Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Some Kind of Lonely Clown

It's tempting to say that the saga of Paul Williams could have only happened in the 1970s, but even then, it wasn't very likely that a runty songwriter without any hits of his own would go on to a career as an actor and as a most unlikely teen crush. Paul Williams had basically no recording career at all - his only hit to reach Billboard's Hot 100, "Waking Up Alone" from 1972, peaked at Number 60 - but he was perhaps the most important pop songwriter of the early 1970s, and he starred in movies, got his own TV pilot, and appeared as Edna's heartthrob on The Odd Couple. Who else had a career like that?

The key is that Williams started out not as a songwriter but as an actor. Born in Omaha in 1940, Williams moved to Southern California after his father's death in 1953. He knocked around the theater for a while before landing a part in the 1965 Tony Richardson counterculture film The Loved One; Williams was already 25 years old, but he was just five foot two, so he played a ten-year-old kid. I haven't seen the movie, myself, but Marshall probably has. The next year, he appeared with Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in The Chase.

Both of these were small parts, though, and Williams got frustrated with his lack of acting opportunities; he had auditioned for the Monkees, but didn't get the job. He got hired by the record label White Whale as a staff songwriter, but was fired after just three months. While in Los Angeles, Williams met comedian Mort Sahl, who hired him as a writer. It is often reported that Williams wrote for Sahl's stand-up act, but I don't think that's true; the best source I've found describes Williams' job as "writ[ing] skits for a local television program." I have no idea what this show was, but I do know that Williams met a composer named Biff Rose at that gig, and they decided to try writing songs together.

What strikes me is how late this all happened. We're in early 1968 now, which makes Paul Williams 27 years old. Many pop songwriters, such as Jimmy Webb or Ellie Greenwich, are already done with the most productive parts of their careers by age 27. Williams was older than both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who had written a notable number of songs by 1968. But Paul Williams was just getting started.

Williams and Rose wrote a song called "Fill Your Heart," which found its way to Tiny Tim. Tim made it the B-side of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which was a big hit, going to Number 17 on the charts. As you probably know, the songwriters of a single's B-side get as much in royalties as the writers of the A-side, so Williams did pretty well with this. "Tiny always called me 'Mr. Williams,'" he said later. "He was very sweet, a gentle spirit and very strange. I remember a period when he’d only eat baby food."

Tiny Tim's producer - the soon to be very famous Richard Perry, who ended up working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to Barbra Streisand - encouraged him to start a band of his own. Williams called the group, which included a former bassist from the Jefferson Airplane and a former drummer from the Turtles as well as his brother Mentor on guitar, the Holy Mackerel. They churned out an album by the end of 1968, which went nowhere.

Fortunately for Williams, though, an executive at A&M (Tiny Tim's label) thought he might work well with a composer named Roger Nichols, whose lyricist Tony Asher - best known for co-writing much of Pet Sounds - was gradually leaving the music business. Williams and Nichols hit it off immediately; their first composition, "It's Hard to Say Goodbye," was recorded by future skier-shooter Claudine Longet within days of its writing. They embarked on Williams' solo debut, Someday Man (given the fits and starts of his career, there should have been a comma in that title), with Nichols producing and playing most of the instruments. This album, too, flopped. The high point was that the Monkees, well past their sell-by date, turned the title track into a single of their own.

Despite the failure of his own recordings, Nichols and Williams were still staff songwriters for A&M. Nichols would write a melody and hand it over to Williams for lyrics. They were asked to write a jingle for Crocker National Bank in Los Angeles, to run over some video of a young couple starting out on their financial future. They put something together very quickly - "I wrote the lyrics on the back of an envelope," Williams recalled - and added a bridge and a third verse just in case any real singers wanted to record it. (Williams himself sang the bank commercial.)

