1 The Muppet Mindset: Muppet Maestros: Paul Williams

Dec 3, 2012

Muppet Maestros: Paul Williams

Hilarie Mukavitz - For Muppet fans, December is the time of year when our lives seem to have a Paul Williams soundtrack. He is one writer and performer that I have long suspected has Muppet DNA, he understands them so well: the humor, the idealism, the longing to fit in. His body of work his so extensive, it only seemed appropriate to have two playlists for him. One for his most famous songs performed by other artists and one for his work with the Muppets.

Born in Omaha, September 19, 1940, initially Williams aspired to be an actor. He had a couple of roles here and there, but pretty soon he figured out the money-maker for him was as a songwriter. Initially his songs, usually co-written with Roger Nichols, were mostly B-sides. However, one day Richard Carpenter heard "We've Only Just Begun" used in an insurance commercial. Soon the Carpenters gave Paul Williams his first hit. It was followed by many others including "Rainy Days and Mondays" performed by the Carpenters,   "Family of Man," "Out in the Country," and "Old-Fashioned Love Song" performed by Three Dog Night, "You and Me Against the World" performed by Helen Reddy, and the Oscar-winning "Evergreen" co-written and performed by Barbra Streisand. Researching Paul Williams I kept saying "Wait... he wrote that one too?" Besides being all over the radio in the 1970's, Williams was a frequent guest on TV. He made multiple appearances on The Tonight Show, Hollywood Squares, and The Gong Show just to name a few.

Paul Williams' first collaboration with the Muppets was composing the songs for Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. The show remains a holiday favorite for Muppet fans, especially now that it has been made into a stage show. The standout song in the show was "When the River Meets the Sea." The song proved to be such a good fit for the Muppets that it was later used on the Christmas album with John Denver, and ultimately at Jim Henson’s memorial service, as well as being performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a few years ago at Christmas time. 

During the first season of The Muppet Show Paul Williams was the guest star in Episode 108. Paul had the chance to sing his songs "Sad Song" and "Old-Fashioned Love Song" (joined by two Muppet clones of himself). He also had the chance to show off his comic chops. My personal favorite is when Williams revels in finally getting to be the "tallest person on the show" only to be proven wrong when Sweetums, Thog, and one of the Mutations show up.

Williams later teamed up with Kenny Ascher to write the songs for The Muppet Movie. Easily the most famous song is "Rainbow Connection." Recently, in the documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive, a group of people were asked if they had heard of Paul Williams. They hadn't heard of him, but every last one of them knew "Rainbow Connection." Williams and Ascher made a rare joint appearance on the television special The Muppets Go Hollywood. Williams also made a cameo in the movie as the piano player at the El Sleezo Café.

Drug and alcohol abuse would take its toll on Williams' life and career. He pretty much disappeared during the 1980s. However, as of today, he has been sober for over 22 years.

After a lengthy absence, Williams would once more work with the Muppets, writing the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992. In an interview, Williams pointed out that the musical themes for "Scrooge" and "One More Sleep Till Christmas" are related. Williams' most recent work with the Muppets was in A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. He wrote the songs as well as appearing in the role of Chief Elf.

A year ago, "Rainbow Connection" was featured in the movie The Muppets in the scene I like to call "The scene where all the 30 and 40-somethings in the audience are weeping and thinking about their childhoods."

Williams continues to record, perform and collaborate with other artists. I was rather surprised to find out he had written a song with The Scissor Sisters. Listening to the song "Almost Sorry," the song has a definite Paul Williams feel to it, while being surprisingly edgy for the man whose most famous songs were sung by Kermit the Frog and the Carpenters.

Most recently, Williams was featured in the documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive. Not your garden-variety documentary, filmmaker Stephen Kessler sets out to discover what happened to his childhood hero. It's a good exploration both of Williams' career, and how much he has grown up and evolved over the years. I know I'll never look at Emmet Otter or The Muppet Christmas Carol in quite the same way.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is currently available for download and viewing on iTunes.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. I love paul williams! He is amazing! I used him for a research paper one year and 'the rainbow connection' a long, long time ago! He is an amazing singer/song writer! And I'm so amazed I can't stop using exclamation ppoints even though I'm to old too! Oh well! I just want to say paul williams is an amazing, wonderful person. And he deserves so much credit!
    Hugs and giggles~Maria Gayle