Paul Williams

My 5 Minutes with the President

Paul Williams is an Oscar-, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning songwriter. “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “You and Me Against the World,” “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You” and “Let Me Be the One” are among his timeless standards. His songs have been recorded by such diverse musical icons as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, David Bowie, Ray Charles, R.E.M., Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross and even Kermit the Frog.

“Bugsy Malone” and “Phantom of the Paradise” are among his song scores. “The Rainbow Connection” from the children’s classic “The Muppet Movie” and “Evergreen” from “A Star is Born” are two of his songs that grace the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie songs of all times. Having completed the music and lyrics for the Garry Marshall musical “Happy Days” (currently touring), he has joined forces with the Henson Co. to produce a new Christmas musical based on a perennial favorite, “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.” Also this Christmas, NBC will offer “A Muppet Christmas: Letter to Santa,” an original Christmas special with both story and songs by Williams.

In 2009, Paul was elected president of ASCAP. A documentary about his life, “Paul Williams Still Alive,” produced and directed by Oscar nominee Stephen Kessler, opens in theaters this Friday.

ROBIN BRONK: If you had five minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, what would you discuss with him? What issue would you like him to know about?

PAUL WILLIAMS: Actually, I just met the president for the first time at the Library of Congress presentation of the Gershwin Prize to Burt Bacharach and Hal David. While we had our photo taken, I was able to thank him for the work being done by his Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and United States Trade Representative to protect the intellectual property rights of music creators. He acknowledged there was much more to do.

As president and chairman of the board at ASCAP, I represent almost 450,000 songwriters, composers and publishers. Given the chance to have a real discussion, I’d remind him that we’re small-business owners, we’re creators and innovators, and we contribute greatly to both the American culture and economy. 

RB: If you could ask President Obama one question, what would that be?

PW: What rhymes with orange? I can’t find anything but, since he’s president, I thought, if anybody can ... The truth is, there are so many issues I’d like to discuss with him, from arts education to recovery programs. I think I’d ask for five more minutes.

 RB: What piece of advice would you give President Obama as he’s on the campaign trail?

PW: Hmmm. What would Paul Williams tell the president? Take your sticks with you on the campaign trail. Nothing like a quick round of golf to remind you that patience, humor and course management are skills we can use no matter where we go.

RB: If you were going to send the president to one of your favorite places in the United States for one day, where would that be? Why?

PW: I’d let him have the day off. My guess is with the amount of travel involved in running the country, he’d appreciate waking up in his own bed. Spend the day with Michelle and the girls. Maybe enjoy that round of golf. Hey, I think I’m free that day, too!

RB: What CD would you recommend that President Obama add to his collection? Why?

PW: Probably the Muppets Green Album. It’s a dozen Muppet tunes performed by great contemporary artists like Weezer and My Morning Jacket. They’re songs of hope, humor and gratitude that I think are a good match for the Obama spirit. The girls might like it. OK, half the songs are mine, and you’re never too old to employ a little self-promotion, are you? 

RB: Would you ever consider a political career?

PW: I get very Jiminy Cricket when I walk the halls of Congress. A trip to the Hill reminds me that I live in a country that affords me amazing access to our lawmakers. I can sit down with Orrin Hatch or Patrick Leahy; with Lamar Smith or Joe Crowley, and remind them that America’s music has always been one of its greatest exports; and that more music is being played more often on more ingenious devices than ever before in time. And we love that. We don’t want to deny music to anyone. But the creators deserve to be properly compensated for their magic. 

The world needs our music. It isn’t the ones and zeros, it isn’t data or devices. It’s that special sauce — talent, inspiration, emotion, originality — a way to reach into people’s hearts and minds and make a difference in the beauty and the meaning of their lives. If we can do that, we deserve to be valued for our work.

RB: Would you ever consider a political career?

PW: Hell, I’ve got one. My life as a songwriter continues but, as the voice of ASCAP’s membership, I’ve got a new and powerful song to sing. I’m grateful for the opportunity. That’s enough for me!

Robin Bronk is CEO of The Creative Coalition — the leading national, nonprofit, nonpartisan public advocacy organization of the entertainment industry. Bronk is a frequent speaker on the role of the entertainment industry in public advocacy campaigns and represents The Creative Coalition and its legislative agenda before members of Congress and the White House. She produced the feature film “Poliwood,” airing on Showtime, and edited the recently published book Art & Soul. Bronk pens this weekly column with assistance from Risa Kotek.

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