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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'Drift Away' songwriter Mentor Williams lovingly remembered by his brother, legendary songwr

Mentor and Paul Williams

Mentor (left) and Paul Williams (Photo courtesy of Paul Williams)

Paul Williams long ago found fame as songwriter, actor, singer and as the current president of ASCAP, president of a major music performing rights organization. But his younger brother Mentor Williams, who died Wednesday at 70, was a songwriter of note in his own right, having penned Dobie Gray's much-covered classic No. 5 1973 pop hit "Drift Away."

It was just three months ago that Mentor revealed to his brother the story behind the downcast ballad, in which music lifts the spirits of the disconcerted singer.

"He came out to Hollywood to try to make it as a songwriter and singer around 1970, and signed a six-month publishing deal with Rondor Music [the indie music publishing company founded by A&M Records' principals Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss] and had a little office near mine," said Paul, who was signed as an artist to A&M Records at the time.

"He was in a group called Georgia Overdrive--sort of a country-influenced rock group that was great, but nothing was happening for him, and the Saturday before his deal ended—and he had to move out of his office Monday—he went into the office," continued Paul, speaking about his brother by phone yesterday.

"It was pouring rain, and no one else was there. He was sitting in his office, and saying, 'I tried to do everything I wanted to do, and day after day I'm confused. What do I have to do to make things work?' He was looking at the lights through the pouring rain, thinking about how he tried to play the game and how he hated to lose."

All of this, of course, was incorporated into the first verse of "Drift Away."

"'I'm counting on you, to carry me through' came out in one burst," Paul continued, reciting the line leading into "Drift Away"'s chorus. "He wrote from the heartache and confusion and worry at that moment--and wrote a song that worked for all of us for the rest of our lives."

After scoring a big hit in 1965 with "The In Crowd," Dobie Gray sang in an early '70s band called Pollution, which recorded one of Paul's songs. Landing a deal with Decca Records, he went to Nashville in 1972 to work with Mentor, who also produced the hit "Drift Away" single.

As for Mentor's relationship with Paul, "It's just a great story," said Paul.

"We were always really competitive, but loved each other and were willing to take a bullet for each other. But I'd get drunk and he'd get drunk—this is when we were in our 30s--and we'd jump on each other, and one time in the '80s we fell off a second story ledge to a rock garden below and at the last minute he remembered I was his little brother and didn't beat the [stuffing] out of me! But all that totally disappeared in later years and we were so proud of each other. Talk to anyone who knew Mentor and they'll say he was the biggest, sweetest cowboy."

Both had also long been sober.

"I'm 26 years sober, and he got sober as well," said Paul. "Every day on Mar. 15--my sober birthday--I'd send him a [commemorative sobriety token] chip and he'd say, 'No! It's my sober birthday!' and we'd argue. But it was the same date for both of us—mine 1990, his 2002. We had no idea!"

Paul recalled when he was trying to make it as an actor.

"I went back home in 1963 for our mom's birthday and I had no money, and Mentor, who was in high school, sold his car to give me the money to make it back to California! When you're in high school, your car is your entire identity. But that's just an example of his heart. He was an amazing guy."

And Paul notes that Mentor had songwriting successes besides "Drift Away," including Alabama's 1984 hit "When We Make Love" and the 1990 "A Few Ole Country Boys" duet by Randy Travis and George Jones.

But "everybody cut 'Drift Away,'" said Paul, and sure enough, it's been extensively covered by the likes of Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones--and was a 1973 country hit for Narvel Felts and a 2003 pop hit for Uncle Kracker. "Walk into any restaurant or store and you eventually hear it! It's always there, and I'm always proud when I hear it."

He recited the song's lyric: "Thanks for the joy that you've given me/I want you to know I believe in your song."

Mentor was diagnosed with lung cancer eight months ago.

"He had really strong, strong faith, and wanted to die at home with his beloved Australian sheep dogs," said Paul, who went out to be with his brother at his home in Taos, N.M. "His humor remained through the very end: He said he was grateful he didn't get hit by a beer truck! He died in my arms."

"What a sweet guy."

Dobie Gray "Drift Away"



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