When the faceless duo Daft Punk won the Grammy for Album of the Year in January, a short, spiky-haired man joined them on stage and announced, "Back when I was drinking, I used to imagine things that weren't there that were frightening. Then I got sober, and two robots called me and asked me to make an album."
Attention, music fans: The man who uttered those words is coming to the University Synagogue in Irvine on March 27. To tell stories, no less.
Singer-songwriter Paul Williams may have looked like an unlikely partner for the members of Daft Punk, who appear in public in futuristic garb that vaguely recalls the Stormtroopers from "Star Wars." But considering that Williams' previous career has ranged from writing an Oscar-winning song with Barbra Streisand to composing material for the Muppets and acting in the Burt Reynolds comedy "Smokey and the Bandit," well, why not toss in a robot or two?
"I've had an absolutely blessed life," said the 73-year-old performer, who contributed lyrics and vocals to Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" album and will join a lineup of other singers at University Synagogue for a fundraising show.
Williams plans to sing during the evening, but for the most part, he'll stand back and serve as a tour guide of sorts. Ten soloists — six men, four women — have been lined up to present the songwriter's classics, and Williams will accompany each rendition with a story about the song's creation.
Here's one, for a taste: "We've Only Just Begun," the 1970 ballad hit for the Carpenters, began life as a jingle for Crocker National Bank. Williams and his co-writer, Roger Nichols, had been approached to score a television commercial and came up with a short piece, only to have the brother-sister duo take an expanded version of it to No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100.
"Roger Nichols and I were approached to write a bank commercial," Williams said. "It was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write rock and roll. It's interesting how sometimes our success, you just cannot plot."
'It was like magic'
Success isn't always foremost on Williams' mind these days. Not headlining success, anyway. He enjoyed the laurels that came with the Daft Punk project, but he's content to be at the "center of the herd" much of the time.
At least he picks interesting herds. As president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Williams represents more than half a million music creators. He's co-writing a book on overcoming addiction. Artistically, his plate is full — he's at work on a musical based on Guillermo del Toro's fantasy film "Pan's Labyrinth" and writing songs for the upcoming animated feature "The Book of Life."
When he takes the stage at the University Synagogue, though, he won't do so as a visiting celebrity. He's been part of the congregation of the Center for Spiritual Living Newport-Mesa, which has offices in Costa Mesa and holds services at the Irvine synagogue, for more than a decade.
Minister Jim Turrell remembers the first day Williams showed up for a service. Jazz singer Barbara Morrison was scheduled to perform that day, and Williams had gotten word about it from a friend. He stayed for the lecture as well and soon became a regular face at the center, part of a nationwide denomination founded in the early 20th century by Ernest Holmes that draws a spiritual philosophy from faiths around the world.
While Williams has sung and spoken at services in the past, Turrell got the idea for this month's show at a private fundraiser held two years ago at a home in Newport Coast. The center lined up three singers to perform Williams' work, and the songwriter, seated in the audience, began to casually tell the back stories between tunes.
"It just worked," Turrell said. "It was like magic. So I said, 'Well, what if we did a concert like that?'"
In the lineup for March 27 are Turrell's son and daughter, Rob and Erica, along with Arlene Kole, Mark Wood, Daniel Nahmod, Harold Payne, Avery Burdette, Kris Shelton, Bob Pope and Darby Walker. Some are members of the congregation, while others have performed for the center in the past.
The proceeds from the Paul Williams Song Festival, as it's officially known, will go to the center's music program as well as recent acoustic renovations at the synagogue. According to Turrell, the venue recently installed $15,000 worth of sound tiles and repositioned speakers.
"It just made all the difference in the world," he said. "We don't have any more feedback problems. We don't have any more areas of the sanctuary that you can't hear because the soundwaves hit against the concrete walls and bounce off."
'Phantom' from the past
When the Williams tunes resonate off the newly improved walls on March 27, they may invoke plenty of nostalgia among those present. Although the songwriter has recorded extensively, many of his biggest successes have come writing for others: Streisand ("Evergreen"), Three Dog Night ("An Old Fashioned Love Song"), Helen Reddy ("You and Me Against the World") and others.
To many younger listeners, though, he may be first and foremost the professorial-looking guy who followed Daft Punk onto the Grammy stage. His performance at the University Synagogue will keep both generations in mind. According to Turrell, he's slotted to sing "The Rainbow Connection," his Oscar-nominated ballad from 1979's "The Muppet Movie," as well as Daft Punk's "Touch."
So how did Williams end up getting that call from a pair of robots?
As he tells it, the men behind those impenetrable masks, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, had seen "Phantom of the Paradise," a 1974 Brian De Palma musical film that Williams scored and acted in, nearly two dozen times. When the French duo were recording the soundtrack for 2010's "TRON: Legacy," they realized that two members of their crew had professional ties to Williams.
De Homem-Christo and Bangalter contacted the songwriter and asked him to contribute lyrics to two songs and vocals to one. Williams listened to their earlier music and signed on for the project.
Some in the media had a field day with the odd pairing. Yahoo! Music published a story after the Grammys titled "The 5 Reasons You Actually Do Know Daft Punk Collaborator Paul Williams" (the reasons ranged from "He co-wrote the theme to 'The Love Boat'" to "He was almost a Monkee"), while a Los Angeles Times piece boasted the headline "Who is Daft Punk's pal Paul Williams?"
While Williams claims that he doesn't "need a lot of attention right now," he admitted to being tickled by the newfound audience.
"It was just a really lovely surprise," he said. "The last thing you expect is to win Album of the Year at age 73."
If You Go
What: Paul Williams Song Festival
Where: University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine
When: 7 p.m. March 27
Cost: $47, plus extra $97 for reception with Williams
Information: (714) 754-7399 or http://www.cslsongfest.com