Whether one listens to his solo performance of "You'll Never Walk Alone" (the lead track from his very first 1955 Kapp LP THE BOY NEXT DOOR PLAYS FOR THE GIRL NEXT DOOR) to his dream-like interpretation of the theme from Disney's "Beauty And The Beast" (included on the recent Reader's Digest CD titled ROGER WILLIAMS PLAYS YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITES), one will immediately recognize that time has not diminished his musical talent and artistry.
Roger has played for audiences in such venues as the Hollywood Bowl, Las Vegas casinos, The White House in Washington D.C., all the way to Carnegie Hall in New York. He has been the recipient of 18 gold records. He is the first pianist to have a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. The Steinway Piano Company created a limited edition piano in his name (the first in their 153 year history), plus bestowed their Steinway Lifetime Achievement Award in his honor. Roger travels the country promoting Public Television (PBS) by appearing on their fundraiser telethons. As an advocate for music in schools, he also performs 12 to 14 hour piano marathons to raise public awareness. He can play an estimated 10,000 songs by memory.
With all of the accolades he's received, Roger Williams is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He doesn't like to be put up on a pedestal, and actually wants to put people at ease the minute he meets them. He is very grateful for all of the things that have happened throughout his life and career.
On June 7, 2009 we caught up with Roger on the campus of Monterey Peninsula College on California's central coast. He granted this exclusive interview for the Robert Farnon Society and Journal Into Melody.
FP: Roger, thank you for joining us today. I’d like to start out with the obvious question that you’ve probably been asked many, many times. What’s the story behind your trademark song, Autumn Leaves?
RW: Autumn Leaves started with a call from my record company on a Friday night. They said that they were recording Jane Morgan on Monday. She only had three songs ready. They asked me if I knew Autumn Leaves and I said don’t you mean Falling Leaves (because I didn’t even know the title)? So I stayed up Friday, Saturday and Sunday night until I was able to get the arrangement to Marty Gold. Jane came in the next day with a baseball bat over her shoulder wearing shorts and a blouse that went out to here! She was gorgeous. I don’t think that the orchestra watched their music during the entire recording session. When she got through, there were only eleven minutes left. They said they didn’t even have enough time to rehearse the song (Autumn Leaves), so let’s just record it. So I just sat down at a piano I had never played on; sat on a bench I had never sat on and went on through. Believe it or not it turned out great except that it was three minutes and three seconds long. In those days, a disc jockey would never play any record that was over three minutes long. So from the control room, they said that they had time to record one more take. They asked if I could play the piece a bit faster, which I did. It came in at 2:59. I went home and in my fondest dream, I hoped that this record would pay the rent for the last two months (which we owed.) We had a baby daughter (Laura) at the time, and they were ready to throw us out of our apartment. That song has been paying the rent ever since. You just never know.
FP: In addition to the piano part, you also did the orchestral arrangement?
RW: I put the arrangement together on Sunday night. I will give the orchestrator a piece of music and I’ll put the chords on it and the bass notes that I want. Then I’ll say where I want the trumpet section to come in and where I want the violins to play, and so forth. They go ahead and copy all the parts for the orchestra and give it to the musicians. I actually arrange everything that I do.
FP: You’ve had some many wonderful hits over the years. Besides Autumn Leaves, there have been songs like Almost Paradise, Maria, Lara’s Theme and more recently, The Rose and the theme fromSomewhere In Time. Do you select the items that you record, or does the record company come to you with a list of songs that they want recorded?
RW: That’s a particular talent that the head of the record company (David Kapp) had. I remember when he came to me with a song called The Impossible Dream. I listened to it but told him I personally liked Dulcinea from that show (Man Of La Mancha). So I recorded Dulcinea and he gaveThe Impossible Dream to Jack Jones! I remember something that Frank Sinatra once told me. Before the song Nature Boy was ever recorded, they brought it to him first. He thought it was just "another song", so they gave it to Nat King Cole. Sinatra regretted it ever since.
FP: Going back to the idea of arrangements, I’ve always enjoyed your rendition of Lara’s Theme from ‘Dr. Zhivago’. How did you create that particular arrangement?
RW: I have to fall in love with the music like I did with Somewhere In Time. I fell in love with Maurice Jarre’s score for ‘Dr. Zhivago.’ It was the first time that I had ever seen adultery treated in a kind way. Zhivago was happily married with children. His wife was a sweetheart. But while his was working, he found this girl and fell in love. These things happen in life and we’re very harsh to judge people. I never cheated on my wives, but I have great compassion for those who fall in love with others, even sometimes within a marriage. It’s tough on them. They pay the price. Zhivago certainly paid the price. I love that movie. I’ll never forget when she left in the sleigh as they were taking her away. He looked out the window and knew that was to be the last time that he would ever see her. And I thought of that when I made the arrangement.