One night, a young fellow named Richard Carpenter saw the ad on TV, and decided he wanted to cut the song with his sister, Karen. It was huge, going to Number Two on the charts in the fall of 1970. Meanwhile, Three Dog Night, one of the hottest pop acts in the country, had released Nichols and Williams' "Out in the Country" as their followup to the Number One single "Mama Told Me Not to Come." Inexplicably, the song went only to Number 15, despite the fact that it's one of the finest records of the pop era.

As Stephen Sondheim had done a decade earlier, Williams went out on his own thereafter, writing both words and music. The hits just kept on comin': "Rainy Days and Mondays" went to Number Two for the Carpenters in the spring of '71; "An Old Fashioned Love Song" went to Number Four late in 1971 for Three Dog Night; "You and Me Against the World" went to Number Nine for Helen Reddy in the summer of '74; "Evergreen" went to Number One for Barbra Streisand in March 1977 (Barbra wrote the music for that one). (Also during this period, Paul's brother Mentor, a veteran of the Holy Mackerel, wrote "Drift Away" for Dobie Gray.)

But Paul wanted to be more than a songwriter. He still wanted to be a star. He guest-starred on The Odd Couple in 1974 as the object of Edna's crush, which brings up a question that perhaps someone who was paying better attention than I was during the early 1970s could answer: How did anyone know who Paul Williams was, much less become infatuated with him, in 1974? In the episode, Williams wrote a song supposedly from Felix to Edna, which he composed pretty much on the spot: "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," he said. "I wrote that song that morning."

Williams had played an ape named Virgil in 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes (no, really), and in 1974, he starred (and wrote the songs for) Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise. Somewhere in there, he also shot his own sitcom pilot, The Paul Williams Show, in which he played the host of a kids' TV show. A 1976 appearance on The Muppet Show led him to develop a relationship with Jim Henson, and Williams scored The Muppet Movie in 1979, winning an Oscar nomination for "The Rainbow Connection." It lost to "It Goes Like It Goes," from Norma Rae, neither the first nor the last bad decision Oscar has made.

The Eighties passed for Paul Williams in a haze of cocaine and vodka. He blimped up to 187 pounds, which may not sound like a lot, but remember, he is five foot two. "When I'd run out of cocaine, I'd eat everything," he said in 2001. "I was a serious cocaine addict, and then all the empty calories in vodka." He did write the terrible (and terribly funny) songs for Ishtar, which seems appropriate for a cokehead. He partied with Robert Mitchum, who lived near Williams in Los Angeles. On September 22, 1989, Paul Williams cleaned up for good.

Since then, he's mostly puttered around, playing a small role in The Doors, appearing on a soap opera, writing the title song for a Tom Clancy movie. He now lives in Peter Lorre's old house in L.A. (which probably fits him nicely, since Lorre was five foot four) and hangs out with Richard Dreyfuss (a comparative behemoth at five foot five).

Did you know there were three famous musical Paul Williamses in the 1960s and 1970s? There was Paul Williams the baritone in the Temptations, who took his own life in 1973, and Billy "Me and Mrs. Jones" Paul was born Paul Williams as well.


  1. and Paul Williams, founder of Crawdaddy and former literary executor of Philip K Dick's estate (who is sadly now in pretty bad shape with Alzhiemer's).

  2. I didn't remember that he wrote the songs for Ishtar...they're excellent. Perfectly good movie, too.

  3. Oddly enough, both "The Loved One" and "Phantom of the Paradise" were on last night. (I didn't watch either.) I did see "The Loved One" back in the '80s, and even then it hadn't aged well. It felt like awfully self-congratulatory satire, and Robert Morse's accent was embarrassingly bad.

  4. Mind-bending that a "counterculture" movie was based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh.

  5. I'm assuming the songwriter Roger Nichols mentioned in this narrative is not the same Roger Nichols who engineered albums for Steely Dan (and who died maybe a week ago)?

  6. nice post.

    you're right, "Out in the Country" is a near perfect record; It never gets old.