Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett and B.B. King have all called on Will Jennings to find just the right words (in Clapton's case, it was the strikingly personal "Tears In Heaven"). This is the kind of work you can't do in a cubicle, and Jennings talks about what it's like to write with these legends. Jennings has 2 Oscars for songs he's written from movies, so we'll start there.
Carl Wiser (SF): When you're writing a song for a movie, can you tell me a little bit about what happens – how that whole process works?
Will Jennings: Well, the first movie I wrote a song for was called Casey's Shadow. You read a script, or you look at some footage and try to see where they want to use a song, and you try to give them what they want. That's what we did with that one. I might look at a script, I might look at the rough cut of a film, I might not even see anything. In the case of Titanic, James Horner, I went over to his house and he told me the story of the script. Everybody knows what happened with Titanic, but there was the script there. And then he played me the theme that he had, and I just took it from there. I didn't see any footage or read any of the script, but he told me the story, and then I had an inspiration and wrote the song. St. Augustine said, "When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."
SF: With Titanic, I remember when that movie first came out, the whole thought was, "Wow, they made a movie about this boat sinking," but somehow James Horner was able to really explain, no, this isn't just the boat sinking?
Will: Yeah, it was the love story. And there's survivors. I had met this very vibrant woman who was about 101 years old when I met her. That was two years before. And she came into my mind. And I realized she could have been on the Titanic. So I wrote everything from the point of view of a person of a great age looking back so many years. And it was the love story that made the film, of course. It was magnificently done with special effects, the actors were good. But the love story was what it was.
SF: Okay. And then how did you end up on Rush? Did Eric Clapton pull you into that?
Will: Yeah, Eric called me and asked me to work on it with him.
SF: Was there a Steve Winwood connection there?
Will: Yeah, Eric and Steve go back, they made that one record together years ago, short lived band. And Eric followed all our writing from Arc Of A Diver, because he always kept up with Steve. And then we wrote an album called Talking Back To The Night that Steve and I did, and then the third album we wrote was the Back In The High Life album. So Eric knew about that, and he knew about the Crusaders things and the B.B. King things. And he had said he always wanted to get together and write, and so he called me for the film. He and Russ Titelman, who had produced the Back In The High Life album, was involved in the film, and that was the other connection.
Will: Yeah, he had the title, he had the whole idea and had the first verse, let's see, let me pull it up… I can go down the song with you and tell you about it. Here we go. So that whole first thing, "Would you know my name if I saw you… would it be the same… I must be strong here because I know there'll be no… because I know I don't belong here in Heaven." That was the kernel of the thing, and I tried to get Eric to finish it, but he really wanted me to work at it. We had already written an in-title song for the film called "Help Me Up." And this terrible thing had just happened not too long before, and he just wanted to write about it. And there was a place in the film for it, so he did that. So I wrote a bit of the same verse and all the words on the release, "Time can bring you down, time can bend your knee, time can break your heart, have you begging please." And "beyond the door there's peace, I'm sure, you know there's be no more tears in Heaven." So it was one of those things, I was really moved that he had wanted me to work on it and tried to do the best I could. Wrote it in the studio.
SF: So they recorded it soon after you wrote it?
Will: Yeah, they were just in the studio, they were working on it. Because he was doing all the music for the soundtrack, had his band in there. I was just revising as they were in there working on it, doing the track, and revising lyrics. It was at Village Recorder in Santa Monica, and we were there for a week or two.
SF: Did you guys have a sense that this was going to be a huge hit?
Will: No, not at all. It was furthest from my mind, really. I was so involved in the sensitivity of the subject, and I didn't even think about that. I'm passionate about all the songs I write, but it was just in another place entirely, another category.
SF: There's a song I wanted to ask you about. Kind of an older one, but "People Alone."
Will: Yeah, right. I wrote that with Lalo Schifrin for The Competition. It was about these characters in the film, these two pianists, it was a classical piano competition. And it's about them not being able to get together, and you know, the problem with people alone. Randy Crawford sang that, by the way. And that was my first Academy Award nomination.
SF: When you're writing these songs for movies, do you know who's going to be performing them?
Will: Not always. Sometimes.
SF: Does it matter?
