USC Pop Forum Captivated By Paul Williams

Pictured with students from the USC Thornton School of Music’s Popular Music Program: (front row, left to right) Chris Sampson, Founding Director of the Thornton School’s Popular Music Program; Michael Pizzuto, SHOF West Coast Committee member; Barbara Cane, SHOF West Coast Committee Events Director; Patrice Rushen, Chair of the USC Thornton School’s Popular Music Program; Paul WilliamsMary Jo Mennella, SHOF West Coast Events Chair and SHOF Board Member; and Evan Lamberg, SHOF board member.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame presented its final ‘Master Session’ of the year with the endearing Paul Williams at USC’s Thornton School of Music. In front of 150 students in attendance at the school’s Pop Forum, Williams, a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee and Board Member, provided an unforgettable experience as he was interviewed by Patrice Rushen, the Chair of the USC Thornton School’s Popular Music Program.  Paul emphasized to students as a theme throughout the day to “play it” rather than “work it” as evidenced by the sweatshirt he wore symbolizing his approach to enjoying the creative process - having fun and not being encumbered by too much seriousness. 

In his engaging manner, Williams shared advice and insight on his process and the craft, emphasizing the importance of authenticity.  The Master Class featured fifteen students who performed some of Williams’ most beloved works as well as some of his personal favorites and some of his more obscure works as well.  Rushen teed up each segment of the session by highlighting many of his key collaborators including questions about Roger Nichols, who co-wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” with Paul, which was then followed by the student ensemble breaking into stunning renditions of each work featuring original arrangements by Rushen. 

Rushen, herself an accomplished jazz pianist, singer, composer and record producer, summed up the Master Session by stating, “Our time with Paul Williams was a great reminder of how lucky we are as creative people that our ‘play’ is our ‘work’ and our ‘work’ is our ‘play.' 

Paul’s collaboration with Kenny Ascher and the late, great creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, led to their OSCAR nomination for “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie - performed as a brilliant duet by the students. A humorous story of getting ‘the call’ from Barbra Streisand, while getting fitted for his first custom-fitted tuxedo, resulted in his collaboration with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson on the song, “Evergreen” from the award-winning 1976 remake of A Star is Born. Paul recounted the initial guitar riff (Both "Rainbow Connection" and “Evergreen" grace the American Film Institute’s List of Top Movie Songs of All Time.). 

Sharing his personal journey to sobriety, Paul inspired all in attendance by stating “The Big Amigo has the plan and we must learn to listen and be conscious to be capable to act!” As a leading advocate of songwriters in his role as the President of ASCAP and activist for copyright reform, Williams recounted the efforts by the industry’s leaders that led to the recent passage of the Music Modernization Act.  One of his greatest collaborations with all sectors of the industry working together, Williams received thunderous applause for this achievement. The ultimate hyphenate in all sectors of the entertainment industry and the arts, Williams described his recurring role as an actor in the television series, Goliath, that is now in its 2nd season starring Billy Bob Thornton and another expression of his creativity as he ‘plays it’ rather than feeling it’s work or a job.   

The Master Session closed with questions from the students, one of whom asked Paul about one of his personal favorites, the 1970’s feature film he starred in and scored, Phantom of the Paradise, that was directed and written by Brian DePalma. In a first at these USC Master Sessions with SHOF, the students and faculty capped off the afternoon with not only a memorable performance, “The Hell of It”, from this cult classic as well as a visual montage of scenes from the film as a student performed in character as SWAN with the stellar USC ensemble. 
As a lyricist and composer, Williams’ songs and scores have received six Oscar, nine Grammy, six Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations. For decades Williams’ recent work has remained wonderfully diverse and relevant, having co-written “Beyond” and “Touch” (which he also performed, receiving a Grammy as Featured Artist) on Daft Punk’s 2013 chart-topping, ‘Album of the Year’ Random Access Memories.   Williams shared he’s currently collaborating with Portugal The Man and working with Gustavo Santaolalla on songs for The Book of Life and Guillermo del Toro’s stage musical adaptation of "Pan’s Labyrinth", also composed with Santaolalla. 

“We’ve reached out to Paul each year with the hope of scheduling him and enabling the students to experience a day with one of our national treasures. Last Friday the planets aligned at USC as Paul reminded all of us of his brilliance in blending an abundance of talent, humility and kindness into a gentle giant in the industry” said Mary Jo Mennella, SHOF’s West Coast Events Chair and SHOF Board Member. 

In partnership with USC Thornton School of Music, SHOF Master Sessions have been held for students with SHOF inductees Irving Burgie, Desmond Child, Donovan, Lamont Dozier, David Foster, Linda Perry, Carole Bayer Sager, Billy Steinberg, Diane Warren, Bill Withers, Allee Willis;  SHOF Johnny Mercer Award honorees Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil;  SHOF Hal David Starlight Award recipients Jason Mraz and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds; and publishers SHOF Board Member Evan Lamberg and SHOF Abe Olman Publisher Awardee Ralph Peer.