FP: You’ve worked with some of the finest conductors over the years. If we can, for a moment, let’s pay homage to the likes of Frank Hunter, Marty Gold, Glenn Osser, Hal Kanner and Ralph Carmichael.
RW: Frank Hunter considered Robert Farnon to be the greatest arranger in the whole world. He got every record that he ever made. He also said that he hoped that one day he could arrange like Farnon. I told him that he was doing it now and that he was great. Frank and I did a lot of sessions together, but I never was able to work with Robert Farnon. I never got over to England and he never got over to where I was at the time. Marty Gold is such a wonderful man. He still calls me and is still alive. Unfortunately, a number of the conductors I’ve worked with over the years are gone. Marty always had a "feel" for what I did. You mentioned earlier that I make you "feel" when you hear me play. Evidently, I make certain orchestrators and arrangers "feel". They sort of meld in with what I’m doing and those are the guys I’m looking for.
Glenn Osser was the conductor on Autumn Leaves. He was the one who was working on the Jane Morgan session so they just threw him in over the weekend. Hal Kanner was quite a guy. We did a lot of sessions together. Ralph Carmichael is probably the greatest Christian music orchestrator that has ever lived. I don’t know how many religious albums he’s made. He does beautiful things and has tremendous feeling. When we work together, he follows everything that I do. He holds everyone back and everything works.
FP: Roger, when you perform in various venues today, who’s your conductor of choice?
RW: Well, I can’t say it’s my "conductor of choice". It’s me. I conduct.
FP: During the last couple of years, Reader’s Digest has allowed you to go back into the studio to do some new recordings with a full orchestra. Some are brand new recordings of more recent songs. Some are re-recordings of some of your earlier work. How did the relationship with Reader’s Digest come to be?
RW: They came and asked me to do an album and I said fine. They then asked if I’d like to work with a symphony orchestra in London? So I went over and we did the whole thing there. It turned out great. Ralph Carmichael went with me and did all the arranging. We worked with the finest British musicians.
FP: Your daughter Laura has described you as one of the very first fusion musicians. In other words, you combine classical with jazz and everything in-between. In today’s musical world people, in many cases, have become either hardcore classical or hardcore jazz fans. I have to ask you. When you perform today, do you get the hardcore classical crowd asking you why you incorporate jazz into your pieces? Conversely, do the hardcore jazz fans ask why you include classical stylings? Overall, is it hard to present a concert today where the audience seems to be locked into a particular musical genre?
RW: I hate to put labels on anything. I hate to put labels on religion. I especially hate to put labels on music. I was thrown out of Drake University (in Iowa) one time because I played Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for my girlfriend in the practice room. The head of the piano department walked in and said "We don’t do that here. We play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms". So I was out. I’ve always had a feeling that I’d like to bring all sorts of music to people. I want them to appreciate it all. I listen to everything. Rap is a little hard for me. Actually, we’ve taken music out of the schools and kids don’t have any kind of an education. When I was in grade school, we had to put our head on the desk and listen to Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic every week for half an hour. Half of us went to sleep, but we got a good music education. Kids don’t have that now. They don’t have it in the schools. It’s really tough. So kids have gone back to the most basic music there is which is a beat and a chant. Now that describes Rap and Hip-Hop. It’s like they have three chords in the whole thing and the rest is just a chant and a repetitive phrase over and over.
FP: Let’s switch gears for a moment. Many people might not be aware that you have performed for just about every U. S. President since Harry Truman. I’ve always considered music to be a "window to the soul." I’m curious to know if any of the Presidents have requested a particular piece of music to be played, or have they shared their favorite musical genre with you?
RW: Yes. One of my favorite Presidents was the first one I played for, Harry Truman. I played for him for nearly an hour and he asked for everything from Bach to Shostokovich. He had studied piano as a child. I didn’t know that. And when I got through, he said "Now Roger, I’m going to play for you". I thought he was going to play the Missouri Waltz or something like that. He sat down and playedChopin’s C-Minor Waltz. There were a couple of little goofs in the middle, but he played it beautifully. And when he finished, I said "Mr. President, you would have made a great pianist." And boy, he just snapped back at me and said "You know, a hell of a lot of people wish I would have stuck with it!" And then he winked at me and said "When I first started to play, I had a choice of being a whore-house pianist or a politician. Many times I’ve felt that I made the wrong decision in the present." He had a tough time. He had to drop that bomb on millions of people in Japan. I asked him whether it bothered him? He said "I sleep well at night because I know all of the American lives I’ve saved." The Japanese were ready to give their very lives to the last moment when we went over there. He continued by saying "I saved a lot of American lives. They elected me President, and that’s what my job was."
FP: There’s also a very poignant story that you have about John F. Kennedy and the day that he was assassinated in November, 1963. Would you share that with us?
