Roger Williams burst upon the music scene in 1955 when he recorded Autumn Leaves, the only piano instrumental recording to reach #1 on the Billboard singles charts. His version, with more than 2 million sold, became an American classic and still stands as the greatest selling piano recording of all time. Known as “Mr. Piano”, Roger Williams went on to receive 21 Gold and Platinum albums. He was the first pianist to receive a “Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame”, and was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
A “Steinway Artist”, Williams was the first pianist Steinway & Sons honored to receive the “Steinway Lifetime Achievement Award” and the only pianist they designed a series of pianos for, known as the “Roger Williams Limited Edition Gold Piano”. As a featured artist in Steinway and Son’s 150th Anniversary at Carnegie Hall, Williams was introduced by Paul Schaffer who said, “His sweeping, sparkling arpeggios, fluid technique, and velvety smooth arrangements have made him, according to Billboard Magazine, the greatest selling pianist in history”.
Over five decades, Williams’ hits charted Billboard, including Born Free, Impossible Dream, Maria, Lara’s Theme, Till, Near You, Almost Paradise, Two Different Worlds, Nadia’s Theme, and Somewhere in Time. Over his career, Williams recorded well over 100 albums, with 38 hit albums and 22 hit singles.
His recent successes were the recordings, Roger Williams Plays Your All-Time Favorites and the two-part CD The Legendary Roger Williams, which became Reader’s Digest’s biggest selling items. They described Williams as, “undeniably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. His illustrious career in music is unparalleled.”
Roger Williams developed a blend of music inspired by the classics of Chopin, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and contemporary composers. Music historian, Joseph Lanza recognized Williams for cultivating “a flair for making dramatic sweeps from classical to jazz to country to soft rock-and-roll” establishing him as “the greatest popular pianist in history”.
Roger Williams was born Louis Weertz on October 1, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a Lutheran minister and mother was a music teacher. Williams began playing the piano when he was three years old, played 13 instruments by 12, and could play anything by ear. His father was a former professional boxer who taught Williams to box, believing he would be taunted by his peers as a preacher’s son and musician . As a teen, Williams played piano at Babe’s restaurant in Des Moines for $6 a night and all the spaghetti he could eat. In the summers he worked as a lumberjack in Minnesota. Williams also had his own radio show where he first met future president Ronald Reagan, the sports radio show announcer known as, “Dutch Reagan”.
Williams enrolled in Drake University to study piano, but was expelled for practicing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes instead of classical music. So he joined the Navy ROTC in the midst of WWII, was assigned officer training and completed a degree in engineering at Idaho State University. His peers voted him the Man of Warsman, one of Williams’ proudest achievements. There he additionally received a boxing award, but returned to music after breaking his nose several times. He re-enrolled at Drake University where he received his masters degree in music. He then went to New York to study at Juilliard School of Music with jazz pianists Teddy Wilson and Lennie Tristano.
In 1952 Williams’ first big break arrived when he won the popular radio performing contest, “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts”. In 1954, Williams signed a recording contract with David Kapp of Kapp Records, who insisted he take the stage name, Roger Williams (a name derived from the founder of Rhode Island). With only a weekend to prepare, Kapp asked Williams to prepare an arrangement of Autumn Leaves to record it at the end of singer, Jane Morgan’s recording session. Williams’ first recording of the song was over the ‘three minute radio play limit’, so Kapp asked Williams to play the thirds a little faster and his second recording hit the mark at 2:59 minutes. Williams then performed Autumn Leaves on the “Chance of a Lifetime” television show, hosted by Dennis James and won $1,000. Shortly after, Autumn Leaves became a #1 hit for four weeks straight on the charts and remained in the top 40 for over 6 months.
During his career, Williams performed with nearly every major symphony orchestra and at every major venue, including Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the White House. The latter earned him the title “Pianist to the Presidents“, having played for nine chief executives, from Truman to Bush. Williams’ last White House performance was a concert for Laura Bush and the wives of all our foreign ambassadors.
Doctorates and honors came in volumes and Williams’ accomplishments have been read into the Congressional Record and included in various Presidential Diaries. His public television specials raised millions of dollars for PBS with Pop Goes the Ivories and An evening with Roger Williams. KOCE-TV filmed at the Nixon Library and officially re-named him and the show, “Pianist to the Presidents”.
Beginning in 1999, on his 75th birthday Williams began performing annual Piano Marathons, playing continually for 14 hours improvised medleys of audience requested songs. Williams could play over 10,000 melodies by ear and loved to please his audience by knowing their favorite songs. The marathon venues included the Ronald Reagan Library, Richard Nixon Library, Jimmy Carter Library (when Williams and President Jimmy Carter celebrated together their mutual 80th birthdays), Steinway Hall in New York and in Scottsdale, and his last in 2010 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale. At his marathons, Williams promoted the return of music education to schools, earning him the “Champion of Youth Award” by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In February 2011, Williams performed at the Ronald Reagan Centennial Concert at the Reagan Library. Williams said he was “playing better than ever”, but later that month he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While on chemotherapy, he performed his last concert in Palm Desert, California. During his illness, Williams released two new recordings, Roger Williams, The Man They Call ‘Mr.Piano’ and Roger Williams Golden Inspirational Hymns. On October 8, 2011, a week after his 87th birthday, and only seven months after his diagnosis, Roger Williams succumbed to his illness.
Williams’ legacy will last forever through the gift of his timeless beautiful music. Roger Williams was truly “Mr. Piano” and without a doubt is one of the most treasured American music legends of all time.