Will: It matters. I mean, if you know specifically, you might tailor it to a particular singer. With Casey's Shadow, I had Dobie (Gray) in mind because he was a friend, and I had just moved out from Nashville, and he had cut several songs. He was a wonderful singer and if it wasn't for him, I think I would have suggested Randy Crawford for "People Alone." I asked for Frankie Miller on All The Right Moves, Richard Kerr and I wrote a song called "Blue Skies Forever," and Frankie is a great rocker and he fit the mood. Joe Sample and I wrote "I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today," it was for The Crusaders' Standing Tall album, and Joe Cocker sang that. They were nominated for a Grammy, Best Inspirational Performance, and Joe sang it at the Grammys, just tore it up. And Taylor Hackford wanted to use him to sing the song from Officer And A Gentleman. So that's how he came into it. And then Jennifer Warnes, that all sort of evolved somehow. But with "My Heart Will Go On," James presented it to Celine Dion first. He and I did an animated film called Fievel Goes West, Spielberg and Lucas co-produced. And she had wanted to sing that, but Linda Ronstadt wound up singing it. It's a good song called "Dreams To Dream." And, fortunately, we had another… James wanted to play it for her and of course, the rest is history.
SF: Good thing she took it. Good move on her part. You talked about how you got the opportunity to write with Roy Orbison, which is pretty rare.
Will: Right. It was from 1984, again, and I was working on songs for a Nicolas Roeg film called Insignificance. And I asked for Roy because I thought his voice would fit the mood of the picture. And they set something up and I went down to Nashville and I had started the song for the picture, and we continued to work on it. It's called "Wild Hearts Run Out of Time." And we became friends around writing the song, and I produced the record, and then we kept in touch and we wrote some in Nashville. And then when he moved out to L.A., he went and lived out in Malibu, and it was about 30 minutes from my house in Agoura Hills. He used to come over every week or so and write when he was in town, or when we were in town. And then the whole thing with the album that Jeff Lynne did, and the Wilburys and all that, we wrote some good songs. Because he's from West Texas, grew up in the oil fields. I'm from East Texas, and I grew up in the oil fields. And I'm still very close to his family.
Jennings is humble about it, but he's contributed lyrics to songs that are not only immensely popular, but have a deep meaning and connect with the listener. In this section, he talks about where the soulfullness comes from.
SF: I notice a lot of your songwriting, there's a lot of references to, not necessarily Heaven, but spiritual things.
Will: Right. A higher love, you know.
SF: Yeah, it seems to show up a fair amount once you kind of look at it. There's all these different artists recording your songs and yet you can see a common thread sometimes, which is really interesting to me.
Will: Well, I grew up in rural east Texas. And my father's father, my paternal grandfather, was a Methodist preacher. And all my aunts and uncles sang. So I grew up on all the old-time hymns. Plus, I grew up within hearing of a black Baptist church just a mile or two away from where we lived. And I heard them on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. So those are the first songs I can remember hearing, and I'm sure that had a lot to do with sort of forming part of what I do.
SF: I know there's no magic formula or anything, but is there anything you think attributes to the success of the lyrics that you write?
Will: You know Carl, every song is the first song. When we were writing for B.B., you wrote something that B.B. would sing. We wrote one, two albums and half of another album from 1977 to about mid-'80s, for B. You write for Steve Winwood, you just sort of become him, or become B.B., or become whoever you're trying to write for if you're writing that way. If you're just writing something out of another sort of idea and don't have any artist in mind, then that's another way, which I've done that as well. But it's writing scripts, directives really, personas, I guess.
SF: That's an interesting way to look at it. Now, you mentioned some of these B.B. King songs. Could you tell me a little bit about the background of some of the songs that you've written for him that you're particularly proud of?
Will: "Never Make A Move Too Soon" was one… the only song I ever wrote with Stix Hooper, who was the drummer in The Crusaders. It was on the Midnight Believer album, and then all sorts of people have covered it over the years. Bonnie Raitt cut it on Road Tested – her live album, with Charles Brown and Ruth Brown. And B.B.'s got it on his 80th Anniversary album, singing it with Roger Daltrey. Even people like Captain and Tennille, Toni Tennille sang it. Gosh I can't even remember how many covers. But if you listen to that song, it's a story song. You just write something that's soulful and good, and of course I was working mainly with Joe Sample, who was a great Jazz player, but he also came up with Blues and R&B and everything. He's another Texan. He grew up in the fifth ward in Houston, where the Crusaders started. You try to keep it soulful and tell the truth and tell a story.
SF: Where do the stories come from?
Will: Just anywhere, everywhere, from life. I bring everything that's ever happened to me into the room when I'm working on a new song. And a whole lot has happened to me.
SF: Was there any specific event that triggered that song, "Never Make A Move Too Soon"?
