Roger Williams, the world renowned virtuoso pianist who topped the Billboard pop chart in the 1950s and played for nine U.S. presidents during a long career, died Saturday October 8, 2011 at age 87 at his home in Encino, CA (a suburb of Los Angeles) of complications from pancreatic cancer, according to his former publicist, Rob Wilcox.
Williams was known as an electrifying stage performer and an adept improviser, who effortlessly switched between musical styles, who touched people through his music.
“Roger was one of the greatest pianists in the world and could play anything from classical music to jazz. He was one of the greatest personalities I’ve ever known,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a longtime friend of Williams who is himself a musician. “Roger could touch any audience, from teenagers to senior citizens.”
Williams’ 1955 hit “Autumn Leaves” was the only piano instrumental to reach number one on the Billboard pop charts. It remains the best-selling piano record of all time, with more than 2 million sold.
Nicknamed the “pianist to the presidents,” Williams played for every Commander in Chief from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush. His last trip to the White House was in 2008, when he performed at a luncheon for then-first lady Laura Bush.
Jimmy Carter and Roger Williams, who shared a birthday, were good friends despite their political differences. When the two men turned 80, Williams played a 12-hour marathon at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, with the former president in attendance.
Born Louis Wertz in Omaha Nebraska, Williams started playing piano at age 3. His father was a Lutheran minister in Iowa and Williams grew up to the sound of the church organ. By age 9 he was prolific with several instruments and could play anything by ear.
As a teenager, KRNT-AM gave young Williams his own 15-minute radio show, which was broadcast live from a Des Moines, Iowa, department store. Later he hosted a program on WHO-AM, where he first met the station’s young sports announcer, Ronald “Dutch” Reagan. The two men started a friendship which was closer than brothers, lasting 64 years until Reagan’s death.
Roger Williams actively supported Ronald Reagan’s political campaigns for California governor and U.S. president. “He was the most optimistic man I’ve ever met in my life,” said Williams of Reagan, who enjoyed his friend’s piano playing on more than 1,000 occasions. Today, he just might be performing a long-awaited piano concerto in Heaven for his closest pal, Ronald Reagan.
For Roger’s 83rd Birthday The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum threw him a bash. The catch was, Williams had to provide the entertainment for his own party, for 14 ½ hours.
Williams had set the marathon record at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia on his 80th birthday by playing for 14 hours and broke it on his 83rd.
Williams moved to New York to study jazz at the Juilliard School of Music. He won performing contests on the popular radio shows “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” and Dennis James’ “Chance of a Lifetime.”
Soon after, Williams was signed to Kapp Records. Founder Dave Kapp was determined to find a hit for the young prodigy. Producers decided on a shortened arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” which Williams recalled first clocked in at three minutes and three seconds. “In those days the disc jockeys would not play a record over three minutes long. So Kapp asked if I could play the thirds a little faster. I did and it came in at two minutes and 59 seconds,” Williams said, according to Wilcox.
“Autumn Leaves” was an instant hit and catapulted Williams to the national stage. He followed it up with a string of hits including “Born Free,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Theme From Somewhere In Time,” and “Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago.”
Williams became a popular guest on the top television shows of the time including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Perry Como Show,” and “The Steve Allen Show.”
In a 1995 interview with The Associated Press, Williams said he liked playing — and listening to — all types of music. “The only thing I have against rock ‘n roll is the volume,” he said. Roger Williams – Greatest Hits and much of his other work including his Christmas album Golden Christmas have been a steady sellers even in a era where his type of music is not in vogue.
Roger Williams was a fixture at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA for 35 years but he left over a disagreement with one of Schuller daughters after the Schuller kids took the reins from their parents, Roger’s good friends Pastor Robert H. and Arvella Schuller. He performed at every Christmas Eve Service, which usually meant between 5 and 7 shows in one day, until the falling out. Having been a member of the Crystal Cathedral for years, I was blessed to see many of those performances live.
My mother-in-law went back to college after her kids were grown and got her degree in Music, specializing in Piano in the same program with Roger Williams. That connection plus having been a member of Crystal Cathedral, a cast member of their Glory of Christmas and Glory of Easter passion plays, as well as hearing him play live so many times makes it feel like we have lost a member of the family.
Roger Williams, who has released an astounding 116 albums, was the first pianist ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was later also inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
In March, Williams announced on his Web site that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few days later he played his last concert, in Palm Desert, Calif. I remember when he was once asked at an interview how he knew that he was meant to play. Williams responded: “As I remember it,”I just walked up to the piano, sat down and started playing melodies.”
Below are some videos of Roger Williams playing at the Ronald Reagan Centennial for America:
Williams is survived by his daughters, Laura Fisher and Alice Jung, and five grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending. An unusual tomb awaits pianist Roger Williams. His spacious marble customized crypt at the Crystal Cathedral Memorial Gardens has a skylight, a lit stained-glass portrait and jumbo black piano-style keys that run along the side. Roger will be buried with his wife who is already interned there.
By Marion Algier – Posted at Ask Marion