He Writes the Songs

When stars like Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt need a creative spark, they call on Jerry Lynn Williams, the best Texas tunesmith you’ve never heard of.

December 1996By Comments

MAYBE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD of Jerry Lynn Williams, but if you’ve been near a radio in the past twenty years, you’ve almost definitely heard his music. Eric Clapton’s “Running on Faith”? Williams wrote it. He also penned Delbert McClinton’s signature song, “Givin’ It Up for Your Love,” and B. B. King’s “Standing on the Edge of Love.” Bonnie Raitt’s “Real Man” was his too, as was “Wanna Make Love to You,” by Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis. And Williams co-wrote Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan’s “Tick Tock,” the song played at Stevie Ray’s funeral. After more than two decades of writing tunes for and with some of the best-known musicians around, the 48-year-old has earned the nickname the Song Doctor, the man to call when you’re working on an album and all that’s missing is a catchy song.

The evidence of Williams’ success lines the walls of his in-home studio near Tulsa: There are the gold and platinum records that his work has appeared on, including Clapton’s Unplugged, Behind the Sun, and Crossroads; Raitt’s Nick of Time; the Vaughan brothers’ Family Style; the soundtrack to the movie Wayne’s World; Houstonian Clint Black’s The Hard Way; and Robert Plant’s Now and Zen. There are also snapshots of Jerry hanging out with some of the musical pals he has made over the years, including luminaries like Keith Richards and Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones, ex-Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison, B. B. King, and fellow Texan Roy Orbison (who, he says, “used to come to my place in Malibu to smoke cigarettes and write songs”). And this summer he flew to Toronto to help guitarist Jeff Healey finish an album.

While Williams is known best as a songwriter for other people, over his career he has also managed to record four great blues-rock albums of his own—records that are sought by collectors but hardly anyone else. This year, for instance, he released The Peacemaker, his first record since 1980, and it features contributions from Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Oates of Hall and Oates, the late studio pianist Nicky Hopkins (who played with, among others, the Rolling Stones), and Fleetwood Mac drummer and founder Mick Fleetwood. It’s one of the best CDs I’ve heard all year; every song sounds like a classic, tailor-made for the radio. But it isn’t stocked in most record stores. Just about the only way to get a copy is to call the toll-free number a friend told me about: 888-THE-URGE, the automated number for Williams’ production company.

His other albums have suffered essentially the same fate, or worse—which, of course, raises the question of why such a talented composer and industry insider isn’t better known as a recording artist. It isn’t that he can’t perform; one listen to his soulful, right-on tenor will dispel that notion. (Clapton once called him “my favorite white-man singer.”) It’s his disposition: He can be hardheaded, and he has a mercurial temper. He has never been afraid to face off with record-company executives to make a point (more than once resorting to threats to get money he thinks they owe him), and without their muscle to publicize his records, he’s not likely to get the kind of attention he needs to become a star in his own right. The story behind Peacemaker is just one example. In 1993 John Oates came to Williams looking for songs, decided that Williams was so good that he should make a record of his own, and persuaded a major record company to give him a contract. But after the studio sessions, the label apparently concluded that his music would be too difficult to market. “I was told that they didn’t have a category for it,” Williams said. Williams bought himself out of the contract and released the album on his own. “I tried it their way, and their way sucked,” he said. “So I did it my way. My problem is, I won’t kiss the record companies’ asses anymore.”

That’s the kind of attitude you might expect from a twenty-year-old punk rocker, not a middle-aged industry veteran, but Williams is a maverick and always has been. I first heard him in the early seventies, when I was a disc jockey at the short-lived progressive rock station KFAD-FM in Arlington. In 1971 CBS put out his album Down Home Boy, and it became an instant favorite among the station’s long-haired deejays, partly because Williams had grown up in Fort Worth but mostly because he knew how to rock—it had a revolutionary reverb-drenched electric fiddle solo, and his exuberant soul-cat voice fell somewhere between Stevie Wonder’s and Otis Redding’s. Since then, Williams’ name has surfaced just often enough to keep me intrigued. Even by the standards of Los Angeles, where he lived off and on through the seventies and eighties, Williams was out there. He was a twisted Christian who cited God as his inspiration for writing songs, yet he ran with a fast crowd in Malibu, including his neighbor Jack Nicholson. He wore a cape and a medallion in public. The one solo gig he ever played in the Los Angeles area boasted a star-studded guest list and a famous exotic dancer.

