He is best known as the composer and recording artist of the instrumental hit "Classical Gas", which won three Grammy Awards for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Orchestra Arrangement (for Mike Post, arranger). B.M.I. (Broadcast Music Inc.) awarded him a Special Citation Of Achievement in 1998. "Classical Gas" received over three million broadcast performances to become the number one all time instrumental composition for airplay in B.M.I.'s catalog of songs. The man who wrote "Classical Gas"; the man who recorded "Classical Gas" is Mason Williams.
Mason Williams talked with us about that song, his time on The Smothers Brothers Show and what he's doing these days.
Q - When did you get your first big break? I ask that because most people associate your name with The Smothers Brothers Show, but obviously you had to have done something to get the attention of The Smothers Brothers.
A - Let's see...my first commercial success is what you're saying?
Q - Yeah.
A - I was a Folk singer to begin with in college. I was originally going to be a math major, but music looked like it was going to be a lot more interesting. So, I kind of switched over to music and quite late. I knew how to sing well, but I didn't know how to read music and so it was tough for me to be in music school with music majors, not knowing how to read. So, I had to spend a lot of after hours reciting notes on the staff and all the terminology and the counting and all the various things you have to do to become a musician who can read. I had gone to L.A. in 1956. I was going to become an insurance actuary, which was an insurance mathematician. They're involved in probabilities. You know, what's the probability of somebody dying from something. And a Jazz pianist came to live in the boarding house I was in and he played for us every night after dinner and he really enjoyed himself. So, then I said this guy is really having a great time and think I'll explore music myself. From then on, I was hooked. My late start was tough on me, not being able to read and play an instrument yet. I just sang along with the radio, basically. I sang in choirs in high school. I did have kind of a 50s Pop group back in 1956 that sang the Pop hits at sock hops they had back then, and school dances.
Q - 1956? You really were on the ground floor of Pop music.
A - Yeah. I still sing songs from then..."My Prayer" by The Platters. I sing it in my falsetto voice in the original key of B flat. Tony Williams I think was the guy in The Platters that was the tenor. Boy, he was quite the singer.
Q - Your first album was on Gourd Records.
A - Yeah, that was a coffee house I sang in. It was The Gourd Coffee House. There were three people in the band. We just recorded three or four nights at this coffee house. I think it was probably mono. (laughs) We just edited it altogether and sent it to Capitol Records, which was doing custom pressings and they pressed up a thousand of 'em. We each got three hundred of 'em and I, like most artists, gave 'em away and sold very few. That was our first album and every now and then somebody sends me one of then to sign. That thing was in 1960, so that's approaching fifty years old.
Q - Your second album was on Mercury. Now, how did you get that deal?
A - We were getting very popular there in Oklahoma City and started to play a lot of gigs. I was in college and so were the other guys in my group. We played for corporate events, we played for parties, we played for military bases, any kind of get-together. The list would just go on and on. Anything that a local band could play for. We were not too complicated. We were just guitars and banjos. We didn't have to have drums and bass and too much equipment. Sometimes we didn't even have mics. We just sang. So, we got to be very popular and attracted a manager and somehow he got us a contract with Mercury Records to go in to make an album and Shelby Singleton, who was a Nashville producer, was our producer. Here's the sad story. We went to him and we said "You know, we've been singing in these Folk clubs for years and there's a few songs people are really crazy for and it sure would be great if we recorded those." He said "No, you're gonna make a Civil War album." I said "But, what about these tunes that we know people really like?" He said "No, you're gonna make a Civil War album." Here's the three tunes he didn't go for; "Michael Row The Boat Ashore", the biggest hit of 1964, period; "Cotton Fields", "Abilene" and a few other things too. (laughs) We just kept telling him these are the songs that people request over and over and over...and "Sloop John B". He just insisted on his idea what to do.
Q - You could've been the next Kingston Trio or Beach Boys.
