Before he wrote the chilling entrance song for Ebenezer Scrooge in the beloved 1992 movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, acclaimed songwriter, Paul Williams, quit drinking. Like many before and after, Williams struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. During his career, Williams had earned any number of accolades and praise for his songwriting, but in time, it all stagnated.“I’d spent the 80s slowly disappearing into a career-ending addiction,” he tells American Songwriter. Grateful to be alive, Williams began his recovery. It was a time of healing. And music, for the moment, was in the past. Later, though, with a love for songwriting still in his heart, Williams sought an opportunity and the first place that opened its door was Jim Henson’s Muppets, now at Disney. Williams had worked closely with the Muppets over the years, but there was a new project: the Muppet version of the classic Charles Dickens story. Williams took the job and it helped to reinvigorate his career.
For over a decade now, Williams, who is President and chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), has been working to promote songwriting far and wide, including enthusiastically making his own music again.
“Everything changed when I got sober,” Williams says. “’The Muppet Christmas Carol’ was a unique opportunity. Think about it: an American Songwriter has been resurrected and is experiencing a profound change, a spiritual awakening. Consumed with gratitude he is asked to write the songs for a feature film about the transformation of an unevolved skinflint named Scrooge, who is led through a review of his life, an inventory that leads to his spiritual awakening. Sometimes the stars line up.”
To compose the songs, including the spine-freezing Scrooge opening, Williams went to a park in Brentwood, California with his tape recorder and a novel. He whispered a few words to the muse to give him the spark whenever it was ready to, and he opened the book. Williams got three pages in when the lines and concepts for the entrance began to tumble out of his creative psyche. They went, When a cold 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!
“They poured out of me,” Williams says. “I couldn’t write about it fast enough.”
While Williams is known as one of America’s most prolific songwriters, for many years he’d kept a distance from the art form. He first came to the idea of performing when his father, well into a few drinks, would wake him up in the middle of the night and ask him to sing songs like, “Danny Boy.” Williams’ father worked in construction and, he says, the family moved around often. But one constant was the late night rousing. When Williams was thirteen years old, his father died in an alcohol-related car crash and Williams was sent to live with an aunt in California. In that time, the musician says, he “forgot about music.” Instead, he wanted to be an actor and he pursued it with great passion.
“A therapist might say,” Williams says, “that I just wanted to be somebody else at that point.”
In his twenties, diminutive and looking much younger than his years, Williams took on many an adolescent role. But during the filming of The Chase, Williams had a life changing moment. The movie starred Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Robert Duval and took place in a small Texas town. Williams says he remembers long shoot days in a junkyard without much to do. He’d bought a cheap guitar and began plucking, searching for chords between takes. Singing to himself about the scene, he caught the attention of Duval, who asked Williams to perform his new song for the film’s director, Arthur Penn. The bit quickly landed in the movie and, not long afterwards, Williams began writing songs in earnest.
“It’s as if the universe had shown me a billboard: ‘This is what you’re supposed to be doing. Pay attention!'” Williams says. “I’m a slow learner sometimes. When I began writing, I had no training. I was a starry-eyed hippy, unsophisticated enough to write very simple and unabashedly sentimental songs. Evidently there are enough people who share the same feelings out there to build a career on, for which I’m so grateful. My training was ahead of me, my collaborators were my music school.”
Williams signed to the famed A&M Records and wrote song after song, mostly alone or with composer, Roger Nichols, for acts like The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra and even Elvis. Looking back, Williams notes, he’s grateful for the collaborators who inspired him along the way. Working with Kenny Ascher, for example, on the Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version of the movie, A Star Is Born, and later on The Muppet Movie, would deliver some of Williams’ biggest hits. His musical career thrived and he enjoyed acting along the way in smaller roles, too, for movies like Smokey and the Bandit trilogy. Williams has also voiced the Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series and works with Billy Bob Thornton on the television show, Goliath. But, in many ways, he appreciates his Muppet friends the most.
“Little did I know,” Williams says, “when I traveled to London to guest on the new Muppet series in the late 70s, that I would find my ‘felt family.’”
Today, at eighty years old, Williams is as vibrant an artist and as encouraging as ever. His is a generous fellow buoyed by a passion for songs that has seemingly never subsided since strumming those chords on-set in that Hollywood junkyard. Whether he’s working on a verse for Kermit the Frog or Daft Punk, when Williams hears music, his first impulse is to write, which is why he works constantly to foster that same spirit in others along the way.
“Listening to music,” Williams says, “doesn’t do to me what it does to everybody else. When I hear great songs, I’m deeply inspired. Suddenly, I’m moved to write again. These days, I take time to enjoy the music as I enjoy life, but for most of my life it made me want to race out of the room and grab a pen. Music has given me a life and a connection to the world around me. And time and sobriety have tuned and elevated my capacity to be moved by something from somebody else’s heart that just leaves me absolutely in a state of wonder.”