For all the stories attached to his name, there has never been any doubt that the man knows how to write a song. From heart-wrenching ballads to pop nuggets that preach the universal message of love, Williams writes simple pieces with a broad appeal that transcends pigeonholing. “It’s a gift that God gives me,” he says with candor. It’s hard to argue with him. “Givin’ It Up for Your Love,” which his longtime pal Delbert McClinton parlayed into his only Top Ten hit, is about God, not a girlfriend. The moving “Running on Faith,” one of the tunes that revitalized Clapton’s career, has more than a few gospel overtones. “Standing on the Edge of Love” was inspired by the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and sounds like it. And, as his nickname implies, Williams can cure what ails other writers. For instance, one of the Vaughan brothers had come up with the riff for “Tick Tock” years ago, but it took Williams’ hand to make it into one of their best-known songs.

Whether it’s just plain talent or a higher power, something has worked, though success hasn’t come easily. We recently sat in the plush studio inside his spacious house and talked about his career. Wearing overalls and occasionally scratching his scraggly gray beard, Williams grinned like a jolly Buddha at the wonder of it all. He was born in 1948 in Dallas; his mother was a local jazz singer, and his father served around the country as a civil service fire chief for the Air Force. “My mother says I came out singing instead of crying,” he told me. In the fifties he lived for a while on his grandparents’ ranch near Mansfield, where he listened to 78’s of Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong and attended Bisbee Baptist Church four days a week. “The pastor’s wife taught me to play piano,” he recalled. “When I was eleven, I got my first guitar and started finding out about Jimmy Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis, B. B. King, and James Brown.”

In 1964 Williams and his band, the Epics, got local airplay with their first single, a Beatles-influenced original called “Tell Me What You See,” on Fort Worth’s Brownfield label. Soon after, the fifteen-year-old stumbled into a lifetime’s worth of musical education when his band got to open for R&B stylist Ray Sharpe—famous for his song “Linda Lu”—at one of the great Texas roadhouses of all time, the Skyliner Ballroom on the Jacksboro Highway. Weeks after landing that gig, he got another break when the owner, Jimmy Levens, asked him to help book bands at the club, and he started tracking down artists like Jimmy Reed, Ike and Tina Turner, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He also got to hang out with the entertainers he brought in; Reed, for instance, taught him rhythm-guitar chords. And a few months later, Williams got his biggest break yet: He booked R&B great Little Richard, who, after hearing Williams sing and play, hired him as the rhythm guitarist in his touring band. On the road Williams learned to play lead guitar from Little Richard’s other axman, a young musician who went by the name Jimmy James and later achieved fame as Jimi Hendrix.

His tenure with Little Richard lasted nine months, and shortly after, he returned to Fort Worth, where he made it through a semester at Arlington Heights High School before snagging regular gigs at the Bayou Club and the Silver Helmet Club in Dallas, which was owned by several Dallas Cowboys players. “I was doing Otis Redding stuff three nights a week,” he remembered, “and within two weeks I had so many people in there that the fire marshal started showing up.” Then, in the late sixties, Williams discovered orange sunshine, tie-dye shirts, and the hippie lifestyle, so he formed a three-piece psychedelic blues outfit called High Mountain and went to L.A. to score a record deal with the ATCO label. It became another learning experience. The resulting album, High Mountain Hoedown, went nowhere, and the musicians got to split a paltry $10,000.