A - Yeah, or The Highway Men anyway. (laughs) Then I teamed up with a guy named Mike Settle, who was a songwriter. He wrote "But You Know I Love You". That was a great song I think for Dolly Parton. It was a big Nashville hit. Mike was a great songwriter. We had a duo and by then I'd been in the Navy Reserves, so I went off into the Navy. In the Navy, I wrote a lot of songs. You had a lot of time on water, doing nothing at all, so you got a chance to be there in case the phone rang or something happened. So, you had a lot of chance to play and maybe write songs. So, I wrote a lot of songs and poetry in the Navy. That was like the end of '62 through the end of '63, just a couple of years. In 1964, I moved to Los Angeles to play the Folk clubs like The Troubadour and The Ice House. They were the two main gigs. I was living with my artist friend, Ed Rouche, who's a famous painter. A lot of my songs really are rooted in the world of art. It would be hard to explain what the tunes are. I've got other friends who are artists. What it is, is, their songs have a kind of a visual aspect to them as well as the lyric. In other words, they invoke images as well as what they're saying. There's definite pictures involved for the listener. So, I started making demos. A guy hired me as a song writer and believe it or not, it was a guy named Dave Hubert, who owned a company called Davon Music. There were three people on his staff. How's this for a mix? Rod McKuen, me and Hoyt Axton. That's a pretty good spread. (laughs) Hoyt was just getting started. Rod was already fairly well established as a songwriter by then. He had Jimmie Rodgers and some other people had recorded material of his. He was sort of ahead of both of us. Hoyt and I were just getting started. By then, "Poems" kind of came into being there. I would say my first recording... I had a song of mine recorded by The Brothers Four. It was on their "Cross Country Concerts" album. It was called "Brandywine Blues". Then Rod McKuen recorded a song of mine called "Wander Love". My first commercial thing was when The Kingston Trio recorded my "Them Poems" on their "Back In Town" album. That really got me started.
Q - "Them Poems" came out on Vee Jay Records.
A - Yeah. I was right there with The Beatles.
Q - In 1964.
A - Well, you know how that happened...how Vee Jay got a hold of those masters?
Q - Of The Beatles?
A - You know how that happened? It's called the Nick Venet Syndrome. What is was, was, The Beatles went to Capitol Records with eighteen masters and Nick Venet was the A&R guy who turned 'em down. So, they went over to Vee Jay with those eighteen masters. One of the reasons you never get a yes or no from anybody in Hollywood is they don't want to be the next Nick Venet. (laughs) They don't want to be the guy who turned down The Beatles. So, that's how Vee Jay got those tracks.
Q - Did you ever have the occasion to meet The Beatles?
A - I did meet George. I did spend a day at Apple in London, I guess it was 1968 with George and Derek Taylor. I forget the gentleman who ran Apple. There was Andy Williams and his wife Claudine, me and George Harrison. We had a wonderful lunch. George was fascinated by "Classical Gas" and so I remember playing it for him. He really thought it was a great composition and so I was really thrilled that he was enamored of something of mine, enough to want to meet me. That was quite the experience.
Q - How did your album do on Vee Jay?
A - It was just out there floating around and not promoted too much. It really wasn't something that was in the mainstream. I don't even know if I ever got a royalty check from them in any form. The album was recorded 'live' in the studio, not too far from Hollywood and Vine. I invited all my friends over and got 'em drunk and put on a show. I love to listen to that record 'cause I hear all my friends heckling me and having a good time. Some of them have passed away. It's fun, but it's also kind of somber on the other side of it to hear their voices. I encouraged 'em to yell at me, just to give the ambiance of a more raucous feeling. So, I never did hear anything about that. I didn't make another record I don't think. I tried to produce some things, but I really wasn't a good enough musician to back up. Certain things I did well. I just wasn't a great player, so it was really hard for me to work with certain kinds of material. You want a producer who can kind of handle anything. So, if I would produce an album for somebody, certain things would really stand out, but others would be not so great. That was because of my limitations really as a player. I just wasn't interested in a lot of things. As a Folk singer, you accompanied yourself. I thought that Folk music, by and large, on the classical guitar, you played rhythm and it had kind of a flaccid feel to it. So, that's why I started learning to play classical guitar and develop my own accompaniment style, just because I thought the precision of a lot of Folk music wasn't necessarily there. But you have to say the main point of Folk music is the story telling and so the accompaniment is secondary to what you're doing. I became very interested in instrumental music, so your focus narrows down to what you're good at and what you're interested in. Those are pretty much one in the same.
