“People talk about song-writing techniques. I have a technique. I sit around scratching myself and waiting for something to crop up. That’s why they call it a gift! Sit there and open up your mind and let yourself be a conduit.”
That’s song-writer and raconteur Bill Withers, who so memorably closed a great evening of all-star performances last night in the Coolidge Auditorium. “We write the songs” marked the one-year anniversary of the Music Division’s acquisition of the archives of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), a non-profit organization that handles licensing and royalties for songwriters. The event was a celebration of song-smiths young and old, from Jessi Alexander, who co-wrote the Miley Cyrus song “The Climb” for The Hannah Montana Movie, to the avuncular Alan Bergman’s intimate, conversational performances of “The windmills of your mind” and “The way we were.” Bergman was the surprise of the night for me, giving the kind of revelatory vocal interpretations that prove that pyrotechnic technique is not the only way – and in fact may not be the definitive way – to get a song across.
The songwriters were each introduced by their congressperson; Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced ASCAP President Paul Williams as a man of many hats: not only songwriter, but singer and actor – and, joking about Williams’ famous vertically-challenged stature, basketball. Williams sang at last year’s concert but had only a speaking role this year, alas, but as the following speaker, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) noted, Williams was a gifted stand-up comic.
Like many of the performers last night, Williams brings back memories for my generation. When I told friends I was going to see Paul Williams their references ran from the theme to The Love Boat (which Williams wrote) to his appearance in
Conquest of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. He wrote songs for The Muppet Movie and appeared on The Muppet Show performing his signature hit “Just an old-fashioned love song,” in three-part harmony with his muppet doppelgangers. And to show Williams’ continuing relevance to a new generation, Three Dog Night’s version of the song can be heard on turntable artist DJ Shadow’s classic album Endtroducing … – a usage that was no doubt licensed by ASCAP.
My favorite performances of the night were by Tracy Chapman, whom I hadn’t seen on stage since an Earth Day concert in the 80’s. She performed “Give me one reason” and “Fast car,” which I put on more than a few mix-tapes back in the day. But everyone put on a good show, from J. D. Souther’s performances of songs he wrote for The Eagles; to Dion DiMucci’s stories of growing up in The Bronx.
A recurring theme throughout the night was the songwriter’s inspiration – not only what inspires them to write but the inspiration their work gives to others. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) prefaced the country music portion of the show with a lament for those in her home state of Tennessee suffering from record floods: “We all may be drowned river rats but we still have a song to sing.” Wayland Holyfield sang his composition “Could I Have This Dance,” explaining that perhaps more than the remuneration for his work, he is touched by the fact that this is a popular wedding song.
Hal David, famous lyrical parter to Burt Bacharach, sang “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which can be heard again on Broadway in a revival of the show Promises, Promises. David was joined onstage by Albert Hammond, with whom he co-wrote “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Their duet was one of the more memorable performances of the night.
One of the first times I heard Bill Withers’ “Lean on me” was in an anti-drug film that was shown to my grade school class in the 70’s. The song played to images of a junkie throwing up milk, among other graphic depictions of the perils of drug use. It worked! I Just Said No. For a long time I could never hear that song without thinking of those disturbing images, but the performances last night rid my mind of all such trauma. Bill Withers did not sing his own songs, but handed over the reigns to his daughter Kori, who sang “Ain’t no sunshine,” and Elisabeth Withers, who stopped the show with a fantastic black dress and an inspirational audience-participatory rendition of “Lean on me.”
Withers was in awe of his peers: “The Great American Songbook would be a lot thinner without these people.” Thank you to all the performers and congressmen, and of course to the Library staff who made last night’s event so memorable.