RW: He collected a lot of my albums and he used to have this little portable record player that he’d carry with him. The night before his death, he and Jackie had checked into this hotel in Forth Worth, Texas. The next morning, he put my record of Yellow Bird on the turntable and played it while he was shaving. Jackie was getting ready for that big parade. They were both really excited about it. Following the assassination, they told me that Yellow Bird was the last music that he ever heard. So when you make these records, you have no idea how they’ll end up. You just make them.
FP: Tell us what happened to you in New Orleans.
RW: I went to New Orleans to play with the symphony down there. I had made a recording of the song Temptation that was never played on the radio. Following a concert I gave on Saturday night, we went down to the French Quarter and all of a sudden, I heard Temptation coming out from one of the strip joints. I thought "gee whiz!" We went in and here was this girl taking off her clothes to my recording! I asked the waitress who the girl was. She answered, "That’s Roger Williams! We have Johnny Carson coming on right after her." Every one of these girls took the name of someone that they admired. And "Roger" came over to the table and told me that she really loved my music. I told her that I had a matinee the following day and to bring her boyfriend (which she did). Again, you never know when you do these things how they’re going to end up and who’s going to play them. That’s one of the great thrills and one of the great shocks being a musician.
FP: Let’s focus on some of the newer artists that you’re working with. I’ve seen your name mentioned with the likes of Chick Corea, David Foster, and David Benoit. What’s going on there?
RW: I listen to everybody and I admire so many of these musicians. I think that Chick Corea is one of the great, great musicians of our century. He mentioned in an interview that "he’d give anything for my left hand." I told Chick that I’d trade my left hand for his left brain. He’s so creative. Beethoven was commented that he stole from everybody. So do I! Sometimes just a couple of little notes will give me a whole new path to go on. As for David Foster, I wouldn’t do a session unless he was on second piano. I asked David Benoit to "round out the edges of this square." I told him that I’ve been playing the same things for years and asked him for a few new ideas. He’s a wonderful man.
FP: Another "Roger Williams trademark" is your long association with the Steinway piano company. I understand that Steinway has put out a limited edition Roger Williams piano.
RW: Up to now, they’ve never put out a piano with an artist’s name on it. Horowitz had his own Steinway piano that he loved. So did Rubinstein and all the great artists. But they made one for me, which is wonderful. And they presented me with their first lifetime achievement award. So, they’ve been very good to me and I’m very loyal to people that I like.
FP: Earlier, we were discussing the demise of music education in the schools. You’re involved with piano "marathons" to create awareness of this sorry situation. Please tell us about that.
RW: I just play for 12 to 14 hours at a time. I’m trying to get people interested in getting music back into the schools again. And they really listen. I make little speeches about it. Ronald Reagan was a dear friend. We started at the same radio station. But he did one thing. He took music out of the schools. His reason at the time was because we were in the "cold war" with Russia. He felt that we needed a bunch of scientists. Other governors around the country saw how much money he was saving, so they followed his direction. It really hurt.
FP: With the sorry state of the current economy worldwide, is there anything that we can do to improve the situation, musically speaking?
RW: I don’t know. The people that last are the survivors. I’m old enough to remember when Vaudeville went out. Suddenly thousands of entertainers were out of work. The movies came in. Very few Vaudeville artists survived. George Burns and Bob Hope are examples. But most fell by the wayside. This is life. I have no allusions about life. You and I are here now doing this interview. We could be in a major earthquake at any time. We just don’t know. I try to adapt to every situation. That’s the only way of survival. But I still wish that they would get music back in the schools. I know what it does for people. Grades are improved, I just do what I do best. As I tell those who do the interviews, I’m a lousy golfer and that always seems to make people feel better because so many of them put me up on some kind of pedestal. This disturbs me, too. So many artists will make a great record or become very popular. All of a sudden, they start making political statements and know how to handle everything in life. They’ll talk about their religion. I’ll say that about Chick (Corea). He’s a Scientologist, but he’s never pushed that with me. I appreciate that. I believe in whatever works in life. If being "born again" turns you on, I’m with you 100%. If, on the other hand, you like some other religion, my father (who had one of the largest Lutheran churches in the country) used to say, "There are many ways up the mountain." I’ve kind of taken that philosophy from him.
FP: Does that idea also tie into your feeling for discipline? People may not be aware that before you turned to music, you were going to be a boxer! I imagine that your parents had a strong disciplinary influence on you. Going from the ring into music and into the performance field (with the competitiveness and maybe the ego), there’s got to be the drive and the discipline.
RW: A very strong discipline, desire and drive. Those are the three things that I go by. There’s very little difference between left of the body (making left jabs) and left of the piano (playing the keyboard). It’s practically the same action. I’ve always had very fast hands. When I was in the Navy, I knew I could never be a boxing champion because I usually won by decisions. I never had that "knockout punch" that everybody wants to see in the first round. If you’re going to be a successful boxer, you’ve got to knock the guy out in the first round, as Mike Tyson did.