Q - It's hard to write a good guitar instrumental, isn't it?
A - Yeah, and instrumental music is over now, in terms of being in the mainstream. I don't know who the last person who had a hit with an instrumental tune is.
Q - Maybe it was you.
A - It might've been 'cause that was about the time it was all over. Kenny G might've had something. I don't know. Once again, I think the culprit in that is MTV, because as great as they are about promoting Rock groups, they don't want the listeners to come up with their own pictures. And the thing about instrumental music is, you listen to it and the person decides for themselves what images it invokes. Not to belittle MTV 'cause it's made a great contribution, but I think it was part of the reason why instrumental music is no longer in the mainstream anymore. It's definitely low on the totem pole.
Q - When MTV started out, let's face it, no one really knew what worked. As time went on, it became more corporate.
A - Everything does that. I was a writer for Saturday Night Live and in the early days. Saturday Night Live was about pulling the pants down on cultural and political scams, and then it became a career opportunity for everybody involved and that just changed the nature of what it was all about. So, you didn't have comments on the culture, you just had people who were trying to use it as a pole vault.
Q - When you went to work for The Smothers Brothers, you were already a musician, a song writer and a performer. But you started writing comedy for The Smothers Brothers. That's rather unusual, isn't it?
A - Well, in the Folk days you had to have comedy in your act. If you could write you own, that was better. A lot of it was funny intros to songs. You'd sing a serious song, but you'd work up some goofy, funny intro just to get laughs. But I was very good at writing comedy material and this sort of offbeat stuff. Tom's sister was a waitress at The Troubadour and Tom said "Hey, is there anybody down there who plays anything that's funny in an odd way or got anything new to offer?" She said "Well, there's this guy, Mason Williams that has some goofy poems and screwball songs." And Tommy invited me up to his house and a week later I made my first album with him, "Tour De Farce". Then I went on the road with The Smothers Brothers, backing them up. I was playing guitar, banjo and recorder. I sat kind of behind the duo. You weren't always aware of me. I kind of sat between them, but behind them. I wasn't very visual. But occasionally they'd say Mason, play the melody on the banjo or recorder or guitar. I'd fill it out for them a little bit. What they liked about me was, I had a sense of comedy where I didn't step on the rhythms they were into. There's definite rhythms in comedy. If a musician is sort of taking over or stealing the timing's thunder, it's a mistake, so you have to keep it down, but present. It's kind of a weird thing you develop of being able to do. But the great advantage of sitting with them night after night and in the dressing room and hangin' out in the motel rooms was, I learned how to write comedy for them. So, when The Smothers Brothers Show started, I was a natural for them because I knew how to write material for them in the way that they would. So, I was a natural to support the material they already had. I knew what their lines of thinking were. I knew what Dickie's character was. I knew what Tom's was. The thing that Tom always told me, "Don't write jokes for us. We don't do jokes. We do relationship comedy. It's our relationship that's funny." I mean, not that they wouldn't do a great joke, but they basically said we're not stand-up comedians. It's our relationship that's funny. So, I learned to look for those kinds of things. When the Comedy Hour started in 1967...or actually it was November 1966, Tom insisted that I be a writer on the show and the producers didn't want to hire me. But Tom insisted. That's how I got my foot in the door. I started primarily by writing things for Tom and Dick. Then I just learned from hanging out with all the different writers, how to write all the rest of it. I was always trying to bring art and philosophy into the show as much as possible. Tommy, God bless him, was really open to a world of ideas. He was really great about being willing to try things. I don't know that I ever worked on any other show where that degree of freedom was evident.
