How a short (5’2”), chubby human Muppet Paul Williams became an “all purpose ’70s celebrity,” (thanks for that one, Allmusic!) and why did he disappeared for about 30 years afterwards.
Mr Williams was born in Oklahoma, son of an architectural engineer and a homemaker. As a consequence of his father’s job, the family moved around a lot, leading to a lonely childhood. After his father’s death in a car accident, he moved to California, where he was raised by an aunt.
As a child, young Paul appeared in talent shows, and attempted to make it as an actor, but his unusual physical appearance subverted that – his only notable pre-1970s appearance was in the 1965 cult classic The Loved One. An audition for the Monkees resulted in nothing.
However, while on the set of that movie, he discovered a talent for songwriting. He wrote the song “Fill Your Heart” with Biff Rose, and soon Tiny Tim covered it as the b-side to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”; I am not going to subject anyone to Tiny Tim, but noted tastemaker David Bowie considered it good enough for his Hunky Dory album.
This got Mr Williams foot in the door as a working songwriter, and part of such work is commercial jingles, one of which would go on to succeed beyond his wildest imaginings….now I’m sure the paycheck for the commercial was fine, but I’d lay odds that Mr Williams had no idea he’d still be dining out (quite heartily, I imagine) on this song almost 50 years down the road.
The Carpenters’ version of this song hit #2 on 1970. Meanwhile, Williams’ composition “Out in the Country”, performed by Three Dog Night, hit #15.
….and, well, things started happening. The hit songs (“We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Out in the Country” were both co-written with Roger Nichols) jump-started his solo career, which never rose to the heights of the acts who covered his songs, but he released 11 albums from 1969-2005. “We’ve Only Just Begun” was the first of his 6 Grammy nominations. In all, he was nominated for 22 major awards (Golden Globe, Emmy, Oscar, Grammy) from 1973-1981.
Perhaps most important, aside from natural songwriting talent, was an October 1971 appearance on The Tonight Show – Johnny Carson liked his self-deprecating, quick wit, and if Johnny liked you, good things usually followed. IMDB lists 16 appearances for him, but Mr Williams himself says he made 48(!). He was already established on the musical side of things, this gave a jump start to his moribund acting career, starting with a role as Virgil in 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes….which led to another memorable Tonight Show appearance….
“We’ve Only Just Begun” became the Official Song of Weddings, and in 1974 Mr Williams showed off his abilities as a double-threat, collaborating with Brian DePalma on the glam rock musical Phantom of the Paradise (highly recommended viewing; one feels that the tagline should have been “Cocaine is a Helluva Drug”); while DePalma wrote the script and directed, Williams handled the musical end of things – writing the score and soundtrack, and performing several of the songs. Among these are one of the all-time great kiss off songs….
….and what he has said is his favorite composition…
Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that the Carpenters hit #2 again with a Williams/Nichols joint, “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
In 1976, he garnered Golden Globe, Grammy, and Oscar nominations for A Star is Born and Bugsy Malone
Also notable was an appearance on The Muppet Show, which led to a fruitful partnership with Jim Henson, resulting in Grammy/Oscar nominations for his work on The Muppet Movie (including “Rainbow Connection”), and an Emmy nomination for Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.
And he wrote the theme to The Love Boat – “I could find the cure for cancer, and all people would remember me for is writing the theme to The Love Boat.”…Or perhaps playing Little Enos Burdette in Smokey and the Bandit, but I digress.
Unfortunately, even as he was all over the radio, television, and movie screens in one capacity or another, he was struggling with substance abuse – “to be different is difficult, to be special is addicting.” And when the buzz of celebrity isn’t enough, history shows that many people turn to other buzzes.
So while he never quite went away – his IMDB page shows 87 acting credits, including voicework, and even at his low point he still was showing up here and there on tv and in film – due mainly to substance abuse, he faded from view.
He became sober and 1990, and has re-emerged into a satisfying 2nd act – as president of ASCAP, as a certified drug rehab counselor, as an inductee into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, as the co-author of a book on recovery, as the subject of a documentary (Paul Williams: Still Alive, which is gold when Mr Williams is on the screen, not so much when the director is blathering on about himself), as a songwriter/collaborator with Daft Punk and Scissor Sisters….
But why do these songs (not to mention the man himself) endure? I look at his advice to aspiring songwriters…”Be authentic. Tell us your story. Let us know who you are. When you dare to share something from the center of your chest – your most private thoughts about loneliness or love – you may be happily surprised by the number of people who identify with your emotions and find comfort in knowing they’re not alone. “
I put him in the same category I put Neil Diamond – a writer who IS authentic; no matter how well-crafted the songs are, they avoid being “slick”; no matter how close their songs may come to schmaltz, there is an earnestness that redeems them. Williams, in particular, seems to tap into a well of melancholy loneliness. “Rainbow Connection” is a great example of that – it’s almost sad, in that the singer has not yet found what s/he’s looking for, but they are sure they WILL.
And that’s why 40 years on we all still know all, or at least most, of the words to “Rainbow Connection” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Old Fashioned Love Song”….because they tap into something. And that, my friends, is what art is all about.