But Williams didn’t worry, because he was on a creative spree. “In those days,” he said, “I was like the space shuttle that didn’t want to land.” In 1971 Down Home Boy hit the airwaves with a cast of studio heavyweights including Nicky Hopkins, bassists Chuck Rainey and Gordon Edwards, Bobbye Hall on percussion, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Cornell Dupree on guitar. Its sales were abysmal, but Williams kept writing obsessively. At times he lived in various studios, sleeping on packing blankets. “When I’d get an idea, I’d roll over from under the piano and be with my baby,” he said. He hung out for a while at singer-pianist Leon Russell’s studio and home near Tulsa, where he learned more recording techniques. Then, in 1972, he made his first house call as the Song Doctor: He hooked up with guitarist Dave Mason, who was one of rock’s newly knighted gentry but was having trouble writing tunes for his next album. Williams, a font of songs, was a perfect match, so he moved into Mason’s house in Southern California and started cranking out two or three a day. He toured as part of Mason’s band, but after several months, he simply walked away from it all. “I was losing my spirit. I didn’t want to lose the concept of who I am,” he said.

Though he liked writing for others, Williams was more determined than ever to perform on his own, and in 1978 he got a cushy deal with Warner Bros. to cut a record called Gone—but Gone would never see the light of day. Its beginnings were certainly promising enough; using the $500,000 advance from the contract, Williams bought a ranch in Santa Barbara and started recording in L.A. “We lived in the studio,” he said. “Everything was brought in. I had the engineer put in a dead bolt and lock us in. We’d get our clothes dirty and I’d just throw them away.” He wrote 27 songs in fourteen days. The album, completed in 1979, was produced by Chris Kimsey—who engineered and produced records for the Rolling Stones—and featured such session aces as Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, the toasts of Memphis; James Jamerson, whose bass put the bottom in Motown’s greatest hits; and drummers Jeff Porcaro of Toto and Ric Jagger, Mick’s brother. The lineup of songs included the original version of “Givin’ It Up for Your Love” and what might be the finest cover of Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” ever recorded. But Gone was never officially released. Williams and Warner president Lenny Waronker battled so acrimoniously over money, among other things, that the copies that had been pressed were instantly remaindered. (Even today, Waronker won’t talk on the record about Williams.)

Disappointed, Williams came back to Texas and settled briefly on a farm in Springtown. Over the next few years a pattern developed: He would head out to California, work until he ran out of money or had a fight with a record company, come back to Texas, live quietly for a while, and then go west again. One day in 1984, while recording demos in L.A., Williams noticed someone with a vaguely familiar face standing by the studio console. It was Eric Clapton. He was in a songwriting slump and had been referred to Williams by, of all people, Lenny Waronker—even the suits who won’t touch Williams recognize his talent. He ended up penning more than half the songs for the next year’s Behind the Sun, which is now regarded as the big comeback album for the greatest guitarist in rock and roll.

Since then Williams has helped revive Bonnie Raitt’s career—he wrote “Real Man” for her 1989 album, Nick of Time, which won three Grammys—and turned down an offer from his friend Mick Fleetwood to join Fleetwood Mac (because he wanted to sing lead rather than back up current vocalist Bekka Bramlett). These days he’s also looking at a thirteenth-century chateau in the Loire River Valley of France, priced at just under $2 million. Despite all the spoils, though, Williams is still writing great material and still making great music. “Forever Man” and “Running on Faith” may suit Clapton well, and “Givin’ It Up for Your Love” may be McClinton’s best-known tune, but those songs really hit the mark when Williams does them himself on The Peacemaker. Stevie Ray Vaughan adds plenty of fire and Clapton puts his “Slowhand” stamp on it, but it’s Williams who makes the whole thing come together.

As good as it is, of course, few people are likely to hear it, given the album’s limited distribution and Williams’ refusal to compromise his principles. But these days he seems to be at peace with himself and not particularly worried about the future. “Wherever God wants me to go, I’ll go,” he told me. “What He sends me, that’s what I want.” Coming from just about anyone else, that sentiment would have elicited a derisive snort. But I really believed Jerry. That’s the way he deals with the ugly truths of the business that has made him rich. It’s also the way he resolves the conflict between his religious upbringing and his reputation as a wild Texan gone Hollywood crazy.

Still serious for a minute, he fidgeted a little. “Music is the voice of spirits and angels throughout the universe, and it has the power the whole world to transform,” he said. “If you let it do that, that’s what you’ll get from it.” Then he grinned. “God is my pocketknife, and I shall not want. And the world is my cheese.”

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