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© LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters/Corbis
Robert Duvall first noticed that Paul Williams had a knack for this songwriting thing. It was 1965 and Williams had a bit part in the career-slump Marlon Brando starrer The Chase. He had started fooling around with the guitar, and one day before shooting a scene, he was doodling with some chords and singing some words that had popped into his head. Duvall walked by and stopped in his tracks.
“’What’s that?’ he asked me, recalls Williams. “I said, ‘Oh, just something I made up.’ And Duvall goes, ‘Come with me.’ He brought me to see Arthur Penn, the director, who liked it too. He ended up putting me in a little scene where I sing it.”
Williams had never thought about songwriting before – at 25, he was trying hard to make it as an actor, but his height (5’2”) was a problem for casting agents (he would lose out on The Monkees to another slight-of-stature actor, Davy Jones). But all at once, he remembers, “It was as if the universe was trying to tell me something: ‘You can do this. Music is the right path for you.’”
He recalls one of the first full songs he ever wrote, The Hunter, based on his one-and-only experience with a rifle: “I shot a deer, and as I looked at this dead animal on the ground, I just thought, ‘What have you done? You just lost your place in heaven based on this.’ So I wrote this song – it just came out of me – and if there was a craft in it or a level of intellect, it was way beyond anything that I thought I was capable of doing. The pay-off was the therapy I got from writing it. You focus on what’s going on in the center of your chest.”
Wiliams’ love for music of the 1930s, which then spread to Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and eventually to The Beatles, paired beautifully with another up-and-coming songwriter, Roger Nichols. “Sitting down and writing songs every day for several years with Roger became a great source of a place to really begin to understand the craft and form to the modern song at that time,” Williams says. “We were a really good match, and it didn’t take long for people to notice.”
The song placements started tentatively, but in 1970 the team of Nichols and Williams scored a smash with The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun (written initially for a bank commercial). And the hits kept coming: With Nichols, with other collaborators or on his own, Williams’ songs dominated AM radio throughout the ‘70s, with acts like Three Dog Night and Helen Reddy turning his compositions into gold and platinum. In 1976, Williams’ co-write with Barbra Streisand, Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born), hit the trifecta, earning a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Surprisingly, Williams only called a hit once: Rainy Days And Mondays. "I remember going to the studio and hearing it for the time and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a smash,’ he says. “But a lot of times I was wrong. I have a whole bunch of songs in the drawer that nobody ever listened to all the way through that I was convinced were absolute monsters.”
By the end of the ‘70s, Williams’ growing addictions to alcohol and cocaine, coupled with what he calls “an addiction to attention,” caused him to bottom out. “I would say yes to everything,” he explains. “Films, TV shows – if there was a camera and a couch, I was there. Finally, I lost it and became a recluse. I went from sitting on Johnny Carson’s couch to hiding in my bedroom at three in the morning, looking out the window at the tree police, going, ‘OK, they’re out there…‘”
Williams pulled himself together, and now at 73 – and sober for 24 years – he’s experiencing a career renaissance that is nothing short of remarkable. He’s a certified drug rehabilitation counselor with a forthcoming book (Gratitude And Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life, co-written with Tracey Jackson); he still performs; in 2009 he was elected as the president and chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); and earlier this year, he picked up a Grammy for Album Of The Year for his unlikely collaboration with Daft Punk on their album Random Access Memories.
“When I think back to what’s worked and why it’s worked, it isn’t what I used to believe,” Williams explains. “I used to think that hits were based on intellect – ‘Oh, isn’t that clever?’ Wow, listen to that great lyric writing, and oh, isn’t that part clever?’ But clever doesn’t sell, intellect doesn’t sell – emotional content sells. Connecting with somebody. When I was writing from the center of my chest and something honest and authentic came out, even if it was embarrassing – that’s what works. Because that’s when listeners go, ‘Yeah, I know. I feel that too.’”
On the following pages, Williams looks back on 13 career-defining records.