Paul Williams: “Someday” and Today (Part 3)
Continued from Part Two…
Once Williams had moved on to A&M, he and Nichols began work on a proper solo album, this time featuring only songs by Nichols (music) and Williams (lyrics). The process of writing songs had already been established through the pair’s earlier collaborative efforts. “We’d write from ten o’clock in the morning until maybe four or five o’clock,” Williams says. “Then we’d go have a couple beers across the street at a club called Et Cetera, and Roger would go home. He had a life!” Williams would go back to his office and studio at A&M. He’d often be visited by bassist/songwriter Jack Conrad. “Jack would walk by and he’d say, ‘Whatcha doin’?’ And I’d say, ‘Nothing. Come on. Let’s play, and see if we can find stuff.’”
The Nichols-Williams collaboration seemed effortless. Nichols would present a melody to Williams, who would come up with a lyric that fit exactly. “If I said to Roger, ‘What if we lose a couple notes here?’ he’d say, ‘You know what? You’ll find it.’ And he was right,” Williams says. “Part of the comfort and ease of the collaboration was, for the most part when he would write ‘da ba dee ba dee boo da da,’ I didn’t need to hear a change.”
Now as then, Williams feels there was a kind of unspoken spiritual connection at work. “On this earthly level, we talk to each other in words,” he explains, “and through music you hear all these emotions. But if you believe in a higher self that experiences communication at a higher level, I think that when Roger would play me a melody, at that higher level I heard what he heard. And I think that our combined unconscious was really productive.”
When the time came to make Someday Man, it was a given that Williams would work with Nichols. “The natural thing to do was to go into the studio with somebody that I totally trusted,” Williams says. “So it was just like what we did for the demos: we’d go in a session and we’d cut three tracks at a time.” One important difference between the demo sessions and the recording dates for Someday Man was the personnel involved. “We had [drummer] Hal Blaine, [bassist] Joe Osborn,” Williams recalls. “You know, basically the Wrecking Crew.”
In fact Williams cedes most of the credit for the virtues one finds in Someday Man to Nichols. “I think it’s more of a Roger Nichols album than mine,” he says, “because he just did everything.” Williams recalls Nichols – who’s credited as the album’s producer – in the studio. “He had the genius of being able to go in and put a really sweet guitar on a track, or write something, or bring in the right musician or arranger,” he says.
But Someday Man is credited to Paul Williams, not Roger Nichols. So what exactly did Williams bring to the project? “I brought the lyrics, I brought the vocals, and I brought the absolute amazement at what Roger did,” Williams says.
That perspective tends to undervalue Williams’ expressive lyrics. There’s a knowing tenderness in the words of a song like Someday Man‘s “Trust,” one that takes the life experiences of a then-30 year old lyricist and presents them in a way that has broad appeal. “And if it pleases you,” Williams writes, “I’d be honored to serve you / take a stand for you / Always there with a loving hand for you.”
“I think that songwriters are natural storytellers,” Williams says, “perhaps better screenwriters than even a novelist would be. Because in short form we do tell a story, and well tell it really quickly: in three minutes.”
Another standout tune on Someday Man is the topical “So Many People.” Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is never mentioned by name in the song, the aftermath of his April 4, 1968 assassination informs Williams’ lyrics. “Today the streets were filled with strangers,” Williams writes, “Calling names and choosing sides.” Later in the song, the point is expressed more directly, referencing King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “We may be running out of heroes … We killed a man for careless dreaming,” writes Williams.
He says that “So Many People” came about through his interest in “what was evolving and what was changing in our world at that time. It was really bizarre with the war in Vietnam going on and all,” Williams says. “We had entered this weird place; the footage from Vietnam was something we watched over our TV dinners across the country. And news was in some ways becoming entertainment.”
That theme – one that resonates in current day when “reality TV” stars occupy some of the most powerful positions in geopolitics – is one that would continue to stay with Williams. A few years after Someday Man, when he starred as the malevolent character Swan in 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, Williams’ character responded to his right-hand-man’s concerns about a crass, tawdry and cynical approach to media, saying, “Assassination live on coast to coast television? That’s entertainment!”
Williams makes it clear that despite the hip persona he enjoyed, he hadn’t bought in completely to the hippie ethos of the era. “I liked the clothes,” he says with a chuckle. “I certainly liked the drugs. I liked the beautiful people, and the beautiful ladies, and the freedom and all. But as far as a deep commitment to the philosophy, I’m not sure that I ever expressed that on the street.” Instead he expressed himself in the manner he knew best. “It came out in what I do,” he says, “which is writing songs.”
He figures that he’s only written a half dozen or so “socially relevant” songs, but Williams is justifiably proud of them. Mentioning a song written with Nichols, he says that “’Out in the Country’ was, I think, the first ecology song that I ever wrote.” The tune would be a hit for Three Dog Night, reaching #15 on the U.S. charts (it didn’t chart in the UK). He recites the lyrics of this 47-year old song from memory: “’Before the breathin’ air is gone, before the sun is a bright spot in the night-time.’ Those are songs that I’m really proud of,” he says.