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.

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

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