Will: Well, it was just about being on the road. I think B.B. had been talking about his adventures on the road, all the romantic difficulties that are involved in being on the road. The original title's "Never Make A Move Too Soon," and some people put it out as "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." But it started out… Stix sent me a rhythm track, which is basically 12-bar Blues. It was all in California in '77, and I just started thinking about B.B. and what he'd been talking about. So I just basically sang over the rhythm track and more or less a talking/singing sort of a thing: "Three days of snow in Birmingham, thought you'd wonder where I am. Writing our number all night long, there's no comfort on the telephone. Ran out and caught a midnight flight. Thought a little love could make everything alright. The landlord said you'd moved away, and left me all of your bills to pay. Look out, baby, you might have made your move too soon. You left me with a Keno card, this life in Vegas sure ain't hard. I ran it up to 50 grand, cashed it in and held it in my hand. That kind of word can get around and make a lost love come up found. I hear you knocking at my door, but you ain't living here no more. It's too bad, I think you made your move too soon. I've been from Spain to Tokyo, from Africa to Ohio, I never try to make the news, I'm just a man who plays the blues. I take my lovin' everywhere, I come back and they still care. One love ahead, one love behind, one in my arms, one on my mind. One thing they know, I never make my move too soon."
SF: So it sounds like you have the ability to almost channel these people that you're writing for.
Will: Yeah, I do. That's the inspiration. If you're writing a play, you're writing for a particular persona, a particular character. And you try to feel as deeply inside them as you can. Where are they coming from and what they've been through. It's the same with Steve, you know. "While You See A Chance," because he was coming out of a whole period with Spencer Davis and Traffic, and then where else do you go? I was up there at his place in England, up in rural England, and I was in his life so to speak, and trying to see through his eyes as well as mine. And that's what all those things were about. All the songs we wrote.
SF: So you need to spend a little bit of time with these people in order…?
Will: Yeah, when it's an in-depth thing like that, you just need to get the feel of what they want to do, and where they're coming from and what their life has been.
SF: When you're working with Steve Winwood, for instance, do you end up just doing all kinds of stuff together to get to know each other, or do you really just sit in a room and write songs?
Will: No, we hang out. We go down to the pub, drink some beer, take walks. Just live. And talk about this and that. Spend some time. It's not like you show up and start writing. Show up and take a look around, see what the weather's like.
SF: Yeah, the feelings of these songs come out. I've heard, especially in Nashville, you end up in a room with another person and you just start writing.
Will: Right. I've done some of that. But that's not my preferred thing, you know. But yeah, I've sat down and just tried to write some. I got away from that years and years ago, because the soulfulness comes into writing the truth of the singer. If you're writing with or particularly for a singer, you try to get inside them.
SF: You have a ton of songs that I wasn't able to ask you about. Are there some in particular that you think have some great stories to tell that you'd like to talk about?
Will: There's a song that Michael Masser and I wrote, but that was for Whitney Houston, because he was producing her. It's called, "Didn't We Almost Have It All." And Rodney Crowell and I wrote several songs together back years ago. He's another east Texan and we had hits with him, "Many A Lone And Lonesome Highway," which is really about, that's the real Texas. And a song, "What Kind of Love," which is something Roy Orbison and I started. Roy and I were old friends and we wrote some songs from 1984. Wrote a couple of albums with Jimmy Buffet, Riddles In The Sand and The Last Mango In Paris. I'll give you the "Back In The High Life" story.
Will: Well, that's a good story. He and I, we wrote those songs in the fall of '84. And it was a long spell before he got in the studio in New York. And we had "Higher Love" and several other songs, "The Finer Things." And then it was toward the end of my stay over there and we still needed some other songs. And I had "back in the high life again" in this book that I carry with me of titles. I pulled that out and I suddenly found the rest of the song, and I wrote that in about 30 minutes, and left it with Steve to put a melody to. Then I went back to California, and it was a year, I guess, before he went in the studio, sometime in '85. And I called one day and talked to Russ Titelman who was producing the album. They were doing it in New York. I asked him how it was going, and he said, "Oh it's going great." He said, "Higher Love" came out great and "The Finer Things." I asked him how "Back In The High Life" would come out. And there was this little pause, and he said, "Steve hasn't shown me that song." So turns out that Steve had not written the music to it yet. And he at that time was going through a divorce. And because of the divorce, his wife got everything in the house. This big house in England. So he had to go back to see about that and some other things. He came up from London and went out to this house, which he still lives in and he had for years before he was married. And everything was gone, except there was a mandolin over in the corner of the living room. And it was winter and it was dreary. He went over and picked up the mandolin, and he already had the words in his head, and that's when he wrote the melody. And he went back and not only cut a big hit which still is played so much today, but it was the title track of the album. And if I hadn't asked about it, it would have just gone by. So that's one that was saved at the last minute.
