In the excitement around tomorrow’s premiere of the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” John’s famous songs, stage costumes and intriguing ascent to fame take center stage. But the man behind the discovery of Elton John, Ray Williams, now lives right in Raleigh as the Founder and CEO of the music licensing startup Crumbs Music Media.
Back in England, Williams made his start in the music business as a teenager when he began working as an unpaid intern—basically “part of the furniture”—for Cathy McGowan, the host of the popular American Bandstand-style British TV show “Ready Steady Go!” After working as a PR assistant for artists like Sonny & Cher and The Kinks, Williams worked his way to become the Head of A&R for Liberty Records in 1967.
It was then that Williams placed an ad in the New Musical Express looking for new artists and composers that would alter music history. Hundreds of letters came in. People rang in, and soon the number turned to thousands, Williams said. One of the people Williams met was a young man named Reginald Dwight, a band member of Bluesology who wanted out of the backing band and to make his own records.
“He said he felt lost because he just didn’t know what to do,” Williams said. “So I said, well, there’s a piano there. Why don’t you sing a couple of songs?”
Williams described Dwight, who would soon change his name to Elton John, as a brilliant piano player. Williams also loved his voice, but John said he couldn’t really write songs.
Shortly after, Williams opened a letter from Bernie Taupin, who said he was a poet and that his lyrics could be set to music.
“At that point,” said Williams, “a little bell went off in my head.”
By introducing the two, Williams helped launch a music partnership in John and Taupin that would continue for decades. Williams himself managed John at the beginning of his career. Later, Williams worked on films, serving as the music supervisor for movies such as “The Last Emperor” and “Saving Grace.”
About a decade ago, Williams took a leap of faith with his wife to move to Raleigh.
“I had great memories of Raleigh from 40-odd years ago when I had been here and stuck here for a couple of days,” Williams said. “And I just thought, what lovely people, what a lovely place. And I thought, well, I’ll go and have a look.”
In Raleigh, Williams’ past frustrations with the length of time required to clear music copyrights for films inspired his creation of Crumbs Music Media, which seeks to quickly and easily allow producers to purchase pre-cleared music. Williams recalled one instance in which he had to wait over nine months to clear a David Bowie copyright for the film “Breaking the Waves.” Crumbs Music Media removes this hassle.
“David Bowie wasn’t the problem,” Williams said. “He loved the idea. His manager didn’t mind. It’s just the fact you had to negotiate with three publishers. So now that work’s done already. The producers can see what it’s going to cost and they can see if they can afford it rather than have these lengthy situations where people can hold you to ransom at the end of a production.”
Crumbs Music Media allows producers to purchase music based on use category, license duration and location while maintaining the musician’s rights. Browsing the 5,000 tracks on Crumbs Music Media is free, and the website offers a video tool called the Assessor that allows producers to see how the music will work with their actual footage.
The software development company Tizbi has invested in the startup, and Williams said the company would love more partners.
As for “Rocketman,” although the film faces criticism over its inaccuracies, the timing of the release helps shine a spotlight on Williams, who is a character in the film, which can only help his current project.
“It’s a total fantasy but the fact is, they used me in the film and it’s getting seen by millions of people,” Williams said. “It’s a good story for us to have. It gives credibility to our background. So I might be an ‘old fart,’ as they say, but the thing is, I’ve got a great, young team that I’m building that will be wonderful to work with my experience and to work with their abilities.”
Williams said while some are angry that certain things have not been portrayed accurately—or at all—in the film, that doesn’t really bother him since, well, it’s “just” a movie.
“I think the interesting thing is that I think it will be an enormous film and obviously there are things out there where people are questioning stuff,” Williams said. “But my view is to treat it as fun and a bit of entertainment and for us to smile about it. And hope that when Elton’s biography comes out in October, it will be a true representation of his life.”