Q - Are you the guy who came up with this Pat Paulson for President campaign in 1968?
A - Yeah. It all started this way: Tommy was very good about giving comedians a shot on the show. In the early days, they would come to a show...stand-up comedians, and Pat Paulson was one of 'em. Pat just resonated with the audience well. It was that hang-dog, beagle face of his that was just so great on TV. Plus his demeanor worked well on TV. The only thing we had to do with Pat is wean him off of toilet humor. He played a few smokers in his life I guess. We told him, you have to be classier than that. One of the things that was going on, you don't see it now, is the television stations at the end of the day had editorials by the station manager. So, Tommy was going to do one of these editorials. I wrote the first one. It was about a law that I'd heard on the books in Santa Monica...I mean Pasadena. Sorry. Here's the law: It is against the law to lurk with the intent to loom. (laughs) I thought, boy, that's a wide-open thing. I wrote this thing for Tommy to do an editorial, but Tommy couldn't be anybody but Tommy. In other words, he couldn't suddenly become a station manager very effectively. So, we said let's try Pat. Sure enough, Pat was great at doing these with that dead-pan persona that he had. He did, oh God, a dozen or so of those and since he was so good at those and they became so popular, it was kind of natural to extend him into running for President. I did most of the research for it. It turns out that W.C. Fields had run for President. So, I read all these comedic books that comedians had written about running for President. The one thing that made Pat's thing different was we said every comedian that ever runs for President is a joke and cops out at the end of the show he's on. "I'm just kidding." We said Pat is never going to cop out. He's going to be a real candidate. So, any time someone said "you're just kidding," he'd say "No, I'm really running." I talked Tommy into hiring Governor Pat Brown's campaign manager to come in every Monday and tell us what Pat (Paulson) should be doing as a real candidate. It was based on a real campaign. I always thought comedic ideas were better if they had a real underlying structure that was based on research or the truth. So, that's why Pat's campaign resonated so well. It was really based on real politics. The great thing about Pat was he could say and do everything the other candidates wished they could, but couldn't for various reasons. Both sides loved him. I think it was the most elaborate political satire that's ever taken place.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Classical Gas"?
A - I would take my guitar to work with me, but I would spend most of my time writing comedy. If it was a piece of music that I wanted Tom and Dick to sing, I would work it up as an arrangement. So, I would put the chords to it and maybe give it a structure and decide where Tommy would interrupt and where they'd come back in. That's called routining. In other words, I would figure it out as a comedy bit. Not that Tom and Dick didn't insert their own things into it. But I would work it up. They still do a lot of that stuff that I and my partner Allen Blye created for them back in those days in their act. So, I had my guitar with me. When I would burn out on comedy, I'd pick up my guitar and just noodle around on things. One of the odd things was that after the first season, believe it or not, Tom and Dick went to Las Vegas for the whole summer to play Vegas. I of course went with them. I remember being there once for two weeks and I don't think I slept for two weeks. It was just a constant party. I'd fall asleep at the blackjack table and Tommy would sneak up behind me and push out a $500 bet and tell everybody to shut up. He'd wake me up and I'd hit twelve (laughs) with a face card and everybody would laugh, me included. After that two week thing, I went home and slept for a weekend and got up and just decided, man, I haven't been visiting my old pal the guitar very much. So, I started noodling around with that and at the same time I had gone to a party where Roger Miller, Duane Eddy, Sonny Curtis, Thumbs Carlisle and Jerry Allison, who was the guy who wrote "Peggy Sue"...The Crickets and there was a party of really fabulous musicians, and they formed a circle and passed the guitar around. I didn't really have anything outstanding to play. So I said by golly, next time I'm gonna have something exciting to play for the crowd when they pass the guitar around. So, that was part of the motivation for "Classical Gas". I actually worked on it between comedy bits.
