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ASCAP on the Occasion of its 100th Birthday with Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams

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Paul Williams. Photo by David Rice
Paul Williams. Photo by David Rice

A member of the audience at Tuesday’s Copyright Matters event in the Coolidge Auditorium asked songwriter Jimmy Webb about Donna Summer’s version of his song, “MacArthur Park.” Webb explained that it was his first number one record as well as Summer’s first number one record. “I’m not a fan of disco, but I was crazy about that record!”

Webb’s reluctant enthusiasm for disco is thanks to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), formed in 1914 to address the rights of songwriters. The legendary tunesmith joined fellow songwriter and ASCAP President Paul Williams on the Coolidge stage earlier this week for the program ASCAP on the Occasion of its 100th Birthday, presented by the U.S. Copyright Office.

Register of Copyrights Maria A. Pallante began the program with a brief history of the ways copyright law has served songwriters – and how it has not. 18th Century copyright law did not specifically protect music. Further changes in regulations that protected sheet music publishers were unequipped to handle the repercussions of player pianos and recorded music. It’s a familiar story that continues to this day. A PowerPoint slide demonstrated the changing landscape of recorded music, from the vinyl record album to the iPod.

The recording chosen to represent the vinyl era was a curious and ironic choice. A Newark,  New Jersey toy company released a Batman and Robin album credited to The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale, but the record actually featured members of the 60s rock band the Blues Project, as well as jazz legend Sun Ra and members of his Arkestra. Ironically, most of the musical selections on the album were classical pieces in the public domain, chosen in order to avoid licensing fees. The future is now: digital formats on YouTube, iTunes and streaming services present a new challenge for copyright law.

Pallante enlisted the help of Kermit the Frog to introduce Paul Williams.  Williams, who has been President of ASCAP since 2009, was joined by Jimmy Webb in a discussion moderated by former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Meyers.

Meyers asked the songwriters how they got started.  Jimmy Webb’s father was a preacher. Webb started playing piano in church at the age of 12, and learned to improvise during services. Passing the plate could take 20 minutes, which gave the preacher’s son room to exercise his musical imagination. This did not always sit right with elderly members of the congregation, who approached Webb’s father after services to remark, “Your son is doing strange things!”  Webb wrote his first song at age 13, and after that, “I never wanted to try anything else.”

Paul Williams’ songwriting came out of his failed acting career. “I felt like Montgomery Clift and looked like Hayley Mills.” When his diminutive stature kept him from getting many film roles (The Loved One is an early exception), he took that frustrated emotion and put it into songwriting. Webb talked about his experience walking into Motown offices, where he spent time as a staff writer.  But times have changed, and  “doors are not opening for young writers today.”

Jimmy Webb. Photo by David Rice
Jimmy Webb.  Photo by David Rice

Discussion alternated with performances from the two guests. Webb sang “Up, Up and Away,” made famous by The Fifth Dimension. The song was banned for lyrics that supposedly described drug use, but Webb noted, “Of all the songs on the radio that week, this was the only one that wasn’t about drugs.” He asked members of the audience to help with the high note of “fly.”

Pianist Chris Caswell accompanied Paul Williams for a selection of his greatest hits. His first was “a love song that started with all the romance of a bank commercial.” Williams and Roger Nichols wrote, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for a television ad, but its signature performance by Karen Carpenter became one of the great love songs.

Williams and Webb were not just at the Library to sing. They were here to advocate for changes in copyright law to address songwriters’ concerns with licensing fees in the digital era. In the case of one streaming music site, the recording artist and record label are paid 14 times more in licensing fees than the songwriter.

Williams also performed a medley of two songs that began with the word “love”:  The Barbra Streisand hit, “Evergreen” and the theme song from The Love Boat. Webb performed touching renditions of the Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” and “The Highwayman,” a 1985 Grammy winner performed by a country music super group that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. Webb recalled telling Waylon Jennings that “The Highwayman” won “Best Country Song,” to which Jennings replied, “What country is that?”

Williams celebrated his own recent Grammy win.  His pair of Grammys represent a shift in the pop music firmament over the years. Williams won a Grammy in 1976 for “Evergreen,” from the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson remake of A Star is Born.  His recent Grammy came from a song he wrote and performed for Daft Punk’s  Random Access Memories, named   Album of the Year. Williams said, “For a 73-year-old to end up on an [Intelligent Dance Music] album is a sign of interesting times.”

Back to “MacArthur Park.” The song was initially a hit for actor Richard Harris. An audience member asked Webb how that unusual collaboration came to be. “Guiness had a lot to do with it.”


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