are kind of family mementos, in a way.” I bring the songs, and the audience brings the memories. They all relate to the songs in their own specific way. “You And Me Against The World” is probably the one that gets the deepest connection with people. So many times, they say, “My mom was a single mother, and ‘You And Me Against The World’ was really important to her.” That’s what I call “heart payment.” That’s an unexpected little heart payment for a songwriter, that this is something you did that people related to that was meaningful, which is wonderful.

The Carpenters, “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” (from 1974’s A Song For You)
The Muppets, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

AVC: Have you written songs you thought were about something only you felt, and discovered later that many people identify with them?

PW: I don’t think I have that kind of emotional overview, or intellectual overview. A lot of times, when I write, I collaborate with music writers, and I’ve always said that the lyricists are like these guys that sit at the United Nations, and they translate from Swedish to Italian or whatever. I hear words in music, you know? Roger Nichols would play [sings melody], and I would hear [sings], “Day after day, I must face a world of strangers where I don’t belong.” So I’m sure I bring my own unconscious angst to the gig, but the fact is, that kind of dissecting [of] what’s going on, intellectualizing—I don’t think that’s so much a part of the process when I’m writing. I think when I’m writing, especially these days, it’s such an unconscious effort. If I look at something that I need to write—I need to write a song for like, The Muppet Christmas Carol, for Scrooge. I look at the scene, and I look at what I need to write, and then I think about something else. I’ll come back to it later and go [sings], “When a wind blows it chills you / Chills you to the bone / But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone.” And I’ll go, “Dammit—not bad!” It came to me while I’m reading a book of mystery or whatever. So I’m a big believer in the power of the unconscious. For you as a writer, I would be willing to bet that when you’re not thinking about something specifically you’re writing about, something will jump into your head that is just really wonderful, and you’ll go, “Wow! Where did that come from?” It was your unconscious doing the work while you were not concentrating on it.

The Beach Bums, “Upholstery” (from the 1974 movie The Phantom Of The Paradise)

PW: It was a real labor of love. I was brought in just as a songwriter by Brian [De Palma], and as he watched me work and everything, his first thought was that I play Winslow [The Phantom], and I’m like, “I can’t—I’m not good enough to act with an eye.” You put a mask on me with one eye… He wanted me to be this little kind of a rat, up in the timbers of the studio running around dropping things on people, and I think that was the first thought. Then as he got to work with me, and I started writing the various songs for it, the satirization of the different groups and all, he said, “You know what, you need to play Swan.”  And it was an amazing, amazing journey for us. This picture was pretty much ignored when it came out, except for two cities, Paris and Winnipeg. God bless Winnipeg; they turned it into a gold record in Canada for me. And it ran for years in France.

AVC: You mentioned working with Tony Asher. “Upholstery,” by the fake band The Beach Bums, seems like an affectionate nod to his Pet Sounds collaborators.

PW: Oh, absolutely. And you pepper it with lines like, “Of all life’s mysteries, the greatest one I’ve seen / My short runs better when it’s clean.” [Laughs.] Yeah, that was the most fun part of the whole gig, to actually analyze music that I love. You listen to Brian Wilson melodies—I mean, listen to the melody of “Little Surfer Girl.” It’s brilliant; “In My Room,” brilliant. So to be able to jump in and catch their energy—which I think we did.

“Dangerous Business” (from the 1987 movie Ishtar)

PW: [Sings.] “Telling the truth can be dangerous business / Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” Pretty good up to there. [Sings.] “If you admit that you can play the accordion / No one will hire you in a rock ’n’ roll band.” [Laughs.] Which at the time was true, and now in a rock ’n’ roll band, you’re going to hear an accordion. The lyric doesn’t work now like it did in the ’80s.

AVC: “Life is the way we audition for God.”

PW: Yeah, peppered with a little bit of actual spiritual growth. [Laughs.] I really appreciate that you seem to seem to have an affection for those songs; it means a lot. 

AVC: Was it hard not to be too bad? Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty’s characters are at least trying to write good songs, even though they turn out to be awful.

PW: Well, it’s easier to write stupid bad songs. But to write songs that are believably bad and sound like they were written by two mismatched songwriters was not easy. 

“Rainbow Connection” (2010, from the TV series Yo Gabba Gabba!)

AVC: You ended up performing as yourself, and as a puppet. 

PW: Yeah. I walked into a Denny’s, I think it was, some little breakfast spot on a Sunday morning, and a little 3-year-old or 4-year-old child, maybe even younger, came running up to me with her mother, and she goes, “Gabba gabba!” I thought, “Ah—training the next level.”