"Street Life," I don't know if you're familiar with that tune, but the lyric, all that came right off of Hollywood Boulevard. It's also been used in a lot of rap songs, some samples, they always do the chorus.
SF: How about "The Finer Things."
Will: A lot of the things with Steve came out in that… being in England, and seeing, and even the weather and hanging out, staying up all night in London, and partying and everything else. "The Finer Things" is sort of expressive of all that running around and… "I've been sad and I've walked bitter streets alone. But come morning there's a good wind to blow me home." Then it's philosophical. You know, "Time is a river rolling into nowhere." "I will live while I can, I will have my ever after."
SF: I'm getting the sense that you have a tendency to leave the house and experience life a fair amount.
Will: Oh yeah.
SF: Is that a fairly big part of what fuels your songwriting?
Will: Yeah. You have to sit down and write sometime. But it all comes out of life and experience, like any other kind of writing.
SF: So what do you find yourself doing when you're enjoying yourself?
Will: I don't know. I travel, go here and there, look into things. Go out and listen to music. Go to plays. Go to places I haven't been and places I like to re-visit. Have a good time, drink wine, eat good food, stay up late, dance.
SF: Are you one of these guys that's always getting ideas and writing them down?
Will: Sort of. When I get ready to focus on writing for someone, then I start sort of narrowing my attention and calling up what I can. I just had wonderful week with this young fellow from Nashville, he's from Australia, named Jedd Hughes. And he's getting ready to make an album, he played in Rodney Crowell's band when they came through Santa Barbara, and I wanted to see Rodney, who I've known since the '70s. We've written many tunes. Rodney and I wrote "Please Remember Me" for him, it was recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville in a duet, and then it became a big hit for Tim McGraw. So Rodney and I go back many years, writing several songs. And Rodney introduced me to Jedd and said we should write together. And so we did, but I really didn't start writing 'til a few days before, and just wrote really a story song. And then we had a great week, because I was just focusing on him and being a young player, he's a marvelous stringed instrument player and good singer. So it's just the occasion, whatever the occasion is.
SF: One thing I want to hit you on with one of your Steve Winwood songs, on While You See A Chance, I still don't get the line where "you find romance" and "fake it."
Will: Well the next line explains it. "Because it's all on you." There's an old English expression called "fake it till you make it." If you don't have romance in your life, meaning in the broader sense, really. You know, romance, something to make life interesting, just imagine it until it's there.
SF: That makes a lot more sense now. It's almost a punctuation thing.
SF: I'm noticing that happens in songs a fair amount. If you don't get the commas, it can mean something different.
Will: Right. Yeah.
SF: I was asking the guy who wrote the Tom Petty song, "American Girl," there's a line in there where he's talking about how "if she had to die," but if you listen, the next thing Tom Petty says is "trying." But because there's such a pause in there, people think, Oh, it's about suicide. It's just the way it's heard.
Will: Sometimes with Steve, sometimes he doesn't enunciate entirely.
SF: You were just telling me about the "Please Remember Me" song that Tim McGraw recorded. Is there a story on that one?
Will: It's just a story of breakup and wishing the person well. It was a particular person, which I cannot reveal. But we originally wrote it for Rodney. This was in '94, my wife and I were going up to Carmel, California, to stay a couple of months, and I was setting up a portable studio rig. And Ryan DeNiro, the same guy that's still with me, was testing things out. And I was laying some tracks. And I got just that phrase, "Please remember me," amongst some other things when I was just testing out the machinery. Several weeks later when we were up in Carmel, Rodney called me and was getting ready to finish an album and said they wanted us to write something. So I said these ideas, which he got into and developed, and then we did a bit over the phone, and that's where it came from. You never know where it's coming from.
SF: You mentioned the song you wrote with Michael Masser. Could you tell us a little bit about that one?
Will: I think that probably took longer than any other song. I was traveling and he was in the studio and doing this and that, so I think it was about a year or two after we started it that it was finished. And I sort of lost track of the whole thing. It was one of those never-to-be-repeated experiences, because he was producing the record and he wanted to really nail it down. He kept feeling it wasn't finished and so put it away, and I was off working on something. I'd lost track of what went on with it.
SF: What's one of the songs that you wrote with Roy that you're really proud of?