Q - So, how long did it actually take you to write that song?
A - Oh, I would say a couple of months. But that's not really working on it. In other words, there wasn't a deadline. I'd work out a section of it and then I would move to the next section. I will say this about it, it really is Folk music based. It's modal for the most part. A lot of that stuff I learned in music school, I incorporated into the piece. For example, it has an intro which most classical pieces have. It has a bridge or course, like a three section I guess you could say. That part that goes up chromatically is a circle of fifths. It starts C, F, D, G, E and that's the chromatic thing up to the A minor chord at the top. So, I did know that. Mike Post wrote the horn thing. He was the arranger. So, I always said it's great to allow the arranger to get his licks in. That was a great touch by him I have to say. Then, when it came to the middle of the tune, part of it is in A minor. It's over a pedal point, which means it's the same base note going over and over. It's really an A note playing over and over. Then, whatever I'm doing is over the top of that A part. And then it goes to C major which is the relative major of A minor. And of course A minor is the relative minor to C major. And that's something you learn in school that each of those keys has a major and a minor relative. Then when it goes up the scale again, it's called diminuto, which means if not twice as fast, faster than you played it before. Those are two composition forms. I was embracing classical forms within it. I will say this, it's pattern based. It was what the patterns were on the guitar that was the most important element. If there was a melody, it was secondary to the pattern. So, I wasn't thinking melody. It's kind of finger style. In fact, "Classical Gas" is the only time finger style guitar has really been a major hit.
Q - Did anyone suggest you add lyrics to that song?
A - No. No lyrics. See, I like abstract music. That comes from my world of art.
Q - I know what you like, what I'm asking is if anyone ever said you should put lyrics to that song.
A - Yeah, I had many people want to write lyrics to it. Boyce and Hart wrote lyrics to it. I said no, I want it to stay an abstract thing because if you put lyrics to it, eventually those get dated. Music is the envy of all the arts because no one asks what music means. If you have lyrics, you're in the realm of meaning.
Q - Were you asked to follow up "Classic Gas" with something similar in nature?
A - Well yeah. Of course I said to them, if I could do another one, it wouldn't be unique, would it? (laughs) But I did do a second release of sort of a Classical Gas style of "Greensleeves". It was a minor hit. Nothing compared to "Classical Gas", but pretty much recognized as something in my style. I went on the road and started playing concerts, but the tenor of the times were so disruptive that it seemed like I was more interested in the revolution than I was in a career. And, I'm still not interested in a career. I'd rather have a creative life. A creative life is never over, but careers have a way of coming to an end. Of course, being a comedy writer, I say it this way, a career has an agenda. A creative life has a veranda. And that's pretty much true. To this day I don't play to the institutions. If you really want to have a career, you end up playing to the mass market or the record company or something that the hoopla is all about. And I just don't like that. I realize I'm not going to make the money or have the career that I would have otherwise, but I'd rather do what I want to do than what they want to do, let's put it that way.
Q - Foggy Mountain Guitars is putting out a Mason Williams Guitar.
A - Yeah. They're really wonderful guitars. There's three kinds: one's in the $800 range. It has a tuner inside it and it can be plugged into electronically. It's a nice guitar. A cut-a-way. Then there's a mid-range cut-a-way that's really beautiful. It's got a nice mother-of-pearl inlay around the side of it. It's somewhere in the $1000 to $1300 range. Then there's one that's an exact copy of my classical guitar, which is a guitar that Tommy Smothers gave to me in '65. All of my recordings have been on that guitar. It's a Cordova, which is actually a German guitar with a Spanish name. It was made by a guitar maker named Oscar Teller. He was a famous German guitar maker. The Germans really built beautiful guitars, but classical guitars sold better with a Spanish name. So, it's called a Cordova.