FP: Speaking of items getting "knocked out", have you noticed how we’ve lost a lot of the romancein today’s music. Lyrics used to focus on "how beautiful you are." In the 1970’s and onward, the words seem to dwell on "me, me, me." Today, there is no melody. There are only a small number of radio stations, digital cable outlets, internet streams and satellite services playing "beautiful" or "easy listening" music. What are we going to do to keep this music "on the menu" for the people that want to hear it; or for those who haven’t discovered it quite yet?
RW: Lawrence Welk scared the heck out of me when he said "Every time the hearse goes by, I lose another fan." And when you ask that question, Forrest, what happens when you and I die and today’s kids don’t have any background regarding our kind of music? It’s pretty scary. I find that the Asians, especially, come over and win all of our contests. Their parents are pushing them hard. There was a girl who appeared in a recent issue of Overture magazine. She’s a famous cellist now. Her parents were tough on her and she said that she hated them. It was only after she turned eighteen that she realized that she had musical talent. She decided to go for it. At the end of the article she mentioned that after a long period of time, she decided to call her parents. They had not spoken for years. She mentioned how much she appreciated that they made her practice. So it’s discipline, drive and (you’ve got to have the) desire. I think you’ve got to have the desire first. In fact, I have a big sign hanging in my studio with the three D’s: Discipline, Drive and Desire.
FP: Not long before she passed away, I had the great honor of interviewing Peggy Lee. As I mentioned earlier, finding out what kind of music people personally enjoy and listen to is like a "window to the soul." Peggy was a great jazz singer and composer. I asked her if she had a favorite piece of music or genre that meant something to her personally throughout her life? She thought for a moment. I was surprised by her answer. She said that the second movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 ("Adagietto") had profound meaning for her. Roger, I’d like to ask you the same question. Is there any particular piece of music that’s been with you for all of your life that’s had an effect or special connection and meaning for you?
RW: Yes. But it’s a mistake if I expect it to have meaning to you. Charlie Costanza (of DO RE MI Music in Carmel, California) came up and said "you played You’ll Never Walk Alone yesterday while you were rehearsing and I started to cry." Now, I don’t think it had anything to do with the actual piece itself. He said it was his father’s favorite song. And every time he hears it, he starts to cry because it’s such a beautiful melody and he thinks of his dad. People do this all the time at my concerts. I’ll play Lara’s Theme or Yellow Bird and they go back and remember where they first heard those songs and who they heard it with. So it’s hard for me to say. I love Chopin and always have. His E- Major Etude to me is the most beautiful melody that I have ever heard. And Chopin used to cry every time he played it. But that struck me. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to strike you or anybody else. I don’t play from the head. I play from the heart.
FP: I’d like to share a comment about Roger Williams that came from our mutual friend, music programmer (and RFS member) Phil Stout. Years ago, when Phil was programming for SRP in New York, you paid him a surprise visit at their office. You gratefully acknowledged that he was playing a lot of your recordings, but there were other items that were not being played. You asked him what you could do or create that would provide him with more material for airplay? Phil shared that with me recently and commented how very special he felt that visit was. You don’t have many musicians or artists that will take the time to come in and ask what they can provide for the good of the order.
RW: Well especially someone like Phil who listens to everyone. He listens to a lot more people than I do because that’s all he does. I’m busy practicing the piano. But I had such respect for him that I said, "Phil, come on and help me." I said the same thing to David Benoit. I told him I know what I do and I like what you do. Tell me the little things that you like that I do, and tell me how I might do them differently. As I said, I steal from everybody and I’m proud of it!
FP: Yesterday, I had a chance to play piano for you. You can certainly see where I steal from!
RW: Don’t practice too much. I have enough competition!
FP: Roger, would you like to send a message to all of the members of the Robert Farnon Society throughout the world?
RW: I just want to congratulate you folks. You have the best musical taste that I can imagine because you could not pick a man who was more of a genius in what he did than Robert Farnon. And I mean that. I still play his things all the time. He had a certain thing and I hope he was a lousy golfer! That makes me feel a little better.
FP: Roger Williams, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for being with us today. Keep on playing forever, will you?
RW: I’m going to try, friend. I’m only 84 and by the time that this interview is published, I’ll be 85. Thank you, sir.
This interview was two years in the making. I'd like to personally thank several people who helped to make it happen. My deep appreciation goes to Laura Williams Fisher (Roger's daughter), to Charlie Costanza (DO RE MI Music, Carmel, California), to RFS member Phil Stout, to Dina Sheets-Roth (IVI, Roger's agent), to my wife Nancy and, of course, to Roger Williams.
This interview was published in the September 2009 edition of "Journal Into Melody", the official magazine of The Robert Farnon Society.