Will: Well, "Wild Hearts Run Out of Time." It was almost a hit in England. It got about halfway up the charts. At that time Roy was very cold, so it was hard. But that was for that film. And then the song that Roy and I started, and then after he died I called on Rodney to finish it, called "What Kind of Love," that would have been a wonderful one for him – for Roy – to have sung. And this one that Richard Kerr and I wrote that Roy sang, called "In The Real World," that's wonderful, they just used it in this William Eggleston documentary. The photographer, I don't know if you know Eggleston's work, he's from Memphis. And some of those have showed up in films and whatnot, but you'll find on the King Of Hearts album, which was the album after the one that had "You Got It." They used a lot of things that had originated as demos and worked on them and put them out. And that has three or four or five of our songs on it.
Mr. Jennings sent us some information about these and several of his other songs that you can read in the Songfacts entries. As we conclude this interview, he talks about how he got started.
SF: I would like to find out a bit about how you ended up becoming a songwriter and writing these types of songs, and a little bit about what was going on in your life.
Will: I started out in Nashville in 1971. I'm originally from East Texas, I was born in Kilgore, Texas, and went to school in Texas and was a teacher for four years; one year in a junior college in Tyler, Texas, and then three years at the University of Wisconsin, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We were there until '71, when we left to go to Nashville. I just sort of hit the street in Nashville and started trying to get my songs around and everything, and was taken in by this small music publishing company, and worked there from '71-'74, and then in '74 moved to L.A. In Nashville I was honing my craft, and you know. That was a very exciting time down there. Everything was going off. Waylon and Willie and Kristofferson and a lot of inspirational writing going on. This fellow named Troy Seals was running this tiny publishing company that was part of Quadraphonics Studio. Quadraphonic was owned by David Briggs, who was the top keyboard session player there, and Norbert Putnam, who was a top bass player. Norbert had just produced "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" for Joan Baez. And that studio was hot, everybody in the world was going through; Neil Young passed through there and Joe Walsh was recording there. Neil Young had just done or was doing the Harvest album at a studio outside town, and Mentor Williams brought Dobie Gray down and did the Drift Away album at Quad. And Mentor and Dobie fell in love with the songs that Troy and I were writing and they included five of them on the Drift Away album. And then a writer named Tom Jans, who wrote "Loving Arms," came down to Nashville to pitch it to Dobie, and Dobie did a classic version. Tommy was from Atascadero, California, up in the central coast, and he had made some records with Mimi Farina, who's Joan Baez's sister. They had toured together, and he was writing songs for this publishing company in L.A. He and I became friends, and he convinced me to move to L.A.
So in '74 moved there. Tommy got me a deal with Irving Album Music, which is now Rondor Music, part of the A&M complex, and Lance Freed, who is Allen Freed's son, was running the company. Lance brought me out to California and put me together with different people and we started getting some hits with Richard Kerr, who wrote the melody for "Mandy," the Barry Manilow hit. Rich had a big hit with that, and he was with the same company in England. He and I got together and wrote some things, which eventually were recorded by Manilow: "Somewhere In The Night" and "Looks Like We Made It," and Dionne Warwick cut "I'll Never Love This Way Again."
Then in a real turn, Chuck Kaye, who had come back to run the publishing company, put me together with Joe Sample of The Crusaders. Joe and I, and as well as Stix Hooper, the drummer with The Crusaders, and Wilton Felder, bass player and sax player for The Crusaders, wrote an album for B.B. King called Midnight Believer.
Joe and I wrote wrote "Street Life." Randy Crawford sang it. She was a guest vocalist on the Crusaders' album. It was a worldwide hit in 1980.
So we're going along, and Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records) was looking for somebody to write with Steve Winwood. The fellow who was running his company, Lionel Conway, knew about the B.B. King things, and recommended me to Chris. It wound up with me going over to England in '79 or '80, and that's when Steve and I wrote 4 songs for Arc Of A Diver album, which, among them was "While You See A Chance" which was his comeback solo, for his solo career.
Steve and I spent the next 10 years with spaces between, and we wrote all his comeback hits. At the same time Joe and I were writing songs for guest vocalists for The Crusaders album Soul Shadows that Bill Withers did, and "I'm So Glad I'm Standing Here Today" that Joe Cocker did. We wrote an album for Randy Crawford, which we had a huge hit that was sort of an instant standard in Europe called "One Day I'll Fly Away," which they also used in the Moulin Rouge picture.
We spoke with Will Jennings on May 7, 2006. All pictures copyright Blue Sky Rider, Inc.