Songwriter Paul Williams, Omaha native, at 72: more fit, busier than ever -
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Recently, Paul Williams has served as the president of the music royalties and rights group ASCAP, was the focus of the documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive" and wrote two songs for Daft Punk's platinum album, "Random Access Memories."(CHRIS PIZZELLO / INVISION)

Songwriter Paul Williams, Omaha native, at 72: more fit, busier than ever
By Kevin Coffey / World-Herald staff writer

Click here to listen to eight songs written by Paul Williams.

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You know Paul Williams.

If you listened to music or watched movies and television in the 1970s and '80s, you'll recognize Williams as Little Enos in “Smokey and the Bandit,” from one of his guest stints on “The Love Boat,” for writing Three Dog Night's “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” or for writing “The Rainbow Connection” for the Muppets.

More recently, Williams has served as the president of the music royalties and rights group ASCAP, was the focus of the documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive” and wrote two songs for Daft Punk's much-acclaimed platinum album, “Random Access Memories,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts when it was released in May.

As Williams told us, “It's a very interesting time in my life.”

But before all that — and the Grammy Awards and Oscar trophy — Williams was an Omaha kid whose father worked for Kiewit Corp. He also lived in Bennington for a time before relocating to California.

Williams struggled with alcoholism during the height of his fame but now considers himself a recovering alcoholic. He is married with two children.

We called the Omaha native to catch up and talk about the Muppets, Daft Punk and how he knows when a song will be a success.

Question. How long did you live in Omaha?

Answer. I actually lived there a couple times. I was born there and my dad was with Peter Kiewit Sons' (Inc.) company when they built Boys Town. I left there when I was 6 or something. Then we moved away and then we moved back. Then we lived in Bennington and he was working on the Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Now Bennington is probably close to Omaha, but Bennington used to be a different town with a lot of farmland in between. I lived in a little country farmhouse and went to grade school in Bennington. My older brother was a Bennington Badger.

One of the first concerts that I ever played was opening for the Fifth Dimension, and we played in Omaha. I remember getting this inordinately large, loving response. It was wonderful.

I don't have any family there or anything, but I'd like to think they're all my friends.

Q. Where did you go from Nebraska?

A. I was a construction brat. I went to nine different schools by the time I was in the ninth grade. We followed the jobs around. My dad was killed in a car wreck when I was 13 and I was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle in Long Beach, Calif.

When I was 21, I went back to L.A. to try to make it in showbiz. I started out as an actor. I always joked that I looked too much like Hayley Mills to get a job, which was a fact.

Then out of pure boredom and desperation and angst, I started writing songs for my own amusement when I was 27. Magically, it led to the life I have today. I'm a grateful man.

Q. How did you get involved with Daft Punk? Did you know them well before you worked with them?

A. I remember seeing them on the Grammys coming out the of the pyramid and really being impressed. I remembered thinking “I need to hear more of these guys. They're really interesting.”

They got in touch with me three or four years ago. We started talking about the album and what the concept would be. They gave me two beautiful melodies and I took them home and wrote lyrics to them. I wrote “Touch” and I wrote “Beyond.” Then they went off and cut tracks and asked me to sing “Touch.”

They then came back and played this amazing record for me. It just totally blew me away.

Q. The album does a good job of combining classic and modern music.

A. How brave is that? I thought I was brilliant, but their fans are gonna go “This is not EDM” (electronic dance music). I think it was brave of them to take that chance. They could have made another straight-ahead dance music album and taken home the money, but I think they did something beautiful.

Q. When did you get into screen roles? Did some of your film songwriting lead to acting?

A. As soon as I got any kind of attention as a songwriter, I immediately wanted to get involved with film. I remember sitting on “The Tonight Show” — I did 48 “Tonight Shows,” and I joke that I remember six — with Robert Blake and I said, “I love 'Baretta,' and I'd love to do one.” He said, “Why don't you write one?” So I did.

I wrote a “Hawaii Five-0” myself, and I wrote a “Baretta.” I wrote the title song to “The Love Boat” and was asked to act on it. I did a lot of “Fantasy Islands” and a lot of episodic television.

It's funny, because there's some really horrific performances on tape, some of which you can see in the movie “Paul Williams Still Alive.” It's just embarrassing, it's so bad.

Q. You wrote a lot of music for the Muppets. How did you get involved with the Muppets?

A. I went over and did “The Muppet Show” in '77. Jim (Henson) and I hit it off really well. I was a huge fan of both “The Muppet Show” and the work on “Sesame Street.”

Because we hit it off so well and it was so comfortable, he asked me to write the songs for “The Muppet Movie.” Jerry Juhl (“The Muppet Movie” writer and Muppet performer) said, “We want it to be a road picture about how the Muppets got together, and it starts out with Kermit in a swamp.” I said “What's he doing?” (Henson) said, “He's playing a banjo.”

“Rainbow Connection” will always be my favorite song that I've ever written.

Q. You've written so many popular and well-known songs. What makes a good song for you?

A. I can't always tell that I've found the one that's working.

I wrote songs that I thought would be huge that never got recorded. And I've had things that were silly little things. “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song,” there's almost nothing to that song, and it was a top 10 record with Three Dog Night.

I think a song works because not anything is different or unique about the songwriter or the song. I think it's about what we have in common. The fastest road to success as a songwriter is to be honest.

If you're brave enough to be who you really are in that moment, you reach people. You put something in a song that people listening to it go, “Yeah, I feel that way, too.” When the listener hears themselves in the song, that's when the song really works.

Q. You were elected in 2009 to be the president of ASCAP. Do you enjoy the job?

A. I was recently re-elected as president for the third time, and I've been a member of ASCAP since the '70s. It's just an amazing organization.

Any time there's been a new way of delivering music, ASCAP has had to fight. Now the new challenge is the world of streaming. It's amazing. There is more music being played more often on more amazing devices than any time in the history of music. The ways we get our music have all of a sudden become instantaneous and portable.

When the music is played and advertising is sold around that music and companies are making tons of money, that income should be shared with the people who are creating that art.

Q. What else have you been up to lately?

Things have kind of begun to snowball. Right now I'm writing songs for an animated movie for Fox with Gustavo Santaolalla called “Dia de los Muertos” that's being produced by Guillermo Del Toro. Then Gustavo and I are also writing a musical based on “Pan's Labyrinth” that's also for Guillermo.

I'm co-writing a book called “Gratitude and Trust: Recovery Is Not Just for Addicts.” We sold the books for Penguin. I'm very active in recovery, and that's a huge part of my life.

Q. You seem like you're busier than ever at 72 years old, which is when most people are retired. How do you do that?

A. I am busier than ever, but I'm also enjoying it more. And I'm healthier than ever. I'm 23 years sober. I want to live another 30 years, and I want to work another 30 years, so I started running. I had about five hours' sleep last night but I got up at 6 a.m. and ran two miles. I'm down to what is, for me, my fighting weight.

Audio: Songs written by Paul Williams

Contact the writer: Kevin Coffey    |   402-444-1557    |  

Kevin covers music, whether it's pop, indie or punk, through artist interviews, reviews and trend stories. He also occasionally covers other entertainment, including video games and comic books.

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