By MARK HARTSELL
Paul Williams knows all about the blood, sweat, tears and toil that go into creating a memorable piece of music.
“It all begins with a blank piece of paper,” said Williams, an Oscar-winning songwriter. “You stay up half the night. You write something. You pour blood on the paper. … You know that you have written something that is going to change the world. You get a little sleep. You get up and look at what you’ve written, and you realize you’ve rewritten “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Williams’ joke about the trials of the songwriter kicked off a program at the Library of Congress on May 10 that was much more about celebration than heartache.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation staged “We Write the Songs” at the Coolidge Auditorium, a night of songwriters performing their own tunes and telling the stories behind their creations—with a lot of laughs thrown in for good measure.
The event was the third staged by ASCAP at the Coolidge since the organization donated its vast papers to the Library in 2009.
ASCAP, founded in 1914, protects the rights of composers and songwriters and ensures that they are compensated for the use of their works.
The organization’s membership—some 400,000 strong—includes not only current songwriters but also some of the greatest composers and songwriters of the past century of American music, from Berlin and Basie to Gershwin and Goodman.
The ASCAP Foundation, a charitable organization founded in 1975, supports songwriting through music education and talent-development programs.
Williams, president of ASCAP and the man who wrote such classic pop tunes as “Evergreen,” “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays,” emceed the event.
“I wrote this song for The Carpenters—they hated it,” Williams said before swinging into a few bars of “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” a song that eventually found a friendlier reception with Three Dog Night and became a big hit in 1971.
Speaking to an audience filled with senators and representatives, Williams discussed the importance of the work of Congress in protecting the rights of composers. He also related an encounter between singer/songwriter Bill Withers and a congressman that, he said, illustrated the practical consequences of a lack of legislative safeguards.
“If we can’t make a living writing songs, we’re going to have to do something else for a living,” Withers told the member. “Congressman, you do not want Ozzy Osbourne for your plumber.”
Many of the congressmen present played a part in the festivities.
Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) all introduced songwriters from their respective states.
“This is more fun than we’re entitled to have inside the Beltway,” Cornyn quipped before his introduction of Lyle Lovett later in the show.
Jackie DeShannon got things started with performances of two of her tunes, “Bette Davis Eyes” (a hit for Kim Carnes) and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” a song she took into the top 10 in 1969.
Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg sang their “True Colors,” a No. 1 for Cyndi Lauper in 1986. Kelly then recounted their efforts to place another of their songs, “Like a Virgin,” with a suitable artist—a challenge at the time, considering the subject matter.
“Everybody we played it for just looked at us like, are you kidding?” Kelly said. “In 1984, we were trying to shop the song. We wouldn’t have been able to sing it for Congress, I’m sure, in 1984.”
But Madonna loved it. She took what started out as a ballad and turned it into an uptempo hit that, on the Coolidge stage, presented a performance challenge Kelly solved with aplomb by channeling the Material Girl into an unlikely Smokey Robinson falsetto.
Barry Eastmond followed with “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” (a U.S. hit for Billy Ocean in 1986) and, with help from Freddie Jackson, “You are My Lady.”
Dean Kay performed “That’s Life,” a song made famous by Frank Sinatra but covered by artists ranging in style from Bassey to Bono to Bublé.
Schiff, the representative from California’s 29th District, provided a musical highlight of his own.
Schiff said he once watched an exasperated father try in vain to find a song that would make his young, hard-to-please daughter happy.
Schiff offered to help out, assuring the dad of his experience in dealing with tough audiences. He started singing “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the girl—and to the Coolidge audience as he told the story.
The girl listened quietly until he finished the song, then nodded her head and finally spoke: “Yeah, I don’t like that one, either.”
Schiff introduced composer Bruce Broughton, who, accompanied by wife Belinda on violin, played a piece from the score of the film “Silverado.”
Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson took a spin through “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” a tune that won Carrie Underwood a Grammy for country song of the year in 2007.
Lovett talked about his uncertain journey to a career in music—“I didn’t have a whole lot of direction in terms of seeking employment,” he said—and performed his songs “If I Had a Boat” and “North Dakota.”
The show closed with a trio of songs by lyricist Hal David, who with composer Burt Bacharach wrote a score of classics.
“I’ve lived my life in the shadow of a man who rhymed ‘phone ya’ with ‘pneumonia,’ “ said Williams in a joking tribute to David.
David, two weeks from his 90th birthday, performed “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” a big hit for Dionne Warwick, and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” a song written for the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that hit No. 1 and won an Academy Award.
DeShannon returned to the stage for the finale of a David-Bacharach song that she made a hit in 1965, “What the World Needs Now is Love.”
“What the world needs is what you gave us,” Williams told David. “Because endlessly, you always gave us love.”
Mark Hartsell is editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.